The level of warmth emanated by the European institutions throughout the year is perfectly reflected in the icy wind passing through the streets of Brussels at the beginning of December. On rue de Bailli, in the municipality of Ixelles, far from the shadow of the technocrats’ buildings, behind a small white wooden door, the communication agency Old Continent is hidden. Specialised, as the website states, in ‘Branding Europe’, it is an outpost for those who believe that the Eurobubble is destined to burst, unless changes are soon made to its political communication strategy.
INSURANCE FOR EUROPE
In September 2013, the EU launched its first promotional video for the 2014 political elections; a blockbuster trailer in which catastrophic scenes alternate with questioning gazes and happy-ending smiles. Charlélie Jourdan, 30, and Gauthier Bas, 28, – the two partners who founded Old Continent in April this year –have a few bones to pick with it. ‘OK, you can’t argue that the images aren't beautiful, from a technical point of view you can’t fault it… But, honestly, if someone tried to sell me insurance on the street it would be the same! I don’t understand why the EU has to sell itself as a superhero,’ says Gauthier, sipping his tea. We are sitting in the sitting room next door to the agency’s operations room. Behind the door 3 computers and mouse mats decorated with the European flag are hidden. The light is soft, and the biting cold of the Belgian capital is only a memory. What message would they covey in order to convince the citizens to go and vote in the parliamentary elections? ‘We are not sexy, and we know it, but we do useful stuff! If you want to reach the citizens, you need two elements: transparency and honesty’. They practice what they preach: Old Continent has produced a satirical video parodying the official version. The result? The institutions’ thanks and more than a few phone calls from office workers, picking up the phone to admit that the two men are right. ‘When it comes down to it, we are helping them for free,’ Gauthier says, with a sparkle in his eye. But then why aren’t the Parliament, Commission and Council shifting up a gear, rather than continuing to appear like the authorities of ‘Tecnocratland?’ ‘There are so many levels of decision making in the European institutions that innovation is impossible,’ he says, with the air of someone who has long since known this to be the case.
Van ROmpuy & co.
Gauthier does not disapprove of the EU; on the contrary. He has never taken part in revolutionary movements and did not throw eggs at Barroso during his visit to Liège. Paradoxically, he has an ‘office man’ look. This twenty eight year old, dressed in a white shirt and dark blue trousers, has followed an impeccable path: European studies, Erasmus in Prague – where he met his partner, Charlélie, - and a Masters in Strasburg; then, an internship at the Directorate-General for Communication at the European Commission and a job as a parliamentary assistant. Why leave all this? The European Parliament Open Day was the point of no return. The institution decided to finance the production of a series of promotional t-shirts for the event. Hurriedly, he limits himself to saying that he ‘would never have worn them after the event. Appearance is important’. A simple concept, but one which is impossible to instill in Van Rompuy & co.. When I ask him which of the 3 institutions – Commission, Parliament or Council – uses the worst communications strategy, he answers with a dash of sarcasm: ‘Why, have you ever heard them communicate?’.
europe is not fighting unemployment
Joking aside, Charlélie and Gauthier don’t bite the hand that feeds them. They sell their services to the organisations based in Brussels: from the lobbies, to the trade unions, to the institutions. If they decided to make a promotional video for the elections without being paid, it was motivated purely by passion: they truly believe in Europe. ‘The EU is one of the most transparent centres of power that exists today. If you are looking for documents, you can find everything that you need online,’ he says seriously, then continues: ‘The problem is the lack of honesty.’ Getting rid of youth unemployment? Sorting out the social tangles of Europe? ‘Rubbish! When the EU promises solutions to these problems it is talking nonsense. Its role is to create a single market to prevent economic tensions leading to other global catastrophes’. For Gauthier, the political aspect of Europe may be observed in the decisions concerning market regulation, but not in direct action. ‘Technical issues, but issues which nonetheless have a political aspect,’ he says.
On 14 May 2014 Europe shall vote, and the director of Old Continent doesn’t seem too laid back. ‘If you don’t involve the citizens, the only people who will vote are those who hate Europe,’ he says – his eyes narrow, recognising the challenge this poses – before concluding: ‘Europe risks being destroyed by the extremist vote. Our contribution aims to inspire everyone to go and vote so that other people don’t decide in their place.’ Gauthier’s speech is an unusual one, where disillusion, realism, the desire to act and political conscience coalesce. Before I say goodbye, he tells me his family history. His great grandmother was born in Alsace and between 1870 and 1945, between wars, occupations and liberations, she changed nationality five times. In the end, she probably felt neither German, nor French; ‘just’ European. The same is true for Gauthier.