Old Continent: the eu has to learn to sell itself

Article published on Feb. 11, 2014
Article published on Feb. 11, 2014

The com­mu­ni­ca­tion strat­egy of the EU? ‘In­ef­fec­tive.’ Un­em­ploy­ment? ‘It isn’t an EU pre­rog­a­tive.’ Van Rompuy, Bar­roso? ‘Who are they?’ Gau­thier Bas, founder of Old Con­ti­nent, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion agency with its head­quar­ters in Brus­sels, talks to us about all as­pects of Eu­rope, the in­sti­tu­tions and the Eu­ro­pean par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2014. 

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.