When it comes to Brussels the press speaks with one voice

Article published on April 23, 2003
community published
Article published on April 23, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

A systematic analysis of how the word 'Brussels' is used by the press can teach us a lot about it's meaning: is it a question of semantics or strategy?

It is the omnipresence of Brussels in all types of newspapers (dailies, weeklies, local and national press) and in all areas (national and international politics, European affairs, economics, society...) that first strikes you. Taken at random, on Friday 11th April 2003 in the French press examples were found in the following stories: important developments in economic policy (GOPE Grandes Orientations des Politiques Economiques (Major Developments in Economic Policy) - and budgetary policy), the opening of authorised sectors to television advertising, sanctions against agricultural unions, respect of free competition, France Telecom, authorisation to use substitute fats in chocolate, and regulation of fishing in the Mediterranean.

Inaccuracy contributes to the impenetrable air of the European institutions

Who decides when and where? Those who use the word to denounce the policies of Brussels know what they are talking about and who to accuse. When people refer to the Belgian capital in the media, they are referring more often than not to the European institutions rather than the Belgian government. What is Brussels? Why does a city now decide what to put in chocolate? Most articles do at least mention the name of the institutions concerned: the Commission, the Council of the European Union, made up of the governments of the member states, or the European Parliament. Nevertheless, it would be useful at this point to recall that it is the Council of Ministers of the European Union (with the Parliament in certain areas) that takes the decisions and adopts the standards, directives, rules or decisions that make up community legislation, and it is the Commission that is in charge of ensuring that these standards are put into place and overseeing, as the guardian of the Treaties, their proper application. As such, in one days press coverage the Commission, or its synonym Brussels, 'mutters, demands, attacks, repeats, condemns, forces, punishes, berates, summonses, reproaches, reminds and teaches.

Confusing the issue in order to shift the blame

Do national media act on surrounding discussions by national governments who often tend to present their action as being constrained or limited by the EU and to lay responsibility for an unpopular decision at Brussels door? They confuse the issue in this way and shift the blame: is it about semantics or strategy? It is deplorable that the intensive use of 'Brussels' masks the complex realities of the decision making process. They effectively expose the impenetrable air of this process, its complexity and lack of clarity, notably concerning the allocation of competencies (the subsidarity principle) between the EU and member states. It is equally deplorable that credit for good news is taken by governments while bad news is ascribed to a demonised Brussels.

It is important to underline that the community decision making process is quite complex and development of a policy among the 15 requires a high level of technical understanding and, above all, it differs from national policies, a game whose rules everyone from the party in power to the opposition understands. These policies are, moreover, popularised by the stands taken by the political parties, unions and other actors on both the political stage and within civil society.

Decisions are taken elsewhere

This inaccuracy gives the impression that everything is decided in an isolated place cut off from the rest of the world. The 'village of eurocrates' is far away, in a little known (as far as America is concerned) country. Decisions are taken elsewhere and people find it difficult to understand their legitimacy. They know that the answers lie far away in Strasbourg, Luxembourg, or any of the cities with links to the Europe Councils, the summits of the heads of State and government henceforth being held in Brussels. Use of the word 'Brussels' does not reflect the reality that is actually many sided: it is not Brussels 'against' the rest of Europe but Brussels 'with' the rest of Europe. The impression that readers are given is of a foreign city, an external entity that imposes arbitrary choices while in fact, if there is a Brussels, it concerns a group of institutions created by and for Europeans.

Finally, what people condemn when they use Brussels in the newspapers is, most of the time, the Commission, perhaps because it does not have an equivalent on a national scale. The only true community institution thus gets a bad press. The images shown on television are hardly more appealing: the image that is given to us of Brussels, whether at European summits or agricultural demonstrations, is cold; 15 flags surrounded by concrete walls and a motorway slip road do not help to humanise the European institutions.

Whether it is intentional, in order to mask unpopular decisions, or unconscious through rushed resumption of discussions by politicians, the inaccuracy that we have described contributes to the impenetrable air surrounding the institutions and to the feeling of estrangement felt by citizens. At the very moment when the community decision making process is preparing to become even more complex as we proceed to a Europe of 25, it is worth remembering that most of the decisions taken by or in 'Brussels' are actually taken by the ministers of member states and by the European Parliament, and that it is these same states that implement European policies in all areas.