Brussels Is Loosing the Public Opinion Battle

February 24, 2014

In his article for the Europe-wide policy journal Europe’s Word, former head of the Euronews TV channel Philippe Cayla outlines the failure of the EU institutions’ approach to communicating with Europe’s citizens. He sets out the policy revolution needed for Brussels to re-connect with the media and with public opinion.

The problems of communication rather than of decision-making are the most striking feature of today’s European crisis, Philippe Cayla writes. Whereas decision-making is at the heart of politics, it is communication, particularly through the media, that determines popular support in a democracy. To put it bluntly, Europe has failed in terms both of its communication methods and their content.

Philippe Cayla identifies four fundamental weaknesses of the Commission’s approach: a lack of strategy, excessive centralization, the predominant use of English, and its focus on print.

The Commission at times communicates on unimportant directives, a good example being the recent Directive on toilet flushing mechanisms, Philippe Cayla illustrates. That casts doubts in the minds of media and political commentators that are quickly relayed to the general public.

When it comes to communications in the member states, the Commission has information offices in the national capitals, but its delegates lack the resources they need, and are not given much air-time in national public debates. The result is that debate on European policy stays for the most part in Brussels.

The language barrier is another problem that is not taken into account appropriately: the majority of European citizens are in no position to debate in a foreign language, Philippe Cayla argues. Research suggests that only 5% of non-English speakers are capable of debating issues in English, and that’s particularly true when English native speakers are part of the discussion, he continues and concludes: “In other words, English-only communication will fail to reach 95% of non-native English-speakers, and is likely to irritate the majority.”

In order to re-connect with public opinion, a mini-revolution by moving to a less technocratic and more political EU communications strategy would be needed.  

  • The strategic nature of communication should be affirmed by centralizing the communications budget under the authority of the president of the Commission. Only the president has the overview needed to determine the themes and timing of Commission communications.
  • The role of the Commission’s delegations in the member states should be reinforced. As much as €250m yearly, half of the total communications budget, should be allocated to the EU’s communication effort in each member state, adjusted to population, to give delegates the resources they need to make an impact on the local media.
  • The principle of multilingualism should be fully respected; in the words of Umberto Eco, “translation is the language of Europe.”
  • The EU’s communications should move away from printed media into radio, television and social networks.
  • As to the content of the EU’s communication materials, instead of focusing on marcoeonomic issues, the European Commission needs to focus on developing a feeling of belonging to the European community that gives people a greater sense of European citizenship.


European citizens benefit from a significant number of rights of growing importance, Philippe Cayla highlights and he argues that promoting awareness of the importance of European citizenship is an important way of ensuring popular commitment to the European ideal. Working on the political aspects of European citizenship, he concludes, is undoubtedly the best way Brussels can do justice to the EU’s communications and to its power to attract and get people involved.


To read the full article on Europes, please click here

Photo courtesy of the President of the European Council. Joint press conference of President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, with Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, and President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, after the European Council roundtable, 9 December 2011.

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