Thursday, January 19, 2012

Communicating with EU Citizens

I am anything but an economist, but Standard + Poor’s recent credit rating downgrade of France and eight other eurozone countries got me thinking about this development from a communications angle. My question, throughout the entire euro crisis and all the interactions among the leadership, is this: what role have the people in the European Union played?

From a cursory scan of the media, it seems their part of the conversation is mostly confined to grumbling. The leaders of financially strong member nations (like Germany) continue to support the bailouts, despite complaints from their constituents about having to bear the lion’s share of the cost. And citizens of weaker nations (such as Greece and Ireland) are accepting austerity measures, despite widespread unhappiness about cuts in government services.

The European Parliament is an elected body, aware of its constituency and the value of two-way communications. But is it doing enough to garner public opinion in member states via town hall meetings, polling and individual meetings with local leaders and influencers? Is the European Union listening to all its stakeholders?

Our limited research shows no evidence of that kind of interaction (i.e., from a local citizen to the EU level).

While this was on my mind, I found an article, “EU Elites Keep Power from the People,” that first appeared in print in the International Herald Tribune on August 23. It hit on some of the issues I raise above. I felt vindicated. Andrea Römmele, a professor of Political Science and Communication at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, feels that true European leadership is missing. She was quoted in this article saying: “With so many national and European issues interlinked, there is a great need for Europe’s leaders to communicate to [with] their public and strengthen Europe.” A German philosopher taking part in the conversation accused “the political elites of reneging on their responsibility to bring Europe to its citizens.”

The article concludes that the Union’s doors have to be opened to accountability-oriented democracy if it is to emerge from this crisis. Once again, communications is the lever upon which success or failure turns.

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