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When you live inside the EU bubble, you sometimes forget that there is a world outside the EU. This is why holidays are great, because they allow you to escape all the ordinary procedures, discover a new country, and get a better understanding of its political landscape.
In mid-April some representatives of The Lobby decided to spend two weeks in Egypt, and the impressions gathered through conversations with locals met in restaurants, trains, planes, or just in the street, together with some very good lectures, were fascinating.
Unfortunately, there is much less enthusiasm about the “Arab Spring” than there was before.
Whereas one can only respect a country whose people risked their lives to attain their freedom, there is also a certain amount of trepidation when one considers the enormous expectations these people have towards their future new government.
The causes of the 25-January revolution, as the Egyptians call it, are deeply rooted. Some reasons for this Egyptian malaise are the enormous social inequalities, the lack of jobs corresponding to the qualifications of young graduates, a climate of corruption, religious fundamentalism, rising food prices, and, last but not least, the lack of political liberties.
When looking into the future, there is a sea of uncertainties: will the new government and President be able to tackle some of these problems? What about the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence, and in particular the Salafist movement? How can democracy work in a country with an illiteracy rate of around 40%?
Yet, I remain cautiously optimistic: Egypt is a wonderful country with a rich cultural and religious diversity, and the awakening of a sense of citoyenneté during these last months demonstrates that there is a reason to believe that Egypt may successfully manage its regime change.
(Taken from this month’s Espresso)
As Espresso and its readers are well aware, communication is key, be it when communicating to the press, externally or internally, or in times of crisis. Sometimes a business shies away from communicating, sometimes it has a strategy to promote to the outside world, and sometimes it is forced to communicate out of necessity as a result of a crisis.
In this sense, the EU is no different. After the infamous “non” and “nee”’ referenda on the EU Constitution in 2005 it was decided that what the EU needed to do was “communicate.” According to EU-logic, if it communicated what it was doing citizens would experience a road to Damascus moment and start voting “oui” and “ja” instead.
Five years later, and it would appear that citizens are still as apathetic as before. Who’d have thought it?!
Time for a revolution – specifically, a “communication revolution.”
New Communications Commissioner Viviane Reding – an experienced operator on the Brussels scene and not to be messed with – wants to bring about a culture shock. In a letter to President Barroso she outlines her vision for communicating Europe, some of which could be considered controversial by the very people she is willing to target.
Firstly she states that the EU project can only work if the Commission is perceived as the EU government. An interesting notion, given that unlike every Member State government the Commission doesn’t have much of a democratic mandate from the electorate.
Similarly, the plan to centre communication in the figure of President Barroso – largely unknown outside political circles, the Brussels bubble, and his home country of Portugal – seems both ambitious and questionable, since President Barroso cannot be said to be democratically elected either.
Despite the fiery rhetoric then, this is far from being a revolution.
In response, Espresso would like to humbly propose that reforming how the Commission communicates should be preceded by reforming the EU institutions themselves; so if you want a revolution, here it is.
Firstly, Commissioners should be elected, either on the EU or Member State level. This would immediately engage citizens, and whilst there is no reason to suppose turnout would be particularly high it would at least make the Commissioners beholden to their electorate. This already changes the dynamics of the communication flow and provides the Commission President with more limelight than is currently the case.
At times of crisis the EU, like any business, needs to communicate – but an EU communication revolution cannot happen without a prior institutional revolution. Since the latter is unlikely to take place, the former will be rendered redundant.
Food for thought, Ms Reding.
Russia – termed by Churchill as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” – is actually nothing of the sort. Thus argues the latest book by the respected BBC journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, which involves the author traipsing the Russian steppe and taiga all the way from Murmansk in the north-west, via St Petersburg, Moscow, the Caucuses, and the Trans-Siberian railway, to Vladivostock on the Pacific coast.
Attitudes towards Russia tend to differ markedly around the world, and the EU itself struggles to form a cohesive viewpoint of the bear on its doorstep. On the one hand Russia holds – for the moment at least – the EU’s main source of gas and oil reserves and likes to play geopolitics with its energy. Ukraine and Belarus have had their supplies cut in the recent past, leading to EU member Bulgaria also feeling the chill at the start of this year.
On the other hand, Russia is – well – Russia. In his book Dimbleby argues that, far from being democratic, the current Putin regime is “crypto-fascist.” The “ordinary people” who Dimbleby interviews initially reject this assertion, and then when pushed go on to prove it to be true.
The fact that political opposition is repressed, and what opposition there is was basically invented by Putin to aid appearances? Not a problem! The fact that press freedom is severely curtailed and Russian journalists who speak their mind on issues such as Chechnya are murdered on their doorstep? Well, they had it coming.
Even the well-off urban middle classes seem to reject the idea of democracy – at least the Western version of it. In a glorious contradiction, they argue that democracy is not all that great anyway because “you can’t get rid of them once they’re elected”. With or without electoral fraud, Putin (or his successor Dmitry Medvedev – but we know who pulls the strings in the Kremlin) would probably be elected anyway, but when the Russian public sphere bows to your every wish this is hardly surprising. Welcome to democracy Russian-style.
The book received some negative reviews on Amazon, and in truth The Lobby didn’t expect much beyond the superficial. In fact, Dimbleby does manage to delve a little deeper into the Russian psyche than most travelogues of the Palin variety (Michael, not Sarah). Still, one was left with the feeling that the non-Russian speaking Dimbleby (despite having lived there during the Cold War!) was – instead of an insider – very much an outsider trying his best to look in.
The EU will certainly relate to that feeling as it prepares itself for another possible oil crisis later in the year and future skirmishes on the Georgian frontier.
“If you haven’t heard yet, Jeleva, former MEP, is said to be appointed as next Bulgarian Commissioner and she might take the Regional policy portfolio.”
So says the first email in The Lobby’s Monday morning email inbox. Further enquiries led us to the website of current Bulgarian Foreign Minister Rumiana Jeleva, which features a piano rendition of Ode to Joy on the homepage. So she likes Europe then, which is nice, and having been an MEP for the last two years she ticks all the boxes for a Commissioner-elect.
From now until October Brussels will turn itself in knots as it tries to predict the make-up of the new European Commission. There are many reasons why this is more interesting than a usual government reshuffle.
First and foremost, national interests come into play. France wants the Internal Market portfolio, but having recently gone in for some protectionist measures of its own, might this be seen as being somewhat contradictory? (Moreover, will the Internal Market Commissioner still be responsible for financial regulation? Spies tell us this may not be so…)
Perhaps Romania is owed big-time for being stuck with the – ahem – Multilingualism portfolio, so should be given a decent portfolio this time round (possibly agriculture, or so we have heard). What portfolio is small enough for Malta, population 414,000? Might Ireland be punished for obstructing the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty? And who gets the politically sensitive dossiers such as enlargement, economic & monetary affairs, and justice & home affairs?
Secondly, a Commissioner’s mandate lasts for five years, longer than the usual national equivalent, and a Commissioner can only leave if he or she wants to, or is lured away by a lucrative position in their own country (as happened several times in the current College).
Individual Commissioners can’t be voted out by the European Parliament or the Member States, which leads us to our third point – the process is almost entirely undemocratic. Backroom deals and horse-trading will make or break the fate of Ms Jeleva and the many other potential candidates, out of sight of the prying eyes of the media and political commentators. Voters? Ha, you must be joking.
So all we in Brussels can do is pontificate on “potentialities” and keep our ear to the ground. With the Commission having sole right of initiative, whoever does make up the new College will set the debate for the next five years right across the policy spectrum. Watch this space. Ms Jeleva certainly will be.