Long gone are the days when leaders in organizations, business or politics could first take decisions and then reflect on how to communicate them to their stakeholders and the public. As decision-makers know, communicating the decision is an integral part of the decision itself. The impact on the audience increases greatly when the message clarifies not only the nature of the decision, but conveys the purpose of the organization at the same time. In this way the very act of communicating strengthens the reputation of the body in whose name the communication is made – and starts the process of influence.
The June 23 referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU has triggered an avalanche of opinions and perspectives thundering down on the public about the wisdom or otherwise of being part of the European Union. Lots of existential questions about the role of the unique cooperation model in Europe are being debated from Ireland to the Baltics, from Romania to Portugal. But also outside the EU the future of European cooperation draws attention. Presidents and government leaders from the USA to China and India have expressed their views. Op-eds fill kilometres of columns. Communication experts are advising on how to reach the heads and the hearts of voters, with messages that vary in reliability and veracity.
Who wants to remain a member? Can we uphold the fundamental freedom of movement of people, capital, services and goods, enshrined in the Treaty since 1957? What purpose does the EU serve? Are the historic reasons for European countries to seek common decision-making in a shared binding legal framework now forgotten? Protectionism, autarchy, currency manipulation; the ghosts of the economic heresies of the 1920s that led to mass unemployment and the rise of dictatorial regimes and which started devastating wars, seem to be reappearing.
The debate raging across the member states is not limited to disagreement on one or other policy point, it seems to attack the fundamental purpose of the EU itself. The most generous political idea of the 20th century, namely to avoid repetition of politics that led to World Wars and the Holocaust, by pooling economic interests and reconciling former enemies through the pursuit of shared interests, is put into question again. The hope of the EU’s founding fathers that a new chapter in history could be written by establishing common institutions to decide on the policy of the union – while taking into account national sensitivities of its member states – is under threat.
The confusion that prevails in the current discussions – and the perceived weakness of leaders to reverse the reputational damage to the European construction – call for a new narrative that can reach the public convincingly.
The basis of European cooperation, the common interest of her member states to tackle issues that exceed national boundaries is more relevant than ever. Combating climate change, securing energy supply, establishing a true digital single market, guaranteeing consumer rights wherever they buy in the internal market, organizing the regulation and oversight to bolster trustworthy financial and capital markets; all these issues that benefit European citizens, cannot be solved effectively at national level and demand European solutions. Even more pressing today is vital security cooperation in the face of terrorism. Or the common policy on asylum. And on the free movement of workers. The Treaty on which the EU is based grants the citizens of Europe fundamental freedoms; some put these into question. But many hope that they will be upheld.
What has been achieved could unravel. Protectionist tendencies are growing again. New barriers are put up at borders, not just for security reasons that could justify temporary measures, but to prevent the free flow of goods, services, workers and capital. When common solutions are not found, governments may revert to national measures that do not take into account the impact on other countries. In the absence of one harmonized rule for 28 countries, 28 different national regulations pop up, greatly adding to the bureaucratic burden and legal uncertainty for economic operators. That destroys business and prosperity. When the political will to cooperate at EU level disappears, the effect is felt in the daily lives of people and companies. The political forces that oppose European integration, from the extreme right and the extreme left, tend to share their preference for state-run economies and the rejection of open markets and free trade.
The populist movements speak to deeply-felt emotions among groups of voters. If they prevail, the internal market will erode, with the creeping divergence between member states resulting in huge legal and policy discrepancies. The incremental dismantling of the Schengen zone allowing free movement of people may already be under way.
But the European Union is about more than markets and economy. From its origins, and enshrined in the Treaties, the EU forms a unique structure for international cooperation. It seeks to reconcile the common interest of the whole of the Union with the diverse cultures, different histories and particular situations of its member states. It aims to create and maintain the conditions in which 500 million citizens can fully develop their potential.
Especially in times of crisis, it takes courage to take decisions in the interests of all and to explain and justify measures in light of the fundamental purpose of the EU. But it’s only with courage and with a higher purpose in mind that people can be convinced that is worth adhering to the European Union. Such a new narrative, communicated in a creative way, can steer the public’s preference.
Thomas Tindemans, CEO
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