Wednesday, July 27, 2005

EU is having a tough time selling itself to Europeans

The IHT has a weekly set of loosely-themed articles on page two. Sometimes they offer sharp political insight, sometimes a look at selected parts of the world, and othertimes how the world views the US.

Today's article concerns itself with how the EU is going about rebuilding its relationship with its populace. Actually, rebuilding is maybe too generous a descriptor; perhaps I should say the EU is attempting to build a relationship.

For an area that has produced the most famous writers in history, Europeans have yet to read or hear a compelling story about why the EU matters in their lives. To date, they have only been told: It's good for you, vote yes. Now Eurocrats are struggling to explain the EU's raison d'etre.

On June 23, Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister, went to the European Parliament and said that the challenge for Europe was no longer avoiding the devastation of war, but the danger of obscurity brought about by failure to react to the world of the 21st century.

If European countries decided to "huddle together, hoping we can avoid globalization, shrink away from confronting the changes around us, take refuge in the present policies of Europe," he said, "then we risk failure, failure on a grand strategic scale."

Blair's analysis smacked somewhat of internal nationalist point-scoring. His obvious targets were the moribund economies of Germany and France, while the paragon he held up for praise was his own job-creating economy (which is showing some signs of stumbling).

But Blair's stance does provide a story line: that the real antagonists for Europeans are no longer other European nations but the economic competitors in China and India. Europeans may want to unite around that rallying call.

What this omits is other ideas that stir Europeans: the EU as an essential forum to save the environment, or as an effective way to disrupt terrorism's cross-border networks.

Much these days is made of the EU's attractive qualities: Because they want to join the club, Ukraine, Croatia, Turkey will improve their human rights record and rule of law, and generally accept European values. Europeans might like the EU more if they think it is one of the few ways to get their ideas heard, and realized.

But once it has decided on its role, the EU must communicate it. "Facts and figures, dry and distant data - a human being is not designed to absorb that information because they do not have an emotional connection," said Alison Esse, director of the Storytellers, a British company that advises other companies such as Hertz about how to get their corporate messages understood.

"You have to bring humanity into it," she said. "Then it can be incredibly emotional and compelling."

John Simmons, author of "Dark Angels," a book about language and story, agrees. "It is a matter of putting an individual at the center of the story. And it is not whoever happens to be the president of the European Commission at the time."

In post-referendum Europe, the hero of the EU's story, in this view, will be each ordinary European. His or her antagonist is unemployment, or pollution, world poverty, the anti-reformers in a faraway country, or the terrorist on the subway train.

In this drama, the EU is the supporting actor, a deus ex machina who at the right moment helps voters feel they are changing things. If Wallstrom can deliver that narrative, people might just learn to love her protagonist.