The next elections to the European Parliament are expected to be held in May 2019. A total of 751 members of the European Parliament currently represent some 500 million people from 28 member states: with the recent Italian election results earning headlines like “Blow to EU”, a cohesive, transparent and clear communications strategy seems to be missing from EU communications.

At the EACD Brussels Debate held at the Press Club Brussels Europe on Thursday, May 24, guest speaker Utta Tuttlies (@UTuttlies), head of communications for the Socialists and Democrats Group (and EACD board member) opened the evening‘s debate with her take on communications challenges in the run up to the 2019 European Parliament elections, particularly the need to learn and benefit from growth of citizen movements: to bridge the wide gap between populists and pro-EU groups in next year’s elections, better citizen engagement will be vital.

Outlining the challenges facing the task was the job of the next speaker. In describing how the Commission reaches out to those undecided about the EU, Tina Zournatzi (@zournti), head of strategic communications at the European Commission, described challenges including the fragmentation of messages, audiences and channels make the task of communicating complex polices in the face of increasing anti-EU discourse a formidable challenge. But there are also opportunities, as Tina pointed out, including increased levels of interest and trust in the EU, the rise of grassroots pro-EU organisations, a heightened awareness of the spread and effects of disinformation.

Tina’s comments set the stage for the ensuing panel debate, which also featured Shada Islam, Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe (@shada_islam); Javier Arias, group head of European affairs at multinational Spanish banking group BBVA; and Brett Kobie (@kobiebrett), digital, social and creative strategy lead at FleishmanHillard Brussels. Katie Owens (@ktowens), EU Communication Advisor at the European People's Party Group in the European Committee of the Regions, and EU Institutions Working Group Coordinator, moderated the discussion.

In suggesting solutions for low voter turnout in EU elections, Shada Islam argued that, if they are to fight the fear-based narrative of the EU, European Institutions need to look like the citizens they represent, with more diversity in ethnicity, gender and age.

Javier Arias drew an analogy between banks’ more customer-centric approach to winning back consumer trust with the EU’s need to win back trust of its citizens: a more sophisticated use of technology, reinforcing Shada’s argument that, if you want people to vote, change the way they can vote. 

The eternal question of how to convince undecided voters was addressed in detail by Brett Kobie: to sway what he dubbed as the “moveable middle”, EU communications should show how its work works for them, giving the example of communications about refuges focussing on how it makes Europe a safer place rather than a more altruistic message. Shada warned against pandering to racist narratives about refugees.

At the heart of the discussion was the Catch-22 situation the EU Commission finds itself with regards to the extent it can and can’t be seen to be communicating on its own behalf, much less that of the European project. Tina Zournatzi pointed to the defensiveness about money spent on communications campaigns as a factor. Whether faced with the challenges of fragmented audiences, or opportunities such as increased levels of trust, communicators working for the European project have their work cut out for them to secure favourable results next year’s European elections. 

This event was the latest in a series of EACD Debates: for the next event in your area, visit our online calendar.