“Is Europe a laboratory or a museum?” – It’s a question that perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of a continent.
Posing this very question at the TCS Summit in Rome some years ago, Romano Prodi, former Italian Prime Minister and President of the European Commission, invited the rest of us to view Europe in one of two ways. Either it is forward looking – innovative, agenda-setting and entrepreneurial; or it is backward looking – cast as a cultural treasure, its best and most influential days behind it.
Europe-as-a-museum-piece plays to a rather pessimistic view of the continent and, perhaps, of the European Union in particular. Faced with multiple crises – the financial crash, Brexit, the refugee crisis, record youth unemployment, to name but a few – the EU has been grappling to find an adequate response.
These specifics are coupled with a broader, less defined alienation against a grey and opaque European project. And both are reflected in negative public sentiment, especially in many long-standing member states.
Source: Pew Research Center
For the first time since its inception, there is a sense that the EU is facing an existential crisis.
Against this negative narrative, which has been playing out in broadsheets across the globe over the last few years, there is a more positive story to tell. About a Europe where gross domestic product growth is out-stripping the United States; where employment is back at 2009 levels; where business confidence is at pre-crisis levels; and where, most recently, Emmanuel Macron decisively won a mandate in France on a centrist and progressive platform.
The official report being launched at the European Business Summit (EBS), to which TCS is a strategic partner, had the McKinsey Global Institute poll an array of European private sector leaders on their business confidence for the future.
A significant majority stated that the EU has had a positive impact on their business, with one in five expecting more than 5% annual growth within their companies in the short-term.
But if it is a story worth sharing, who exactly is telling it? The EU’s own efforts have not been getting through, that’s for sure.
In his recent book, ‘Rebranding Europe: Fundamentals for Leadership Communication’, former European Commission communications specialist Stavros Papagianneas writes: “The European Union fails to deliver when it comes to communication at national, regional, European and global level.”
Papagianneas concedes that the communications challenge is a tough one because there is a “weakened sense of citizenship and political engagement” brought about by dwindling interest in politics, a lack of knowledge of political processes, low levels of trust in politicians and growing cynicism of democratic institutions. As a result, “the European Union is not sexy; it’s often perceived as boring”.
Boring? Certainly, told through the technocratic language of Brussels. But once translated to a human level, it ought to be anything but boring.
Take the approach of WhyEurope, a student-run project that creates affirmative – sometimes risqué – messages about the benefits of a single market, posted and shared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Such messages include: “Europe because… we have better things to do than waiting at borders” against an image of a couple in intimate embrace; and “Why Europe… because you can get pregnant and be certain your children will grow up in peace.”
Ahead of next year’s introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation, WhyEurope posted: “Europe because … organisations collecting your personal data must protect it.” Heralding the end of cross-border mobile phone surcharges, it stated: “Europe because … roaming charges shorten your calls with relatives.”
Here is a grassroots organisation – thirteen students across five European countries – engaging in positive populism to counter widespread negative populism.
The messages are simple, accessible and persuasive. The understanding of the platforms – those social channels of distribution – is instinctive. No need for three letter acronyms. No need for ‘directives’, ‘derogations’, ‘frameworks’ and the rest of the impenetrable legalese. Just plain English – or plain French, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish and German.
There are other stories to tell in this way – stories from Europe’s laboratory.
In Berlin, for example, a new start-up is up and running every 20 minutes. Across the continent, Europeans are joining forces to create the future. The binding agents: innovative thinking and entrepreneurship. The facilitator: borderless economies.
That’s how an Estonian in London, Taavet Hinrikus, created one of the fastest growing FinTech companies in the world, Transferwise. Indeed, it’s how start-up hubs have emerged across Europe, from Stockholm in its north-east to Lisbon in its south-west.
And it’s how a Norwegian bank, DNB, with the help of my colleagues at TCS, created a peer-to-peer lending app adopted by a quarter of country’s population within six months of launch. And how smart city projects, such as the one in Belfort, France, are transforming the way we deliver local services.
Meanwhile, the European Investment Fund and the European Social Fund, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, have respectively supported hundreds of thousands of startups find funding and people find jobs. That’s hundreds of thousands of stories of positive impact by the EU, mostly untold and unknown.
As Papagianneas notes in his book: “Storytelling is persuasive and moves people … there’s not a day on the entire planet that is not touched by a story.”
It’s time to rebrand and tell stories – not from the museum but from Europe’s laboratory.