Making Europe cool again

Three do’s and don’ts to help European policymakers get through again and rebuild trust.

My most uplifting moment in 2017 was watching freshly elected French President Emanuel Macron walk across the courtyard of the Louvre to the sound of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the official anthem of the European Union.

But elsewhere in Europe, populists of all stripes are still busy scapegoating the EU for all sorts of economic and societal ills. As Macron and others have shown, it does not have to be this way. Here are three dont’s and three do’s for policymakers to follow in order to “get through” to the general public, regain trust and make Europe cool again.1

Three dont’s

1. Don't dismiss the legitimate concerns of the people: The fact that those concerns do not fit the liberal world view does not mean that they do not deserve to be listened to and respected. Labelling those who vote for populists as a “basket of deplorables” (as then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton described them in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election) or generally stigmatising them as extremists or outright lunatics can only backfire.

If policymakers want to regain credibility and trust, they need to do more to acknowledge the valid experiences of ordinary people and to connect with them by calling things by their real names

Public institutions have to take the wind out of the sails of populists who style themselves as the ones who are simply “saying out loud what many people think”. They should avoid any impression of Orwellian ‘newspeak’, which is seen as being imposed from the liberal moral high ground and narrowing the range of acceptable thought.

Doing so does not imply accepting the rhetoric of insurrection that calls into doubt the underlying consensus in our democratic societies. The appeal and lifeblood of populists is their promised power to permanently delegitimise established institutions; it feeds their anti-elitist claims that they represent the “true people” and that the “system” is rotten.

The mainstream responds to populists’ taboo-breaking rhetoric with predictable indignation (or “Empörungskultur” as the Germans call it). But this reaction only serves to reinforce those parties’ anti-establishment appeal – and is a communicative trap. It can only be avoided by going the extra mile and clearly distinguishing when populists:

  • present contrarian political positions that can be countered with facts and arguments;
  • take manipulative shortcuts between facts and ideological convictions that can be refuted by logical reasoning;
  • resort to outright lies that need to be exposed;
  • engage in destructive rabble-rousing that needs to be rejected.

Diligence and hard work will be needed to meet the populist communicative challenge.

2. Don’t keep sitting on the high horse of expert authority: Public institutions need to stop using jargon and start speaking a language that people understand. Jargon, by definition, creates distance, establishing an “us” and a “them”. Applying some of the rules outlined in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, from back in 1946, would already be helpful. For instance:

  • never use a long word where a short one will do;
  • never use the passive where you can use the active;
  • never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 

This certainly applies to economics. If it is meant to be understood by the general public, then it has to be accessible.2

Making public policy accessible is all the more important with younger generations. For my generation, when we didn’t understand a text, a chart or graphic at first sight, we probably thought: “It must be me, I do not understand”. Millennials, who are much more digitally and visually literate, have no such self-doubt. If they do not understand something instantly, it is the producer of that content that is seen to be at fault for not making it accessible.

Experts should be humble and stop pretending knowledge and certainty where there is none. One key reason for the lack of respect for experts is that, well, the experts got it wrong. For instance, there is a wide-ranging debate about whether the economics profession is up to the job of giving useful advice to policymakers.

The economy is a profoundly complex system; uncertainty is pervasive. Human behaviour cannot be pressed into models of rationality and perfect knowledge. It is therefore right to stress humility.

Even under such circumstances, experts can still give useful advice. We are not in the Dark Ages. But experts must be wary of what Austrian-British economist, philosopher and defender of classical liberalism, F.A. Hayek called the “fatal conceit” (“Verhängnisvolle Anmaßung”) of complete knowledge. They can still point out likely implications of certain courses of action and, at the same time, honestly acknowledge uncertainty.

3. Don’t bother with people who are in outright denial of facts: As communicators, we have to accept that some people are beyond reach. The likelihood of entering their bubble is extremely low, and even if one could, the chances of ‘getting through’ with a different set of arguments and facts are minute. In a world of finite resources it is ultimately more efficient to invest in more promising target groups.

Taken together, these three “dont’s” I’ve listed above would already make a difference, but they need to be complemented by three things that experts and policymakers should start doing.

Three do’s

1. Do focus on authenticity and credibility

For policymakers, the best way to achieve this is when words and actions are congruent – the famous “do as you say” and “say what you cannot do”. Too much spin has brought about a widespread loss of trust in media. Messages have no chance of getting through if the messenger is not believed.

The 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer (see article on page 16) shows that trust in media is at rock bottom. People are rightly concerned about fake news, mainly on social media platforms, being used as a weapon – though quality journalism seems to be enjoying a certain degree of recovery in public confidence.

The popular ‘media nihilism’ that one cannot believe anything anymore can only be countered by being authentic and credible.

Public institutions should present precise, accurate and useful information. They should tackle the populist myths head-on and make the case for their own, fact-based, discourse. They need to present convincing arguments and actively counter falsehoods, “truthiness” and outright lies.

This is helped – according to the Edelman Trust Barometer – by a recovery in public confidence in technical and experts. That said, a majority of people still consider a “person like you or me” to be credible.

The power of authenticity which neighbours, friends or family have as witnesses and messengers, and the reach generated through their personal networks, means that institutions (and businesses) need to cultivate their own staff and customers as ambassadors and invest in their networks.

2. Do tell a story and bring back emotion: To succeed in public debate, policymakers need to tell a story. We have seen this at work: emotive language like “taking back control” or “Let’s make America great again” has struck a chord with voters – it is inclusive and infinitely more tangible than facts like GDP figures or budget numbers that have lost any human dimension. What does a billion euro, let alone a trillion, really mean to the average citizen?

A recent analysis of World Bank Annual reports from a timespan of over 65 years found an increasing use of jargon, abstraction and a “language that is intentionally ambiguous, meant to obscure or confuse”. It is no wonder that people feel more attracted to the feel-good language of emotion – which also conveniently blanks out the full implications of the chosen policy path.

There is also no problem in sounding as patriotic as the populists. This does mean, to a certain extent, accepting the discourse of the populists, but cutting out the jingoistic exclusiveness of it. Across the entire political spectrum we are already witnessing a drive to re-appropriate and give new meaning to the concepts of nation and patriotism.

3. Do be present where people get their news: This means reaching out beyond the usual comfort zone of specialists, interest groups and traditional media. Public institutions need to be more present in spaces where people receive their primary information, exchange views and form opinions. That means outside the realms of traditional journalism and information channels, for instance on social media.

These lists of things to stop doing and things to start doing would enable European policymakers to take back the reigns of effective communication and create our very own narrative, to make Europe ‘cool’ again. Thankfully, the core ingredients for an uplifting story about Europe are there. Whatever one thinks of its institutions, processes and representatives, the European Union:

  • has delivered peace and prosperity;
  • is a crucial insurance policy against the destructive effects of inward-looking nativism;
  • is a supranational influence to make sure European nations keep talking to each other, respectfully, in order to bridge their inevitable differences and settle their numerous disagreements.

These arguments continue to convince, as the recent revival of pro-European sentiment mirrored in both election results and greater civil society as a whole show. The Pulse of Europe movement embodies this. They have helped to bring back the Ode to Joy – and the European spirit which it symbolises – not just to the courtyard of the Louvre, but to town squares across Europe. Let’s have much more of that.

Image: Christine Graeff speaking at the Central Bank Communications Conference 2017 / Photo: European Central Bank

Inspired in part by Simon Kuper’s columns in the Financial Times of 22 June and 5 October 2017
Former World Bank chief economist Paul Romer recently tried to follow this path. He publicly vented his criticism of the growing tendency to obscure economics through increasing “mathiness”, which makes effective scrutiny and debate more difficult.

Christine Graeff

Christine Graeff is director general of communications at the European Central Bank, where she has led communications since 2013. She is also in charge of the communications strategy she set up in 2014 for the Single Supervisory Mechanism, the new European banking supervisor.

Before her move to the public sector, Christine worked from 2001 to 2012 for strategic communications firm Brunswick, where, as founding partner, she established and developed the group’s German business.

Prior to that, she was at Burson-Marsteller in London for two years. Christine serves on the board of TalentNomics, a non-profit organisation supporting and empowering women in leadership. She also serves on the board of trustees of the Frankfurt Opera and on the advisory board of the Global Teacher Prize.