Project idea: Watching Trialogues

Trialogues have become one of the most used decision-making tools in the EU system. On the one hand they create a convenient shortcut for EU institutions to speed up lengthy decision-making procedures – on the other hand they are non-transparent, undemocratic, secret – and  create a system without a sense of accountability. The biggest problem that we – the citizens – have is that we simply don’t  know much about trialogues, as this excellent piece in the EUobserver explains:

Search for any mention of trialogues in the EU treaties and you will draw a blank. This is because despite being an accepted part of the lawmaking landscape, in legal terms trialogues don’t exist. All trialogue meetings are informal and the timing of the meetings are not known to most MEPs, let alone the ordinary public. There are no formal minutes taken. Some are over within a few minutes. Others can go on all day and well into the night.

In the coming years we may see some institutional changes in the system as VP Frans Timmermans has identified the practice of ‘trialogues’ as a problem that should be tackled. (btw:  if David Cameron was *really* interested in genuine ‘EU reform’ this would be an issue to begin with…)

The trialogue issue is about transparency and accountability. As a citizen I simply want to know who is responsible for a deal,  who suggested what compromise text  – and I want to know why certain things disappear from a legislative proposal. Yes, this is something  journalists should do – but it is also an institutional problem as we basically have no public record of trialogues, we don’t know anything about it:  What is on the agenda of those meetings? When do they happen? Where do they happen? Who participates? What was agreed?

So, to put some pressure on EU institutions to change the practice of trialogues, here is a quick project idea – combining journalism, activism as well as the willingness among insiders to share/leak some of the data. What do we need?

We need ‘Trialogue Watch’!

The aim would be to set-up a website/blog that tracks trialogues and which would provide a simple crowdsourced data set about those meetings:  date of the meeting, invited participants, topic / agenda of the meeting…

In a second step this could be linked with the respective legislative proposal and a summary of the outcome of each meeting. This would require a regular stream of leaks – and a number of journalists whose job it would be to chase participants and write up quick blog posts about each meeting. (Well, here is a problem: “on average, around 25 separate trialogue meetings take place each week“)

How to do it:  We would need a website that allows anonymous submissions of basic trialogue data (see above). For the website we would need some coders and someone who would like to host and do some website admin. Then we would need to get the data from somehwere – and this will be the problem. So yes, I am looking at you: MPs and MP assistants who think it should be in the  interest of the EU to publish basic data about trialogues (preferably also minutes of meetings) But I am also thinking of journalists who hear about a trialogue from some contacts within the EU institutions. The aim is to have some sort of calendar which tracks trialogue meetings and gives us names, topics and dates. This would allow the public to get at least a basic idea of what’s going on and who is responsible for the decisions.

The real aim?

The aim behind the project is to show EU institutions how and why they should reform the system. It could be an experiment to put pressure on EU institution with two simple messages: Look at what can  be done without you – and yes, there are people out there who care about it – so do get your act togehter.

There are several options for the EU: trialogues could simply be abolished, the EU could ‘institutionalise’ trialogues as a normal decision-making tool or they could at least  increase transparency.

So if EU institutions copy our little ‘trialogue watch’ and start offering basic data on these meetings our job would be done! (and we could move on to evaluate the content of the deals reached via trialogues!)

So – who’s in?

PS: Feel free and contact me if you are interested in getting involved (or if you know of a similar project elsewhere!) I am not sure I would have time to really work on this project but I am happy to organise a first meeting or facilitate some sort of online exchange.


Overheard in Brussels IX: The European Neighbourhood

“We wanted to build a circle of friends – now we are dealing with a ring of fire.”

– EU official in DG NEAR

This blog post is part of  “Overheard in Brussels“.

6 ideas for innovative EU journalism

Simple questions often make you think. Example: What is missing in EU journalism? What sort of innovative journalistic products do we need that would  innovate and improve reporting about the EU? Forget business models and organisational restraints for a moment – here are 6 ideas that would change the way we report the EU:

1. Cross-border and collaborative journalism

This is a no-brainer. The EU is about cross border issues. Reporting EU issues needs to go cross-border. However, this is not only about decision making processes (stories that take into account politics in Berlin and Paris are part of the reporting mix already); it is also about the effects of EU laws in different countries. For example: How did France and Italy transpose a certain directive – as opposed to Germany? What sort of effects can be observed? Is it working? And if not, why is it not working? This can get pretty complex so you would need teams of journalists from different countries that look into specific issues possibly teaming up with regulatory experts. Of course there are some promising examples of collaborative, cross-border journalism in Europe (see here or here)  – but this can only be the beginning. Cross-border journalism is also about networking and finding ways to cooperate with journalists from across Europe in order to develop joint story ideas. Not everything needs to be as explosive and high profile as  Lux Leaks or Swiss Leaks –  smaller projects involving only 2 journalists from two countries may already be enough for a good cross-border story!

2. Explanatory journalism

I think journalists need to realise that they are dealing with a readership that suffers from a severe EU knowledge deficit. Lots of people are interested in EU topics – but most of thm don’t have that much background knowledge when it comes EU decision making.  A few years ago, Jay Rosen had a very interesting idea that is worth revisiting. The idea was simple: Readers ask journalists to explain complex issues. He thought about the sort of answers  one  cannot easily find on google, wikipedia or reddit.  Especially in a EU context this idea could  work: EU procedures are often complex, EU-related wikipedia articles are not always up-to date, EU websites are often confusing and full of EU jargon  – but many articles about the EU take a lot of things for granted. So why not invest time in formats that simply explain EU issues? Forget the long analysis pieces, 600 words may be enough to explain something.  This could be a nice daily column in any newspaper, a good TV/ radio format or a useful online resource. It could also be used as a tool to facilitate a conversation between readers and journalists about what kind of EU issues need to be explained.

3. Podcasts

Producing a podcast is not rocket science. Podcasts are relatively easy to produce, the equipment needed is cheap and publishing it via itunes or other subscription services is simple and effective. Brussels  seems to be a largely podcast-free zone. Many people like podcasts because  it is something you don’t need to read. You can listen to it on the way to work or during a stroll through the park in your lunch break. However,  a great podcast needs a bit of planning, good contacts – and a good moderator. Here are a few ideas what sort of podcasts could make sense in a EU environment:

  • BXL version of Slate’s Political Gabfest or another podcast with an interesting mix of interviews and debates. Needs a good moderator and a good concept.
  • “EU Today” ( quick overview of the daily EU agenda: 10 minutes, published at 8am)
  • “The week in trade/agriculture/digital/foreign policy”: think tanks and associations could start producing weekly podcasts with interviews or summaries of what has happened in their respective policy area.
  • Interview podcasts can be produced by anyone: journalists, think tanks, PA agencies. There are so many events in Brussels everyday: grab one of those speakers and do a 10 minutes interview. Publish it. Done. As I said, it’s not rocket science!
  • ‘Explain me this’ – a podcast that answers one question about EU affairs (see above)

4. Policy journalism

EU decision making takes a bit of time. The same applies for good EU journalism. Especially when it is about legislative developments. Journalism that focuses on policy processes needs to develop a ‘memory’ which is often lost in the 24h news cycles. How to do this?  A simple addition to any online publication would be some sort timeline that puts an article into context: What policy area? Where exactly is the file in the legislative procedure? Who are the main actors? What has happened so far regarding this initiative? What will happen over the next few months? And don’t forget to link to original proposals, legislative texts and position papers (this is something that should be a standard by now – especially in online journalism…)

Another simple example how journalists could provide more context is to describe different positions. Who is lobbying? What do those lobbyists want? What does the NGO community want? Thumbs of Europe are doing a similar thing: short overviews of the main positions of relevant sectoral interests. This could easily be used in policy oriented journalism.

Opinion polls often show that people feel that ‘Brussels’ is far away. The question is whether a different sort of journalism could change this. Articles that explain the policy process (on a daily basis – not only once in a blue moon!), timelines that put things in perspective, clear descriptions of different interests, creating ‘policy memory’ among readers are a few simple tools that could make a difference. On a related note: ‘Giving context’ does not necessarily mean ‘adding an opinion’. Just report what’s going on – and let the reader decide what to think of it.

5. Legislative footprints: Amendments, lobbyists, diplomats

Investigative EU journalism needs resources, cross-border approaches and innovative ideas. The aim should be to find the ‘legislative footprint’ in EU law: who is influencing what and when? One example could be ‘monitoring MEP amendments’. This might sound cumbersome for journalists but after all, this is one the main jobs of MEPs. The process is relatively open – so why are we not paying closer attention? For example, look at reports like this. A local journalist could start tracking the activity of a local MEP. An investigative journalist could compare amendments with position papers by lobbyists or NGOs. It seems that only special interest blogs look at these sort of things and come up with posts like this. Finding  amendments however takes time – you need to dig into pdfs in the ‘work in progress’ section of the EP website, look for specific legislative initiatives/MEPs or know some helpful assistant in the EP. Developing a nice interface that allows searches across MEP names, legislative proposals, committees etc might be an interesting project for another hackathon. For the time being, you can also use VoteWatch or Parltrack which monitors the activity of MEPs – including amendments and voting records. Of course the problem here is the Council, the process how member states influence EU law is still not transparent enough. We actually need Lobbyplag type projects for all major policy initiatives – only then governments will stop saying one thing in Brussels and something else back home.

6. Data journalism

Data journalism is more than infographics. It’s a way to discover stories in unlikely places, and tell new stories. (need inspiration? Click here, here, here, herehere) Innovative EU journalism may be well advised to team up with EU hackathons  or develop more links with the tech community. There seem to be plenty of opportunities – from scraping off data from one of the biggest websites in the world ( to using Eurostat data to its full extent. One of the biggest challenge will be to combine datasets from different countries. One of the questions may be how to connect opendata movements across Europe to develop data that can be accessed by journalists – and is useful for political journalism.

Bonus idea I: EU journalism ≠ foreign policy reporting

Newspapers / broadcasters in Europe should stop reporting *all* EU issues as ‘foreign policy’ (or to put it differently: war in Ukraine  = foreign policy, copyright reform = not foreign policy) The single market is not foreign policy. Brussels is also not ‘the other’, maybe it is more like a political suburb of your national capital. (ok, possibly not the greatest analogy)   Anyway, the point is that EU politics should be treated like normal domestic politics. This has nothing to do with ideology but with a different reporting mindset that will allow journalist to look for stories – and not only cover press conferences after summits. Most of what happens in Brussels is not *that* different from national politics when it comes to power, interests and processes. Yes, there are procedural differences – but at the end of the day it is normal politics.

Bonus idea II: Opinion vs Reporting

One of the basic principles of journalism is the strict separation between opinion and reporting. However, this line has been blurred and online journalism is part of the problem. Click bait strategies, the idea that ‘providing context’ means ‘giving an opinion’ and the use of misleading language has resulted in a situation in which  political journalism is more about confirming opinions than factual reporting.  We may also need to revisit our assessment of what exactly is newsworthy in EU politics: good journalism is also about accountability, we need to develop a political memory for EU decision making and give readers the chance to make up their mind about certain issues. It’s ‘back to basics’ for EU journalism: providing a regular, factual service to readers may be more important than opinionated commentary. It is questionable whether the future of political journalism really lies in the desperate attempt to find sexy headlines and in the belief that a more ‘tabloidy’ approach to news would be a good way to reconnect people with politics.

What’s wrong with the “Erasmus Generation Survey”?

Imagine the following scenario:

I would publish an online survey on my website  – let’s say 15 questions about the future of Europe. Via social media and a couple of email newsletters I motivate all my friends and lots of casual readers of my blog to fill in the survey. I don’t have time to translate the survey in other languages but I know that my readers speak English.  After a month or so I realise that I gathered 1500 responses – a lot from Brussels (around 25%) but also a lot from other countries. Over 50 % of the respondents have a Master or a Phd, almost 90% are students. So basically, I got exactly the sort of respondents I was hoping for: well educated people that know about EU stuff, travel a lot and speak English. My aim is simple: I want to send a message to policymakers and tell them that young people are interested in EU politics – but they demand some sort of change.  In other words: I need a positive change message – not the usual doom and gloom about youth unemployment.

Next step:  I am thinking how to call this whole thing. I am comms professional so I know it needs a sexy title that captures the imagination of policy makers. How about ‘Generation Erasmus Survey’?  ‘Generation’ is a good word because I can pretend the results are the views of an ‘entire generation’ (as opposed to random people who did a survey on my website) ‘Erasmus’ is a good word because everyone knows the Erasmus programme and probably most of my respondents went abroad during their time at university. ‘Survey’ is a good word because it makes you think of public opinion surveys (and not of surveymonkey stuff on a blog)  And voila, I have just produced a survey that tells you the views of the Erasmus Generation. Now you might say, wait a minute, how can you claim to speak for a whole generation without having a representative sample? And does this ‘Generation’ actually exist? Well, I would respond: Shh… don’t mention it. So, the problem is that this is exactly what happened in the real world – well, in the Brussels bubble that is:

ThinkYoung (a lobby think tank for young people) and BM Brussels (one of the big communications/lobby consultancies in Brussels) just published this report (all numbers above are taken from the this report)

The report is clearly written in a style to hide this inconvenient truth. It never says it is “representative”, views are always attributed to ‘Erasmus Generation Survey respondents‘ and not to the  ‘generation’. However from time to time claims are made such as “findings, which speak of a generation that believes in the European project” (p.3) or “the aim is to present the views of young people, aged 18 to 40″. (p.40) Really, all of them?  Self-selection bias comes to mind…

Yes,  you can tell that this was done by a professional comms agency. But even BM Brussels – the agency behind the report –   can’t quite make up their minds whether to talk about a “study” or a “survey” – but they are convinced that they can make claims about the “majority of youth” – a questionable claim given the weak sample size!

What is clear from reading the study/survey/report is the following:  this survey is neither representative of the age group (20-40), nor does it represent the views of people that did Erasmus (question not even included) and by having a survey only in English it is  skewed towards the Brussels bubble. It is also noteworthy that the methodological note only talks about an online survey – so it might be a very skewed sample (comparable to polls you find on various websites). It would have been an interesting survey – if it actually was representative of this age group. And yes, I would have been interested whether this mysterious ‘Erasmus generation’ actually exists. Are there differences between citizens aged 20-40 in different European countries? Do  people that have been on Erasmus (or lived abroad) have a different view on European issues? (but for that you would need to compare results  of the ‘Erasmus group’ with the ‘group that did not do any Erasmus like activities’…) These are all valid questions but this “survey” does not come close to present the statistical evidence to back up the claims. It is a typical example of PR produced in Brussels.

Instead of calling it “Erasmus Generation Survey” it might have been more honest to call it “Results of an online consultation among young people that speak English and happen to be on a mailing list of a few Brussels based youth NGOs”.

Günther H. Oettinger is a political liability for this Commission

Günther H.Oettinger has a rare skill: Give him a microphone and he gives you a scandal. His cabinet must be a fun place to work – if you are into damage control and crisis communication that is. The people behind the @goettinger parody account on twitter also don’t need to come up with  funny stuff anymore – copy/pasting Oettinger’s real quotes is parody enough.

But despite all the “Oetti fun” we should not forget that his actions create all sorts of problems. I think that giving him the digital portfolio in the European Commission may have been Juncker’s biggest political mistake so far. It has only been a few months and he created all sorts of scandals – most of them a little bit under the radar of the media. However, he regularly oversteps his mandate, he does not seem to be independent from the position of the German government (Juncker has repeatedly called for a truly independent Commission!), he alienates the people that care about the development of a digital single market and his rhetoric has become insulting.

  • His EP hearing was already a disaster, very vague and painful to watch. Underwhelming to say the least. Remember, he called celebrities “stupid” because of a leak? The European Voice nailed it at the time: “Oettinger sounds like a regional German politician, which he is.”  MEPs did not have the guts to call him for a second hearing. Being the German candidate helps in these situations.
  • Once in office he started to get interested in all sorts of things not linked to digital issues: It all started with this  op-ed in the FT calling for structural reforms in France (not his portfolio, is it?) – and as we all know, placing an oped in the FT does not happen by accident. He continued his French mission a few days later with an interview  in Der Spiegel.
  • The most worrying development is however that he doesn’t seem to understand his portfolio – for him it’s always about cars. Some of his speeches are incomprehensible.
  • After having a go at the French government he discovered Greece (again, it has nothing to do with his portfolio) openly contradicting the Commission’s line in the recent negotiations with Greece. The European Commission distanced itself from these statements calling them a “private opinion” of Mr Oettinger.
  • Commission President Juncker is not amused and apparently had a frank talk with Oettinger…

Now, we are reaching the next level of political stupidity:

Mr Oettinger is walking PR disaster. ‘Digital politics’ is one of the few policy areas where you have a Europeanised discourse, it is a relatively new policy area which mobilises a lot of young people who have realised that policy change needs to happen at the European level. They are ready to engage with EU institutions on the digital issues – ‘net neutrality’ is one of the few topics that gets people excited about EU issues. But Mr Oettinger is doing everything he can to alienate everyone with patronising statements full of incompetence and rudeness.

Calling everyone who disagrees with you ‘Taliban-like’ is simply unacceptable. In national politics ministers have resigned for less…

Update 10/3/15:  This really sums it up:

The European Interest

I’ve just launched “the european interest” (@EUinterest on twitter) – a new weekly EU politics newsletter featuring a (hopefully) eclectic mix of EU analysis . ‘the european interest’ is about bringing you the best / most thought-provoking content about the EU or European political issues/debates (ideally including  opposing and diverging views). What can you expect?  Anything really, from journalistic pieces (especially ‘longform’ or investigative journalism), think tank papers, podcasts, videos,  academic journal papers, long explainers found on some obscure websites to  messy discussions on Reddit or interesting blog posts. It should be full of things you should have read… The aim is that every week you find at least one piece that makes you ‘think again’. The idea was partly inspired by this post a few weeks ago and it is linked to my interest in finding out how people discover interesting content online (I blogged about this in a slightly different context here).


Some questions that were raised regarding  this project (which is btw pretty much work in progress…) – so here is a quick FAQ:

Why a newsletter? 

1.  Shelf life of content shared via social media is rather short. Tweets disappear after 10 minutes, facebook only shows you selected content. If you are not well organised you might miss some interesting stuff. Newsletters can fill this gap by giving you a nice overview of things you should have read – and you’ll always know where to find it again (hint: it’s pink and somewhere in your inbox)!

2.  Sadly,  our professional lives still rely on email inboxes  (and the integrated calendar function!)  but I think we’ve reached a point where personal routines and expectations on when to read and reply to emails  have matured.  And after a decade of struggling to manage email many people now seem more comfortable organising their own inboxes.  Simply put: we are more relaxed when it comes to email, we have become better using it as a tool. As a result many have rediscovered the usefulness of newsletters.

3. RSS is dead (unfortunately!) – at least for the casual internet user. After google reader was shut down only information junkies looked for alternative RSS readers. However, by relying on social media alone we may not only miss important and interesting content; there is also the danger to get trapped in the filter bubble. Can we really understand debates if we only rely on a handful of media outlets and a group of journalists we follow on twitter?

Will there be RSS?

Yes, maybe. (am I contradicting myself here?)

So, will there be a new website?

Yes – I am working on it!

Why should I use this  #EUinterest hashtag? 

We can’t possibly read everything. We need readers to recommend the pieces everyone should read, listen to  – or watch. This sort of crowdsourcing can really improve the quality of such a project. So feel free and contribute (and yes – you will receive a mention in the newsletter!)

Are you featuring all #EUinterest recommendations?

No, we still make editorial choices.

Why is it called ‘the european interest’?

Well, that may be a separate blog post. Let’s explain it with a few questions: What’s in Europe’s interest? What’s NOT in Europe’s interest? Is there a European interest? Why European? Is it interesting? Well, then it must be worth reading… OK, that’s enough of ‘creative writing! Not sure that was helpful, maybe we can agree on the fact that it simply sounds good?

Why is it pink?

Why not? Better than having another boring blue/yellow/grey thingy in your inbox!

What day of the week can I expect to receive #EUinterest?

This is up for discussion. I thought close to the weekend as this is the time of the week we can actually read longer pieces.  But I am open to suggestions.

Will it always be linked to the news cycle?

No, the idea is to  also feature content that may be interesting but not pegged to any debate in the media. There will also be special issues that only focus on one topic – featuring content from the last 10 years (if necessary…)

What’s the business model?

Hmm, next questions please… ;)

Is that the finished product?

No, it is work in progress. The format, length and topics  of the newsletter may change frequently.

Are there any podcasts/youtube channels about EU affairs?

Well, not as many as you’d expect. If you find a good one please share it via #EUinterest on twitter (or via email/comment). Or why not start a podcast yourself?

How do you find content?

I still use RSS quite a lot, I read various newsletters, listen to a number of podcasts and follow loads of debates on twitter and reddit.

Were can I sign up?


Great, how can I help?

Share your favourite discoveries via #EUinterest on twitter. If you want to help curate the newsletter –  please email me. If you have an idea for another (better) EU related newsletter – also email me! ;)

Any other questions?

Fell free and use the comments below…

Overheard in Brussels VIII: Knowledge is overrated

This blog post is part of  “Overheard in Brussels“.


Overheard in Brussels VII: Let’s Stick Together

What’s keeping us together in Europe?

a) the fear of an expensive divorce?
b) the status quo?
c) the lack of imagination to see any alternative? (via @MarianCramers)
d) the lack of political will to implement alternative ideas? (via @piavonhier)

– Summary of a debate at CEPS Ideas Lab in Brussels

This blog post is part of  “Overheard in Brussels“.

V for Varoufakis

This week the Eurobubble is getting to know the humour of Jan Böhmermann (@janboehm on twitter). Over one million clicks on youtube for a video about a Finance minister; I suppose this makes it one of the few viral videos about European issues – Chapeau, Jan Böhmermann!

Overheard in Brussels VI: Putin and the EU

Strength in politics  is measured by your ability to create problems. Unpredictability is Putin’s big strength  – the EU on the other hand is the embodiment of predictability.

Foreign policy analyst (event in Brussels, Chatham House rule)

This blog post is part of  “Overheard in Brussels“.

Overheard in Brussels V: Pro-EU campaigning in the UK

All pro-EU organisations in the UK are old, ineffective and have no significant grassroot support – or to put it differently: nothing comparable to UKIP exists on the pro-EU side. Plus, nobody wants to spend any “career capital” in pro-EU campaigning.

–  British writer/commentator on EU issues (at an event in Brussels, Chatham House rule)

This blog post is part of  “Overheard in Brussels“.

Overheard in Brussels IV: The EurActiv mystery

Why is it that EurActiv never breaks a big EU story? They’ve been around for ages so why does nobody outside Brussels takes any notice of them? I mean, you never read in the FT, NYT or in the Guadian  something like ‘as reported by EurActiv’ or ‘revealed by EurActiv’ – even if they actually did break the story. They have some good journalists there. So is it a problem of the name? Or because it is a online portal? Or because it is yellow?  I don’t know.

– Freelance journalist

This blog post is part of my “Overheard in Brussels“ series.

Overheard in Brussels III: Writing for The Economist

What’s it like to write for The Economist? Who is your audience? And what do people in Brussels expect you to know?

“There is so much noise and fog in Brussels, it is hard to identify the story that matters outside the bubble. As a journalist in Brussels I have to pretend that I know a lot about many things. I usually write for the tired Indian businessman who does not know much about EU politics and reads the Economist with a glass of whiskey.”

Tom Nuttall – Charlemagne columnist at The Economist (Cambre breakfast event: #Brusselscalling, 28/1/2015 )

This blog post is part of “Overheard in Brussels“.

Overheard in Brussels II: “I was wrong about Spitzenkandidaten…”

“To be honest, I was wrong about the Spitzenkandidaten process. It is an important first step to give the EU a face – and it gives the public a buy-in to EU politics.”

– Former UK cabinet minister (at an event in Brussels, Chatham House rule)

This blog post is part of “Overheard in Brussels“.

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