First things first: The European Parliament elections are not – and I repeat – NOT like national elections. So what does that mean for journalists? Well, first of all familiarise yourself with the EU decision making process – no, really I mean it, just click here for the infographic! Too superficial? This report abut the European Parliament’s procedures may also be helpful.
In a nutshell: The EP is not like a national parliament, it is not about clear majorities and there will be no new government. The EP always works with the aim of finding a cross party consensus – so the most interesting work is done in committees. Yes, there are a couple of “Spitzenkandidaten” who hope to become EC President later this year. The problem is that we don’t yet know how this will play out. It is pretty much an experiment. But you should use this process as a journalistic opportunity – these candidates are supposed to present ideas for the next Commission and it would not be a surprise if some of them were to end up in one of the top jobs after the election. As a journalist you can use this process to find out what will be on the agenda in the coming years. You see, the role of journalists is to dig deeper. Don’t just criticise the (admittedly flawed) selection process – also give them a hard time defending their policy ideas (if they have any!)
Anyway, here are a few tips how to report issues in the run-up to the European Parliament elections 2014 (this could also be useful for local/regional journalists):
- A new kind of “policy journalism”. Ask EC candidates (“Spitzenkandidaten”) for concrete policy ideas, then check with parties and (prospective) MEPs what they think about it. This would actually reflect the EU policy making process. (I am sure your readers will appreciate this new format as it shows that your outlet knows what you are talking about!)
- Impact? The question about “impact on country X” should be treated carefully. It is not a national election (I might have mentioned it before…) so we actually talk about impact across Europe. But again, it is all about individual policies – so if you really need to write a piece about “your country” think about a concrete directive or EU policy – and do some proper policy journalism. Please note that neither the Parliament or the Commission can change the treaties – focus on concrete ideas and check whether the EU has the competence to actually do something about your issue.
- Change of existing EU law? Look for controversial directives and ask whether EC candidates or prospective MEPs would like to change them in the next term. [yes it is possible for the EP to propose things along those lines: 2010 framework agreement & a Commission that is open to the idea]
- Read the party manifestos. Yes, good old party manifestos or campaign posters/leaflets/slogans are a great source of stories. Especially the question whether policy proposals are a matter for the European Parliament. Sometimes manifestos don’t seem to be fact-checked by a lawyer and contain ideas that can only be implemented with a new EU treaty. Another easy mistake are proposals that can only be implemented on the national level – without any EU involvement.
- What to ask prospective MEPs. Ask them which committee they want to sit in, whether they see themselves as a rapporteur for certain issues etc. Try and find out what they want to achieve in the European Parliament. It is about issues: environment, digital rights, transport, agriculture, fisheries – you might want to read about the role of the EU in those policy fields. Another idea: check their personal links to companies and how they dealt with lobbyists (industry and NGOs) in previous jobs. Ask them what sort of directives they would welcome and what issues they want to see on the agenda.
- The most important question. Does this issue fall under EU competence? What would be the role of the European Parliament in the process?
- No EU jargon. Don’t be satisfied with phrases such as ‘completing the single market’, ‘a more competitive Europe’, ‘jobs are important’, ‘a stable Euro’ or ‘completing the digital single market’, ask what it means in concrete policy terms. Does the EU really have instruments to address unemployment (or is it a national competence?) What sort of directives would boost competitiveness? Name one concrete regulation that is considered “red tape”. What is the role of the EP in the governance of the euro (or is this a matter for other institutions)?
- How the European Parliament really works. The EP is different from national parliaments. There are usually big majorities at the end but the process is the interesting bit. So as a journalist you should familiarise yourself with the nature of political groups in the Parliament and how a committee works. This will help you to understand how the job of an MEP looks like – and what questions you should ask them in the run-up to the election.
- Scrutinizing MEPs Votewatch is one of those great resources every journalist should worship. Here you can find amazing data about the voting behaviour of certain MEPs. So before you arrange an interview with an MEP have a look at the individual voting records.
- Lobbyists. The European Parliament is the target of quite a few lobbyists. Dig a bit deeper and you will find great stories about the influence of big business or NGOs. Also keep an eye on the “revolving door” and what sort of part-time jobs MEPs pursue!
- What to ask the Eurosceptics. Try and find out what they want to achieve - focus on the policy level and avoid cliches about ‘red tape’ and the Brussels ‘superstate” Another question could be: why do you want to be an MEP? Since you want to leave the EU wouldn’t it make more sense to run for your national parliament? Confront them with their manifesto and ask whether they can really achieve it by being in the EP. Are they interested in policy work – or in youtube hits or TV appearances?
- Issues. Issues. Issues. Talk about issues - really this is what EU politics is all about. The European Parliament could kill TTIP – did you know this? In fact it can kill any trade agreement if there is political will. (Remember ACTA?) Or think of REACH or the service directive? In both cases the EP hugely changed the original proposal.
- Agenda Setting. Since the adoption of the 2010 inter institutional framework agreement the EP can submit legislative proposals to the Commission – if the Commission does not want to take it up it needs to explain in great length the reasons for its decision. Did you know this? Why have I never read anything in the press about the success rate or the problems connected to it?
- Questions for all Spitzenkandidaten. Tell me three concrete legislative proposals your Commission would propose in the next term? (don’t be satisfied with speech bubbles such as ‘competitiveness’ or ‘sustainable’ or ‘stable euro’) Why do we talk about the future of the EU in such vague terms anyway? Voters have a right to know what exactly is in the pipeline…
This is an official #ep2014 campaign poster.
If you think #ep2014 campaigns should focus on EU issues and not advertise national politicians you may want to sign Kosmopolito’s #ep2014 pledge.
Here is a simple pledge for everyone who is running for the European Parliament in 2014.
I hereby pledge that…
1. I will only campaign on EU issues.
2. I will always explain why a problem needs to be solved at EU level and how it can be done.
3. I will explain the role of the European Parliament in the institutional context of the EU.
4. I will reply honestly to citizens about the possibilities and limitations of being an MEP.
I know it’s an old debate – but since I have returned to Brussels I keep stumbling into conversations that end up in arguing about what it means to be “pro EU”. Well, I happen to think that being labelled “pro-EU”, “europhile” or “eurosceptic” is rather silly. Here is why:
- I think MEPs did a good job amending the #connectedcontinent directive last week by specifying the questionable “specialized services” – but I am not sure I can support the ITRE Committee and the Commission in this process. So just because I think the policy outcome is positive I am considered a “europhile”?
- I don’t think Angela Merkel’s policy on ‘saving the euro’ has been very clever but I also realise the treaty limitations in these areas and the difficult political environment she had to operate in. I can distinguish between the “troika” mechanism, the role of the European Commission and German and Greek politics. So I may oppose the troika, understand the risks of eurobonds but think the fiscal compact could be counterproductive, at the same time I may think it is a good idea to impose stricter financial regulations on banks. Does that make me automatically a “anti-EU” for being anti-austerity or a “europhile” for supporting more regulation in a certain policy areas?
- I think the German car industry had an unhealthy influence on the German position in the Council when it decided on CO2 emissions. So would that make me “anti-German”? Or “anti-EU” because I think the EU’s climate policy is a failure?
- I believe the EU – and especially Catherine Ashton – did a good job during the Iran negotiations. But I know that member states still rule in foreign policy and that it is a policy field that often relies on external factors beyond our control. So yes, EU foreign policy can be effective over time but it lacks instruments to deliver short terms success stories. Does that make me a “europhile” for believing that member states can punch above their weight by using the EU?
- I don’t know what to think about TTIP. It sounds like a good idea but I also think people are overselling it and there is a real danger that consumer standards are being watered down. The process is not transparent so I criticize it – does it make me a “eurosceptic” or “anti- American”?
- Some EU projects are useful but some projects are clearly not thought through. At the same time EU institutions often lack the appropriate control mechanisms – and member states don’t want to invest in additional personnel. Am I now a “eurosceptic” for suggesting that the EU is not working because of the failure of a certain project?
- The Dublin 2 regulation is not working and is creating a “Fortress Europe”, tragedies happening in the Mediterranean on a daily basis. Of course we should change it – but member states are happy the way it is. Nobody wants poor refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa or Syria and nobody wants to spend more money on issues like that. Plus, the immigration “debate” in most member states ruined the possibility of a policy discourse. So, is critizising the Dublin 2 regulation “eurosceptic” for suggesting that “Europe” is partly responsible for the tragedies in the Mediterranean?
- Generally I think that a lot lot of problems are transnational and can only be dealt with by working on the EU level – from climate change to tax evasion and a range of cross border linkages. I think it should be easier (and cheaper) to travel by train trough Europe or vote in national elections where I pay my taxes. I think it should be easier to access health care and pension systems in countries I live in. I like to defend fundamental rights across Europe – of course I realise that we lack instruments to ‘punish’ Hungary or Italy. I naively believe that countries should not violate the fundamental rights of citizens it other EU countries (Hello GCHQ!). This sounds like common sense but it also make me a “europhile” for suggesting that the EU should play a greater role in these sort of issues.
- Many EU institutions are relatively transparent and easy to approach – except the Council. This is a problem – but it cannot be changed without the consent of the member states that don’t have an interest in changing it. Am I now a “eurosceptic” because I criticise a EU institution?
This list could go on. The question remains the same: What am I? A europhile or a europsceptic? Well, I think it is too easy to focus on these two labels – the reality is more complex. In fact we should stop using both labels! The problem is that we perceive the EU as some sort of non-political entity unable to change. But the opposite is true. As any national political system there are different political forces at play. On the EU level we are simply bad in identifying the actor that can be made responsible for a certain policy choice. (the irony here is that Brussels based lobbyists have a much better grasp of what is going on – so is it really that complex to find out? Questions about the quality of EU journalism spring to mind… )
Another problem is linked to competences – do we really know what EU competences are – or do we just believe what we hear from journalists or local politicians? We seem to mix up national and EU competences – as well the difference between a decision on the EU level, the involvement of national actors and the implementation on the national or regional level. It is Brussels, it’s all the same, isn’t it?
Just compare it with talking about national politics – criticising your government does not mean you want to overthrow the government. You simply want another government. In a federal state it is pretty normal to argue about the mechanisms how to distribute money between entities – but again, that doesn’t mean you want to abolish the system. If you don’t like a law you can protest against it and vote a different party next time – it doesn’t mean you want to get rid of the political system.
The same should happen on the EU level – citizens should be able to evaluate EU policy outcomes and vote in national and European elections accordingly. (I know this is a bit more complex – but in principle this is how it *should* be ) – and this is also how EU reform should look like. (link slightly unrelated)
The EU needs debates about different policy options. Basically the EU is here to stay – so if we want good policy outcomes we should argue about issues, proposals and counter-proposals.
PS: Yes, I know, the line on ” the EU is here to stay” will put me firmly in the “europhile” camp…
After blogging about David Cameron’s “EU reform ideas” (and some ideas that would *really* make a difference) I am getting annoyed by this renegotiation debate: Every Sunday the British elite presents another “EU reform” idea but they don’t seem to notice that a) it is not a priority for the British citizens b) it is not a priority for the rest of the EU c) most of it is impossible or to vague to achieve d) most of it shows a profound lack of understanding how the EU works and d) the government fails to see that some things could be achieved by changing procedures how the UK government/parliament works. Anyway, this whole story provided me with the opportunity to develop a series of ‘political analysis in 140 characters’ tweets:
Why does Cameron want EU reform?
So, what is the problem?
But what does Cameron really want?
So, his ideas are vague and resemble a Daily Mail story about the EU, I’d rather keep the status quo:
Well, it finally happened: Today, Brexit has become a real possibility – maybe not in the next couple of years but possibly in the long term. Under a Labour government and in the unlikely event of a new EU treaty Ed Miliband promised an in/out referendum in the UK – if “new powers are transferred to the EU”. There are few problems with this:
1) I don’t think any Labour government can ever win an in/out referendum in the UK. It will be impossible for Labour to win against the Tories in opposition and the anti-EU media in the UK.
2) One can only hope that Miliband will never have to implement his “in/out referendum policy”. It’s a recipe for disaster. What does it mean to ‘transfer new powers to the EU’? Even if it’s a treaty for the eurozone only, public opinion in the UK will perceive it as another “broken promise” if he decides not to go for the referendum.
3) Ed Miliband’s referendum lock is a new level of how to blackmail the rest of the EU. Under a Labour government any new EU treaty negotiation will always be linked to “Brexit” – not the best starting point for any negotiation over a new EU treaty.
4) It is one thing to promise a referendum over a new EU treaty. Indeed, this can be perceived as a good thing (although I disagree with the idea of having referendums on these things) but linking an in/out referendum to a new treaty that transfers ‘new powers’ is utter bollocks. There are bad treaties but the in/out question will always overshadow specific treaty issues. This is neither democratic nor strategically clever. Basically you blackmail your own population: “Accept this treaty or we leave the EU” – hardly a democratic approach! (or are we talking about 2 referendums in the case of a new treaty?)
Of course this policy can pay off in the short term (= until the next general election that is) but is it a viable strategy? Yes, it keeps Britain in the EU as long as there is no new EU treaty (and chances of it happening are minimal, except for a eurozone treaty). Miliband may manage to keep the ‘Europe question’ off the agenda in the years ahead (which is a good thing!) The “EU question” is also not one of the main concerns of the British public so everything that makes Europe a boring topic is a positive development. Plus the British and international media seem to buy the line that “Miliband rejects EU referendum in 2017″. Fair enough, but what will happen in the unlikely event of a new treaty? If this becomes part of the British approach to the EU it is likely that we will never see another EU-wide treaty again. Expect more agreements that legally resemble Schengen, the Euro and the Fiscal compact. It is clear that Miliband does not want to have a in/out referendum – but why did he not say it like this? Opposing an in/out referendum and defending EU membership – this would have been a clear policy. (And, remember: there is still the ‘normal’ referendum lock on power transfers/new treaties that has been passed by the present government a few years ago)
So, what is the lesson here? Politicians always think they can ‘match’ a policy with something that sounds similar to the policy of their main rival . But this race to the bottom never works. You can’t beat the original. On the EU, the Conservatives can’t beat UKIP and Labour can’t beat the Conservatives.
[PS: I thought I'd never say this but I think I prefer the 'in/out referendum policy' of the Tories. Hmm...]
In the UK there is too much talk about ill-defined “EU reform” that will not make any difference. Who needs a complex new “red card” procedure when you a) never exhausted the existing “yellow card procedure” and b) could just copy the Danish approach to control your ministers in the Council? Why do we need to talk about “benefit tourism” if it does not even exist? How can we cut down all this red tape without knowing what laws you are actually talking about? Do we really need treaty change just because you want your doctors and nurses to have less rights? Here are a few ideas that would *really* make a difference in how we talk about the EU:
- EU member states: Stop blaming the EU for your own ideas. Ministers in the Council often suggest stuff but once they are back in their countries they seem surprised that anyone took them seriously. And one more thing: if it is an idea that was previously rejected in your country – well, you know, maybe it is a bad idea?
- European Commission: Start blaming others by putting colourful banners on the front page of all Commission proposals that reveal the origin of the proposal: “This regulation was requested by a joint initiative of the British and German governments” / “This is follow-up from the Environment Council” / “This Commission directive is the result of an intense lobbying campaign by French energy companies” / “This Commission directive was inspired by the Tobacco industry”. Call it a new “transparency initiative” – trust me, it would fundamentally transform the EU discourse.
- European Commission: Hire a couple of journalists and create a “Bullshit Detection Unit (BTU)”: Each Commission proposal needs to pass the BTU test. This will reduce the amount of formulations that could be misinterpreted by other journalists.
- European Parliament: Stop talking about things you can’t change. Nobody needs your own initiative reports. They only get picked up by the tabloids as proof for some new “EU law”. Similar point about the upcoming European Parliament elections – focus on policies that you can actually influence and be frank about things you will not be able to change under the current treaties.
- Journalists: Just stop following this guide. It was not supposed to be a manual.
- Everybody: Every time you criticise the EU for being not bold enough/ too soft/not speaking with one voice/ too business friendly / not business friendly enough – try and suggest an actual policy. But first try and think for one moment whether it is an EU competence and if you could get all 28 countries to agree on it.
…to be continued…
“Lessons in ruthlessness”, to be precise. I am sure you will enjoy this:
Here are more quotes by Frank”The Whip”Underwood.