Category: journalism

#ep2014 journalism: How to report the European Parliament elections

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…

Debating EU politics beyond the ‘Eurosceptic’ – ‘Europhile’ divide

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…

Is EU criminal law a threat to British justice?

John R Spencer is a Professor of Law at Cambridge University. In this video (which even includes a reference to Borgen!) he basically destroys UKIP’s take on EU criminal law/justice. You may remember this debate about “corpus juris” which is quite popular in eurosceptic circles  -  see for example this article by Nigel Farage in the Independent. Suffice to say: it is factually incorrect but it builds upon a well established body of euromyhts.  Cherished by many eurosceptics in the UK and frequently repeated in the British media, or in John Spencer’s words: “Nonsense about the EU does not cease to be nonsense because it is written by an established politician or printed in a reputable newspaper.”

h/t: Hugh Barton-Smith 

Reporting Europe Prize 2014

Reporting Europe Prize!

Paul Dacre received EU farm subsidies

That’s a nice story: Paul Dacre, the infamous editor of the Daily Mail, received  generous EU subsidies for his estate in Scotland. (hat tip: Zelo Street)

For those of you who don’t know Paul Dacre: Some have described him as ‘the man who hates liberal Britain‘ and called his newspaper, the Daily Mail,  the ‘the newspaper that rules Britain’. One of his side projects is to run/invent anti-EU stories. Over the years a large number of euromyths and fabricated anti-EU stories originated in the Daily Mail. Unfortunately the Daily Mail is the most read newspaper in the UK and played an important role in creating the toxic, uninformed eurosceptic discourse in the UK. Especially the campaign-style journalism of the Daily Mail which is based on myths, half-truths and the absence of facts is an example what’s wrong in British journalism. (also interesting in this context: Alastair Campbell’s submission to the Leveson enquiry)

The end of Presseurop

presseuropIt is a sad week for the “European Public Sphere”. If this concept ever existed, Presseurop was probably a rare example of how it could look like. But earlier this week we learned about the end of presseurop due to a lack of funding. Here is the official announcement. Presseurop is actually quite a remarkable service that translates opinion pieces from newspapers across Europe (which also makes it a rather expensive service to run). It is truly multilingual – and also has quite a sophisticated comment section. If you don’t know presseurop check it out before it disappears.

But let’s get to the core of the problem of the whole service: it is an EU funded project. Now it would be easy to say that the EU should not fund websites or media projects. But it is more complex than that: It basically opens the debate about public funding for media services – think of the BBC or ARD/ZDF that also rely on public funding (often based on a fee license). Now I don’t want to compare the BBC to  Presseurop. The real question should always be whether a media service has editorial independence. I always found Presseurop balanced and – especially in the heat of the eurocrisis – a reliable source of opinions that reflected the mood across Eurozone. The problem is that as soon as you get EU funding (and that is even more so for media projects) people seem to think that you are a mouthpiece for the institution that funds you. In the case of Presseurop that is not the case,  the case of EuroparlTV shows a different picture (I know both projects rely on different funding models and follow different communication logics  – but the external result is similar: publicly available media services funded by the EU).

Two newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch – The Times and the Wall Street Journal - attacked the Commission’s funding stream for projects such as Presseurop (and some would argue that they were instrumental in bringing down the call for proposals!). The European Commission made a tactical mistake here. By publishing a call for proposals that is basically tailor-made for Presseurop – but at the same time using language to suggest that all sorts of media could be supported – it really opened itself to criticism. At the same time, we should not forget that Murdoch’s papers also routinely attack the BBC – for the same reason: public media funding. I happen to think that public broadcasters are a good thing and it may be time to think whether we need a similar structure on the European level.

The case can be made that Presseurop should be a public good – not hidden behind a paywall or run by a private company – as it provides a service that allows us to get a European perspective on political issues (something that private sector does not seem to be able to deliver). And since Presseurop merely translates articles (there is almost no original writing!) we can argue that the material is essential reading  for an  informed vote at the European Parliament election.

Now you can sign a petition here calling on the EU Commission to renew its funding. But is it really the right approach? Would it not just repeat the mistake to channel EU funding into EU media projects?

So what about private funding?

Newspapers and media organisations across Europe should have an interest in services like Presseurop. It acts as a multiplier and reaches new audiences in different countries. (and to be fair: Presseurop never reached its full potential) Obviously newspapers struggle financially and it is also hard to argue that the original article is behind a paywall or in a paid print copy – and the translation is freely available. But still, there is a case to be made to involve a range of newspapers and other media organisations – and find new funding models in cooperation with them.

Another idea is the paywall/subscription model. Obviously different media outlets have different experiences with these models. The question is also whether there is a large enough customer base that is willing to pay for such a service. Nevertheless, it should not be ruled out – if done cleverly I am sure readers are willing to support the service.

And what about the big European foundations that love investing in European projects (yes I am looking at you – NEF, Bosch, Gulbelkian, Compagnia, Körber, KBS, OSF, Volkswagen, Erste etc.) To fund essay competitions, think tank pamphlets, publications, conferences, scholarships and exchange programmes is a nice and cosy way to spend money – but why not invest in a big project that may actually reach beyond the elites?

How to become a British eurosceptic

1. Don’t pretend to be sceptic in the strict sense of the word. You hate the EU, hence your are a sceptic. Don’t question this logic. The word “sceptic” sounds good because it shows that you can think things through.

2. Don’t waste your time to check the facts, they often ruin the argument. Nobody ever asks follow-up questions. The EU is boring – use it to your advantage. And there is no need to know anything about the EU.

3. Demand an EU referendum at every possible moment – because you know that this will annoy the establishment, your party leader, prime minster, twitter followers, etc. If you are a politician you know this will easily translate into press coverage. You don’t really need to know why you want a referendum (Basically you want one because you know this is the only possibility to get Britain out of the EU). It is enough to demand one – after all it is democratic.

3. The Daily Mail has excellent coverage of EU affairs – everything you need to know can be found in this quality newspaper.  If you are a hardcore eurosceptic you may also find pleasing articles in the Daily Express. Tabloids can be used to back up your “common sense” approach to politics – if it is in a popular paper it must be common sense! But also other British media outlets can be used. And remember: If you can’t find a certain article just give them a call and tell them an outrageous story – it might appear in the paper in a few days. Don’t forget: the media is your friend.

4. Useful phrase: “I love Europe – but I hate the EU”

5. Complain about “red tape”. Don’t bother checking what sort of “red tape” you are talking about or why it actually exists. Any regulation is bad. Use the word “regulation” instead of “rule”. And  “Brussels imposed regulations” are always a bad thing.

6. It is essential that you have a contempt for compromise.

7. Immigration is a problem and that is the truth and nothing but the truth.

8. You may want to check with your own political party what is acceptable behaviour. UKIP seems to have a liberal approach to it – you can get away with all sorts of statements.  If you are a Conservative or a Labour member you may want to hide your anti-EU feelings in  some incoherent claims about the need to have a referendum – or some mysterious new membership deal. Say that Britain needs a “new deal” without specifying why the current deal is bad – and what needs to be included in the “new deal”. Don’t worry, nobody will ask this question.

9. If you are not a politician you can still become a eurosceptic comment troll. All major newspapers have a place for reader comments. Use it! Don’t make the mistake to actually read the article. Prepare a selection of eurosceptic phrases and post your comment below any article. (Be creative: use the war and Churchill, evil Germans, something about the common market in 1970, mention undemocratic judges, red tape and the Brussels super-state, or the Strassbourg human rights courts. The possibilities are endless)

10. You can broaden your political appeal by being anti-climate change, anti-gay, pro-life, anti-politics, anti-trade union, anti- whatever. Takes a bit of practice though.

11. Pretend to be a libertarian. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

12. Complain about how the EU is holding Britain back. Don’t make the beginner’s mistake to look at other countries in Europe and how they are doing – again, this may ruin the argument. If under pressure you can always refer to Greece to make the case that Europe is not working.

13. You are the savior of the “City”. You are protecting Britain’s financial interests. There was no financial crisis. Repeat it a few times. You will be surprised how easy it is to convince people that the EU is more evil than – let’s say – bankers and politicians…

14. Numbers are important in the public discourse – but you have to be consistent. Come up with a few easy numbers: % of laws dictated by Brussels – and something that summarises the costs, preferably by day. Fellow eurosceptics need to be able to refer to your number so make sure it is easy to remember. Or check your favorite newspaper/think tank, they may have done the research for you  – just don’t look into the methodology. This often ruins the argument.

15. 19th century sovereignty is your religion. Shared sovereignty does not exist. But remember: only the EU threatens Britain’s sovereignty.

16. You have to adapt your language. “European super state” or “Brussels” instead of EU, try to use “unelected bureaucrats/judges” as often as possible. A few basic arguments include: The British pound is good, the Euro is bad. The EU cannot be reformed. Brussels is a corrupt bureaucratic gravy train. Use those “arguments” as often as possible.

17. Say that “the people” demand a referendum. Never mind that the biggest concern of “the people” is the economy and jobs.

18. You need to develop a superiority complex. You are British so you understand the world just a bit better than other Europeans. Most EU rules are unnecessary/bad so without those EU rules everything would be better. Referring to the “good old times” is also important. It’s the perception, stupid!

19. You need to learn the skill to use the phrase “It is Europe’s fault”: The economy, bad-tasting sausages, car accidents, trains – the topic does not really matter. People just need to remember that everything is Europe’s fault.

20. The fear is with you. Fear of immigrants, fear of foreigners, fear of loosing sovereignty, fear of Europe, fear of the coming super-state.

Freedom of the press

Reporting Europe Prize 2013

The Reporting Europe Prize is back and nominations are open! Please nominate the best pieces of EU reporting/journalism via the official website: UACES is looking for an outstanding blogpost, a great newspaper article, or a particularly good radio or TV piece.  New forms of journalism are also highly valued. It is the only independent journalism prize that is exclusively dedicated to journalism about the European Union.






FAQs (that are not covered on the official website):

Why only in English?

It is simply an issue of resources. UACES is financially and organizationally not in a position to do pan-European selection process. If you are a sponsor or an organisation that would like to change this get in touch and we see what can be done.

Why is the award ceremony in London?

UACES is based in London. Although it is a European association its roots are in British academia which explains the UK focus of its work.

Does UACES have a political agenda regarding the EU?

No – it is academic membership association providing services to academics that work in the field of European Studies.

Disclaimer: Yours truly is a member of the UACES committee and  will serve on the jury this year.

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