Category: journalism (page 1 of 2)


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.

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…

Deutschen-Minister Schäuble trifft Franzosen-Minister Sapin

Hört sich die Überschrift irgendwie komisch an? Irgendwie abfällig und dann auch noch stilistisch und grammatikalisch falsch? Ja, das finde ich auch! Und normalerweise würde das ja auch kein Mensch sagen. Man würde doch immer vom “Finanzminister Schäuble” oder dem “französischen Finanzminister Sapin” sprechen.

Aber wenn es um Griechenland geht, gibt es wohl andere journalistische Regeln. Die Bild und die Kronenzeitung machen mit und auch  beim Focus (der ‘Vorstufe zum Journalismus’ – Die Anstalt) wird sich gerne über die “Griechen-Minister” lustig gemacht.  Selbst die Öffentlich-Rechtlichen machen beim Griechen-bashing mit.  Auf heute Seite des ZDF wird jetzt nun auch abfällig vom “Griechen-Minister” geschrieben (obwohl in der URL noch vom ‘griechischen Finanzminister’ die Rede ist).

Ja, das sind stilistische Kleinigkeiten –  aber Kleinvieh macht eben auch Mist. Wenn man selbst  bei Beschreibungen von Ministern spüren kann, dass man “diese Griechen” nicht ernst nehmen sollte oder nicht trauen kann, stimmt doch etwas nicht mit unserem politischen Diskurs über Griechenland!

(Interessanterweise gibt es auch kaum andere Beispiele, bei der eine ähnliche abwertende Konstruktion für die Beschreibung von Ministern gewählt wird –  mit Ausnahme der Bildzeitung, die auch gerne mal über “Polen-Minister” berichtet…)

Wie man nüchtern und informativ über die Situation in Griechenland schreibt

Wenn es um Griechenland geht, dreht der deutsche (und internationale) Journalismus ja gerne durch. Robert Misik hat das sehr schön am Beispiel einer Geschichte im Spiegel aufgezeigt. Das Problem ist ja nicht neu. Im Prinzip haben die Medien die sogenannte “Eurokrise” (die ja eigentlich eine Vielzahl von Krisen vereint: da gibt es eine Bankenkrise, eine Finanzkrise, eine Schuldenkrise und natürlich eine politische Krise usw. ) von Anfang an oft (absichtlich?) missverstanden. Dabei wurde ein Klima in der Öffentlichkeit geschaffen, in dem es nicht nur immer schwieriger wurde zu verstehen, um was es eigentlich gerade geht; es wurde auch immer schwieriger verschiedene Lösungsvorschläge nüchtern zu diskutieren. Und das betrifft nicht nur die Diskussion über einen Schuldenschnitt für Griechenland, die Einführung von Eurobonds, oder ‘quantitative easing’ – auch andere Ideen wie zum Beispiel die Europäische Arbeitslosenversicherung oder wie genau das Bankenwesen reformiert werde müsste, wurden von den Medien sehr oft sehr oberflächlich diskutiert.

Aber es gibt auch gute Beispiele für Journalismus in Zeiten der Eurokrise.  Sebastian Dullien hat in der Zeit einen schönen Artikel geschrieben, der nüchtern aufzeigt was in Griechenland schief gelaufen ist und was nun zu tun ist . Vor allem die informative Rückblende zeigt, wie man in einem relativ kurzen Artikel auch den Kontext liefern kann, der so oft in der Berichterstattung fehlt. Das scheint mir nämlich eines der großen Problem des politischen Journalismus (in Deutschland) zu sein: Fehlender Kontext und – ja man muss das so sagen – eine Überschätzung des vorhandenen politischen Wissens der Leser. Das mag sich jetzt arrogant anhören aber selbst  ich – als Politikwissenschaftler – kann nicht immer sofort jede Nachricht in einen politischen Prozess einordnen – vor allem wenn es sich um Dinge und Themen handelt, die ich nicht regelmäßig verfolge.

Es ist doch so: Man wird ja regelrecht bombardiert von Nachrichten und vergisst die Hälfte relativ schnell wieder – die Aufgabe von Journalisten sollte es also auch sein, öfters mal Überblicke zu schreiben und den Hintergrund eine Entscheidung deutlich zu machen. Das kann in Form von ‘timelines’ sein, es kann eine Infografik sein oder eine faktenbasierte Beschreibung der politischen Entscheidungswege. (ja, das das ist als Journalismus getarnte politische Bildung)

Wenn es zum Beispiel um eine Gesetzesinitiative der EU geht, sollte es zum Standard gehören, eine kurze Beschreibung des politischen Prozesses zu liefern und genau aufzuzeigen an welcher Stelle sich die Gesetzesinitiative im Moment befindet. Kurze Erklärstücke wie zum Beispiel: Wie entsteht ein Gesetz in Deutschland/in der EU? Wie funktioniert die Troika – und warum gibt es sie? Was macht die EU Kommission? Wie funktioniert der Bundestag? Was macht ein MEP?  Wie funktioniert so ein EU Gipfel? etc. sollten eigentlich täglich in der politischen Berichterstattung vorkommen – und vor allem für Onlinemedien sollte das doch  auch kein allzu großes Problem darstellen.  Solche Texte sind doch auch einfach zu produzieren – und man kann sie relativ oft wiederbenutzen. Die Frage ist doch, warum solche einfachen Tools  im deutschen Journalismus kaum benutzt werden.

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“.

Calling for an ‘end to austerity’ does not work in German. Here is why.

One of the recurrent problems of the eurozone crisis is a discursive misunderstanding between Germany and the rest of Europe.  But it is not only a political or ideological issue, it is also about language and what sort of meanings we attach to certain words and phrases.  The most striking example is the word ‘austerity’. In German it is usually translated as “Sparpolitik” (to save + policy). Of course it is possible to say “Austeritätspolitik” but this  is really an academic concept, not a word used by the general public.  The ‘man in the street’ and most German media usually use words like ‘sparen’ (to save) or “Sparpolitik”  to describe ‘austerity’.  But everything connected to “sparen” has a very positive connotation in German – and with everything I mean everything (examples include”Sparbuch”, “sparsam”, “Bausparvertrag”, “sparsamer Motor”, “sparsamer Rohstoffverbrauch”, “Energiesparlampe”, “Sparschwein” … )  Basically, it is almost not possible to think of a word, a sentence or phrase that would create a negative context for “sparen” – with the exception of “kaputtsparen” maybe.  Compare this with the word “austere” which has an ‘absolutely negative, gloomy connotation’, as @SubsidiarityMan on twitter pointed out.

However, this leads to the problem that ”Sparpolitik” is considered to be something positive (regardless of what it means in policy terms). In German it just sounds like a reasonable thing to do. This effect is probably even stronger among people that don’t know much about economics (so basically almost everyone).  Now, calling for “end to austerity” would mean to end something very positive and reasonable. So calls for an “Ende der Sparpolitik/Sparkurs” simply don’t work in the public discourse.  Changing the German approach to the eurozone thus requires to change the discourse within Germany: either find an alternative word or phrase for “Sparpolitik” that invokes a different set of meanings – or focus on more specific policy projects that replace the current focus on ‘austerity’.

A note on German politics

On the political level ‘austerity’ is not only connected to Greece or the eurozone – above all it is a domestic issue in Germany.  Merkel and her CDU are obsessed with “balanced budgets”  and this idea of “zero new debt”. If Merkel said that austerity in Greece was wrong she would automatically admit that domestic economic policy had also been wrong.  And this is usually not how politicians operate. Instead of admitting mistakes they focus on other topics or change some of the fineprint without making a big fuss about it. And even though Merkel managed to do several big u-turns over the years it is unlikely that she will change her approach on this issue. So, expecting that the German political elite is admitting that everything  they did over the years – both in a domestic and European context –  had been wrong, is a rather naive hope.

Update 6/2/2014:  This blog post seemed to have inspired France 24.

Politico EU – Weckruf aus Washington?

Die Übernahme der European Voice zeigt: Politico und Springer haben Großes vor. Der Europajournalismus wird sich verändern. Doch Brüssel ist nicht Washington. Unterliegt Politico Europe am Ende einem Denkfehler?  Weiterlesen auf carta.

The Hearings: Flawed politics or a useful democratic exercise?

top3[A blog post that will ultimately fail to answer the brainy question in the title… because the hearings are both, flawed and useful]

The hearings are over, we (almost) have a new European Commission. The Slovenian problem will surely be solved more quickly than most people expect (OK, I wrote the post before the nomination of Violeta Bulc..).  In case you missed #ephearings20014 check our project blog here.

Anyway, after having followed far too many of those hearings, I started wondering what we should change next time. [The biggest flaw is obviously the rule ‘each member state sends one candidate’ – and the subsequent problem to find 27 “very important” portfolios.]

I. It is the European Parliament: It is politics, stupid!

It is a parliament, there are parties, there are ‘Members of Parliament’. Are people really surprised that we are dealing with power games and political games? But this seems to be the problem in Brussels: Commissioners tend to think they are well paid administrators (instead of politicians)- and observers think Parliamentary groups or Parliamentarians don’t do politics. However, as soon as it gets a bit messy (basically there are no clear majorities in the EP) we seem to struggle to make sense out of it because we tend to compare the whole event with what we know from national politics.

II. This time it was different – or was it?

There might have been slightly more interest in covering the hearings this time,  but let’s be honest, we have seen it all before.  A candidate got rejected, another one got a second hearing, additional written questions etc. It’s business as usual. The European Parliament has had a de-facto veto on  individual Commissioner nominees for quite a while. It basically has become a normal part of the hearings. (Anyone remember Jeleva or Buttiglione?)

III. MEPs – please improve your questioning skills!

Let’s face it. Some questions posed by MEPs were appalling. And I am not talking about the questions about the Queen or Hitler. (those questions are a good reminder of what sort of people we have elected to the EP – but that’s another story) It is about asking questions that produce relevant and revealing answers. Here are a few simple rules:

  • Don’t ask 3 questions if you  know that the Candidate is only allowed to speak for 2 minutes;
  • Ask follow-up questions instead of simply repeating questions;
  • Try and coordinate your questions better – among the MEPs in your political group but also within the Committee (I know this is already happening – but somehow it doesn’t seem to work).
  • MEPs, don’t reiterate your political convictions or use your question as an opportunity to give a speech. You are wasting everyone’s time!

IV. We need consistency – for all hearings and committees.

This may contradict an earlier point but seen from the outside the hearings lacked a certain degree of consistency. What do I mean by that?  Different committees seem to evaluate candidates using different criteria. I know there are procedures and criteria that are supposed to prevent this from happening but we should have a debate over the next years about the purpose of these hearings, especially when it comes to how to evaluate portfolio knowledge of the candidates.

V.  The format is seriously flawed.

3h? Give us a break!  There is research that suggests that the human brain can’t concentrate for longer than an hour or so (google the details…) The point is, these hearings are too long – at least a toilet break for the Commissioner nominees and MEPs should be introduced. I am also not sure whether we really need a 3 hour hearing – 2 hours will do just fine (if MEPs work on the questioning skills).

We also should think about changing the format and make it more ‘conversational’ – let’s allow direct follow-up questions to clarify issues. Another idea is to actually organise the hearing as a series of thematic blocks in order to cover certain topics more comprehensively.

VII.  “Wrong” candidate? Thank you, member states!

Yes, the hearings are a ‘sort of job interview’ but there is also an element of accountability involved. It’s about two things: making sure that member states send useful and appropriate candidates to Brussels and to approve the portfolio assignments of the EC president.  This time it was actually much easier to spot second-rate politicians as we had a couple of outstanding performers. A rejection of a candidate – or a ‘second hearing’ is always a reminder that some member states simply don’t seem to nominate their most capable politicians. This issue is also linked to the role of he Commission President who has only limited clout over the nomination process.  A strange/unsuitable candidate is the responsibility of the respective member state – and the hearings are a useful reminder that we get the Commissioners the member states want us to get…

British politics in a nutshell

British politics – be it about “Europe”, immigration, the NHS, whatever really – is a predictable affair. The Conservative Party tries to appease UKIP – a strategy destined to fail. The LibDems went into a coalition with the Tories – but failed to deliver anything beyond rhetoric . The opposition? Well, Labour try to win the next election – they could still fail. The Greens failed to get noticed  while UKIP basically get away with everything they do…

So British politics is based on a few eternal ‘truths’. This is an ongoing tweet series. I am sure I will add some more tweets to this blog post in the coming weeks/months/years…

Do we really need EU reform? Or just different policies?

The most annoying feature of the EU debate these days is the claim that we need “EU reform” – and this widespread belief that a well developed reform agenda actually exists is some hidden drawer. (This post is not about the question whether there is a need for reform but it deals with the rhetorical phenomenon called ‘reform’ which is becoming a useless catch-all phrase)

Unfortunately very few ask the right questions  (journalists in particular don’t seem to be interested in the fine print) and wonder what “EU reform” actually means. Does it mean we need a new ‘reform treaty’ or do we simply want to change existing policies? Is it about the Eurozone or the EU? It is also telling that most commentators and politicians who enjoy talking about “EU reform” or the EU’s “identity crisis” fail to say what exactly needs to be changed. The underlying “analysis” often boils down to something like “everyone knows it is not working at the moment so I don’t need to explain it”. And instead of giving concrete examples of what is not working and how it can be fixed, all we hear – at least in the UK – is a series of superficial statements (something about national power, immigration and repatriation).

The reform debate is also a rhetorical trap. It is impossible to say “I am against reform” as this would imply that everything is just fine, so many just go along  hoping that they can support one aspect of “EU reform”. Even if you agree with one specific reform idea, it is almost impossible to argue “I am against EU reform but I would like to change X”.

David Cameron’s ‘reform’ rhetoric is exactly designed to have this effect. We don’t really know what he means, nobody challenges him, his analysis is guided by the referendum pledge and based on what his backbenchers want to hear:  ‘strengthening  national parliaments’, ‘stop immigration’ and remove ‘ever closer union‘.  He cleverly mixes policy and structural issues and does not make a difference between Europe, the EU and the national level. Simply put, Cameron’s EU reform is not about the EU. However, the danger is that slowly but surely the British version of ”EU reform” is becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.

But let’s have a look at three core claims that are often used to make the case for “EU reform”:

1. “We need to reform the EU because the EU is not working”

Usually this statement never includes any details about what *exactly* is not working – but nobody seems to care.  Rhetorically, the claim is often linked to declining trust in EU institutions, the missing European demos and an apparent malfunction in the system. I don’t want to argue that these things don’t exist, but I think we can only approach those rather complex issues by talking about concrete ideas – and not by using a term that is neither defined nor filled with any content.

Another dimension of the claim (especially in the UK) is the idea that the EU is a ‘one size fits all’ organisation that somehow bullies member states into projects they neither support nor want. But looking at institutional realities this is simply not true. We have enhanced cooperation and a series of agreements and treaties that do not include all EU member states. The Fiscal Compact, the ESM and the EFSF, the Schengen zone and the Euro. Of course one could argue that these constructions are not perfect and a lot of things can be improved – but it is simply not correct to argue that the EU should be more flexible to accommodate the wishes of certain member states. We effectively  already have a two – or even three – speed Europe!

Last but not least, there is  an issue of policy and policy competence when we talk about the “EU that is not working”. We often hear arguments about “growth” and the missing “competitiveness” of Europe. But what exactly would be the role of the EU in this?  Do we need to change policy? Would that mean better rules to make the single market work better?  If yes, in which sector? And does this change actually concern the European level – or can we achieve improvements by changing how we deal with EU issues on the national level? These are important questions – but if we continue  to hide those issues behind “EU reform” we lose the ability to discuss different policy ideas.

2. “We need a bigger say for national parliaments/governments”

I would like to see evidence why the current system is not sufficiently developed. National governments can effectively veto every EU law.  The Lisbon Treaty strengthened the European Council by making it a fully fledged institution with  a full time president. During the euro crisis there was a clear power shift towards the member states.  So what exactly was it that you want to “reform” – and would it help to change anything?

Another debate is the role of national Parliaments.  (and there is an important debate whether strengthening national parliaments would automatically improve EU legitimacy) But also in this case it is worth looking at what we already have. Yes, it’s the yellow card procedure – but it is hardly been used. So instead of talking about introducing a new ‘red card’ procedure maybe we should think of how to fix the current system first. If hundreds of yellow cards had been issued (with minimal effect on EU institutions) it might be easier to argue for a new system. Interestingly, the only successful yellow card procedure in 2012 (latest report available) actually resulted in the withdrawal of the EC proposal. I am also intrigued by the absence of national parliamentarians in this debate: What do they think about the potential additional workload? Do they think they need to replicate the work of MEPs? Are we talking about  the role of national Parliaments in EMU issues or the role of national Parliaments in scrutinising EU policy? And above all, why do we, the citizens, vote for MEPs that are supposed to work on EU legislation – if this is now an issue for national parliaments?  The logic is simple: Many who  advocate a “strengthening of national parliaments” are effectively arguing against the idea of having a European Parliament. (and again, this essentially boils down the argument of low turnout, missing  EU demos, etc). Prime ministers and heads of governments also seem to enjoy talking about this issue (probably because they think they can use their parliamentary EU committee as an additional veto mechanism).  Funnily enough they never talk about  the Danish model where MPs give ministers a clear mandate for negotiations in the Council..

The point I am trying to make is this: By simply talking about “EU reform” we miss some of the essential questions about the future of EU democracy. And don’t be fooled, it is a framing issue:  A debate on “EU democracy” will be different  to a debate  that focuses on “EU reform” as it allows us to discuss different ideas – instead of having to argue about whether we need reform.

3. “The European Parliament Elections showed that people want reform”

This is also an interesting claim. The European Parliament elections are (unfortunately) second order elections. It is an opportunity for people to  vote against their government. It is often used as an opportunity to cast a protest vote. Most analysts would agree with that statement – but when it comes to this abstract “EU reform” the same people would argue that “the people” wanted this or that to be changed on the EU level. This is disingenuous and simply inconsistent.

In most countries the majority of people voted on national issues – so how can you claim that they want “reform”? Most parties that campaigned did not  propose any wide-ranging reforms of the EU (and if they did the ideas were very different and can’t be summarised with one word) – so how can you claim that people want your kind of “reform”? The claims that the European Parliament elections should be analysed as a “political earthquake” are also grossly exaggerated. The radical/eurosceptic vote is only marginally larger than in previous elections (and most eurosceptics basically want out of the EU – not to “reform” it) – so how can you claim that those people want “reform”? 60 %  of European did not got to vote – do they really want “reform”?

If there is anything people want it is  better – or different  – policies (although many are confused what is EU and what is national policy). Arguments about institutional reform  don’t usually feature very high on the public agenda. Of course there might be a case for a “more democratic EU” or a “more competitive EU” –  but it is far from obvious what actually should be done. And yes, a clear division between the Eurozone and the rest of the EU would be desirable. But is it politically possible?  There might be a case for institutional reform but we should also be clear about what exactly needs to be reformed and – more importantly – we need to distinguish between institutional changes (that could even be implemented under current rules) and policy changes (that require political will to change existing directives and policies).  We should not forget that the last “Reform Treaty” (the provisional name of the Lisbon Treaty!) has not been around that long and it seems to me that there is still potential to use current rules to change things.

PS: The ‘reform’ crowd often underestimates treaty ratification dynamics. Any new treaty would need to be ratified (also via referendums!) by all 28 Member States. It is very difficult to win referendums on institutional questions (as some might remember from Lisbon and Nice) and if a new treaty is simply seen as a vehicle to give  concessions to one member state (ie UK) it is destined to fail.


A rambling blog post on why we can’t continue talking about “reform” without saying what *exactly* needs to be reformed.

BBC news, UKIP-style

Today, the Migration Advisory Committee published a 358-page report titled: “Migrants in low-skilled work: the growth of EU and non-EU labour in low-skilled jobs and its impact on the UK” Well, it’s a huge report,  difficult to summarise with – potentially – a lot of interesting findings, here is quick summary of what the report covers (p.279):

The first part (Chapters 2 to 4) is a review of the evidence around migrants in low-skilled work and the evolution of the wider labour market for low – skilled employment over the previous 15 years;

The second part (Chapters 5 and 6) looks at how employers recruit migrant workers and whether there are any issues with the compliance and enforcement of relevant rules and regulations;

The third part (Chapters 7 to 9) focuses on, respectively, the impact of migrants in low-skilled work on the labour market, the wider economy and the social environment.

A second quote to clarify the scope of the ‘recommendations’ at the end of the report (p. 279-292):

We do not make specific policy recommendations as the evidence was not sufficiently developed to enable us to do this. Rather, we make suggestions as to where the focus of policy on the area of migrant low – skilled employment should be

I don’t want to look into the content of the report (as I have not finished reading it) but for now let’s remember some simple facts: The report is about the impact of EU and non-EU immigration  on the  lUK abour market – in particular relating to low skilled workers –  over the past 15 years or so. And there are no recommendations as such. And the first part is pretty much a literature review.

Although there are no recommendations as such it is interesting to  skim through the conclusions (Chapter 10, “Areas for policy focus”) to get an idea what sort of issues are part of the ‘conclusions’ of the report:

  • Recruitment, and compliance and enforcement
  • Labour market outcomes for the native population, especially for younger groups
  • Greater recognition of, and support for, the local impacts of migration
  • The role of institutions and other public policies
  • Flows of migrants into low-skilled work in the future
  • The role of evidence in the wider migration debate

So how does the media report such a complex report?  Well, let’s listen to a snippet from the BBC:



So why did the BBC decide that the main (!) conclusion of the report is  linked to future (!) EU enlargement (it is mentioned in one paragraph)?  Why use the the phrase “combined population of  84 Million”?  The number includes  75 Million Turkish citizens; and we all know that  there are only minimal chances that Turkey will become a EU member state anytime soon. And most importantly, why copy UKIP’s implicit claim that all people who live in those countries would eventually look for jobs in the UK? This is pretty poor journalism for the BBC as it simply does not reflect the depth of the report.

Another problem is the nature of those news items. The recording above is taken from one of those very short (1.30m) news programmes on BBC 6 music that is repeated every hour or so. It is arguably not the most important radio station in the UK but other music channels have exactly the same kind of approach  to news formats. And it is probably  one of the main news sources for many casual listeners. It’s a perfect example how the news can shape the public discourse – and how bad journalism can fuel euroscepticism. People listen to music stations for much longer than they listen to news programmes – and they have to listen to the same 1m 30 news format for a whole afternoon. So not only is this 40 seconds piece above one of the main news items it is also repeated  several times a day – and what do you remember at the end of the day?

Migration = bad, EU enlargement = bad, 84 Million people will come to the UK…

As with many of those complex reports you could also come to the opposite conclusion – and find other interesting angles, here are just a few examples: Migrants had a modest impact impact on the labour market, but there was a positive net contribution of EAA migrants. There is not much evidence to suggest that benefit tourism actually exists.  Most low skilled migrants are not from the EU. It was also noted that different areas in the UK are more affected than others – and that some local councils/government departments were not helpful in preparing the report.  Contrary to some gossip there was also no indication of discrimination against UK workers – but a worrying trend of general non-compliance and non-enforcement of rules in the low-wage labour market in the UK. In fact the lax rules of the UK labour market are mentioned  several times. The report also laments the gap between public perceptions of migration and the reality…

The BBC is one of the few news outlet that explicitly focuses on the future (!) enlargement angle. Not even the Telegraph or the Daily Mail do this as this (rather unrepresentative) overview of UK media coverage shows (also a good illustration of how various papers report migration issues):

Guardian: EU migrants ‘not hitting UK school-leavers’ job prospects’

Telegraph: Britain ‘struggling to cope’ with immigration, says official report

The Independent:  Sustained immigration has not harmed Britons’ employment, say government advisers

Daily Mail: Mass immigration to parts of Britain HAS driven down wages of the poor and put pressure on services, official report finds

Evening Standard:  Schools ‘fuel migration by failing less able children’

Reuters: Parts of Britain struggling with immigration, say government advisers

Bloomberg: U.K. Local Authorities Need More Help With Migrants, Panel Says

Still no pan-European media. Are we nuts?

Interesting talk by Wolfgang Blau.

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