Europe’s identity crisis

The UK has inherited the presidency at a time when confidence in the European Union is at an all-time low. Lynda ReIph-Knight reports on moves to promote better understanding

Confusion reigns over Europe, or at least the European Union. Some 80 per cent of people in member states claim to be ill-informed about the EU, with only one in 50 claiming to be “well informed”. And indications are that not many Europeans care.

According to the latest report from think-tank Demos, entitled Making Europe Popular: The Search for European Identity, only half of Europeans identify with EU institutions, while just 46 per cent support their country’s membership of the EU. The belief that EU membership brings benefits is at an all-time low, with a mere 41 per cent supporting that view. Meanwhile, Euro-scepticism is spreading beyond the UK, even to “the heartlands of France and Germany”.

The report, funded by Interbrand Newell and Sorrell, finds that people want the EU to solve “problems without frontiers”, such as environmental, crime and terrorism issues. They also see a role for Europe in their everyday lives and for the EU in the government of their countries. But they don’t want the interference they associate with four decades of institutional bureaucracy.

Not a happy prospect for the UK, which took up the six-month EU presidency last month under the banner of creating “a people’s Europe”, particularly given the weighty matters currently in hand. Monetary union, the enlargement of the EU and reforms to its budgets are all key issues being addressed, and all will draw on member states’ funds.

“The impending changes will inevitably bring strains as well as gains,” said EU commissioner for transport Neil Kinnock. Speaking at the report’s launch in London on Tuesday, he said there is an urgent need to communicate and debate the EU vision or “the mood of doubt could grow more negative”.

Even without the changes, Kinnock maintains, people clearly need to be better informed. He describes the research as “useful and timely”. “It’s not just because the union is in mid-life crisis as it enters its early 40s,” he says. “There is an epidemic of doubt.”

It’s good, he says, to be “unwrapping this thing called Europe” and to start throwing up explanations and criticisms. But he’s keen to “get on with doing something”, having created a strong basis for understanding EU policies.

The report’s author, Demos’ Mark Leonard, says the results to date show the EU to be “at the apex of its powers… but it has never been less popular with its people”. He lays down five challenges to the UK presidency:

Establish a relationship of trust between the EU and EU members;

Make agendas which reflect people’s priorities;

Deliver practical benefits and show how they will change citizens’ lives;

Give European integration a sense of direction;

Develop a narrative for European integration.

But how do you do this? Kinnock has said that he doesn’t see this as a PR campaign, rather “an exercise of explanation”, feeding “people’s right to know”, which inspires opinion rather than just absorbs the criticism.

Leonard meanwhile uses the word “identity” liberally in the report, but says he’s not referring to a marque – at least, not at this stage. The identity he’s seeking is deeper than that, to do with understanding how people live, and exploring their views on their fellow Europeans. “Identity in the sense of common destiny gives countries their authority,” he says. It’s about drawing on “positive sources of legitimacy”. That’s what he seeks for the EU.

Both Leonard and Kinnock are dismissive about glossy communications published to promote EU policies in the past, largely because of an apparent lack of strategy. But with Interbrand Newell and Sorrell actively involved in the trawl, we can expect that design will be in there somewhere.

Demos’ research to date has shown “Europe is leading a double life”, says Leonard. There’s the unpopular “Europe of institutions”; then there’s the one Europeans really like, reflected in the “fragments of cultural identity we all have stored away in holiday snapshots”.

We have been told that this is not necessarily a branding project. But if it were, as the research enters its next phase there’d be no prizes for guessing what might inspire the brief to the designer.

EU questions

The 12-star logo was adapted from a European flag, which was adopted by the Council of Europe in 1955.

1. Does the existing 12-star logo work?

2. Does the EU need selling to those nations outside the union?

Answers

‘The logo has become a period piece because the EU has changed so much since it was designed. It’s important to communicate the organisation outside Europe as well as inside, because we are competing for investment with places like the US and the far east.’

Doug Hamilton, creative director, Wolff Olins

‘I think the EU needs explaining [to outsiders], it needs a communications strategy… The British Empire didn’t need explaining, it would have been part of us. People see the EU as something apart from us. That’s a trick that’s been missed. At the moment it [unified Europe] can hardly be defined, everything is so in-development, from currency to boundaries. We need to appraise its values, and should certainly find out what its inhabitants think. America stands for big and brash, the Far East stood for tiger economies and cultural variation. What’s the big idea about Europe?’

Chris Ludlow, Henrion Ludlow Schmidt

‘As far as the flag goes you can’t just keep adding stars. But should there be something else? Some other design device would be needed, but only when you have a clear idea of what you want to symbolise. We don’t seem to have any idea of that, especially here in Britain. And there’s not much debate towards a consensus.’

Richard Ford, executive creative director Europe, Landor Associates

‘The EU is seen as something remote, bureaucratic and inaccessible, rather than the total sum of what is going on in Europe.’

Dorothy Mackenzie, director, Dragon

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