Last week saw two developments in the European Commisson’s Communications activities. Firstly, Commissioner Dimas joined the blogosphere. Secondly, Commissioner Wallstrom produced the latest in a series of policy documents about the way in which the Commission and indeed the Union communicates to the outside world. Both developments have much to commend them.
Margot’s document has a lot of good things in it. Amongst the suggestions are more cooperation between the different institutions, a greater focus on getting the message out locally through representations and working in collaboration with national administrations. All of which is likely to help make what the EU communicates more coherent and potentially more effective. However, one has to wonder about how successful the efforts will be. Member States clearly will still have an interest in blaming the EU for the bad things and taking credit for the good, especially in the run up to elections or when painful policy choices need to be made. In addition, the tendency to forget the benefits strategy and slip back into European institutional jargon is still present, even for Margot. Just witness the first bullet point of her citizens’ version of the text, which talks of “inter-institutional agreements”.
More interesting from a public affairs perspective are a few sentences on the development of the Eurobarometer into a real policymaking tool. The Communication states that “the goal is to use surveys more strategically in relevant phases of the policy process such as policy formulation and impact assessment…”. To be fair, the Commission has been testing public opinion for a while now (1973?) and has increasingly been looking at public opinion on specific policy issues as well as how the citizen sees him or herself vis-a-vis our lovely European project.
Still it actually surprises us how little polling is used at a European level by both the policymakers and public affairs practitioners in support of their arguments. It is more or less standard practice in D.C. for both politicians and lobbyists to turn to polls to test what the public thinks and how they respond when more information is provided. Even at a national level in Europe, political parties use it. Yet it has not really caught on in Brussels. Perhaps now with this effort to engage the citizen this may change.
And if the EU institutions start to use polling more effectively, one wonders how long it will be before the corporate world follows suit? After all this is politics and at the end of the day public opinion should be a pretty big motivator for elected officials (even if it is not). The more it is used by our politicians at a European level, the harder it may be for stakeholders’ normal arguments to find traction in the College, Council or the Parliament.
On the flipside, more polling could have some significant upsides for public affairs as well as democracy. Its use by industry stakeholders would allow them to regain some of the ground lost to others who are more ready to make emotional arguments in the policy arena. Many an industry will bemoan the vote they argued on fact and lost on emotion. And the cost is not prohibitive, especially if one uses regular omnibus surveys as a starting point. If public affairs practitioners in Brussels were to start polling and combine it with a more widespread use of grassroots activism (both digital and traditional), in an ideal world we could democratize the EU process and at the same time revolutionize how industry advocates on issues in Brussels. Now that would be an achievement.