My Lunch at the European Commission: ‘Why is Europe Losing the Public Relations Battle to China?’

By Steven Hill, Social Europe Journal, December 22, 2010

The European Commission is the most important body that Americans – and far too many Europeans – have never heard of. As the executive branch of the European Union, it is on a peer level with President Barack Obama and his Cabinet, yet the public hardly knows it exists or what it does. As I have made clear in my book Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, I regard the EU as the greatest attempt by humans to address the most pressing challenges of the 21st century, including global economic development, security and climate change. Even in the midst of the current sovereign debt hangover, which is affecting a minority of European countries, I still think Europe holds the key to many of the world’s crises. But a recent luncheon at the Commission left me wondering if Europe is ready for its leadership role.

I was deeply honoured to be invited to give the Jacquemin Seminar lecture at the Commission, preceded by lunch. The lunch was a small confab of high-level, senior Commission staff people, including several Directors General who are the heads of the twenty-seven Commission departments. After formal niceties and a sumptuous meal, a vigorous discussion ensued in which I asked them a rather blunt question.

‘Why is it, do you suppose, that Europe is losing the public relations battle to China?’

I explained further: there is so much G-2 hype today in the media, casting America as the existing superpower and China as the up-and-coming superpower. Where is Europe in all this, since it has a vastly superior standard of living compared to China (and even compared to the US), has an economy that is nearly as large as the US and China combined, more Fortune 500 companies than the US and China combined, is the largest trading partner with both the US and China; has done far more to take care of its people, reduce inequality and enact healthcare, retirement, quality of life and a broadly shared prosperity; as well as to rein in carbon emissions and reduce the impact of a mass society on the environment. In short, Europe is a leader in just about every way we count these things, yet it is viewed lower on the totem pole than China, a place most people try to flee, if they can. Why is Europe getting so little respect and recognition, I asked them?

A discussion ensued about how the headlines regarding PIIGS and the Greek debt crisis had made Europe appear weak and disorganised. Beyond that, they really didn’t have much of a response. That was a little surprising, so I offered some thoughts of my own.

‘Not many people know about your successes because you don’t tell anyone about them. You don’t have a public relations machine like Hollywood movies and Baywatch have been for advertising the American Way; nor have you created any public relations apparatus of your own that helps even your own citizens to understand the importance of Europe, much less Americans, or anyone else. And because the media is used to reporting on individual nations, and economists measure output on national levels, they aren’t sure how to report on this transcontinental ‘union’ – so they fall back on lazy journalism and inadequate research methodologies which assume that the US and China are the two dominant national powers.’

I didn’t find much disagreement or push back against that viewpoint, but the next question made things more interesting. ‘So what are you doing to overcome this misunderstood profile and inertia?’ I asked them.

Their responses, surprisingly, lacked much substance, but the discussion evolved into one about what happened at the Copenhagen summit over global warming, during which President Obama had left Europe looking like a jilted bride at the altar. Europe had offered to reduce its carbon emissions by 20% by 2020, and to increase reductions by 30% if other countries (notably the US, which is by far the world’s largest per capita carbon emitter) would match them. Europe had put a bold initiative on the table, showing real global leadership, and was looking for partners, especially from Obama. But instead, Obama came to the table with virtually nothing – only a 4% carbon reduction, because he couldn’t get 60 votes for anything more in a ‘filibuster gone wild’ Senate. Then, with the Europeans out of the room, Obama shook hands on a deal with the Chinese to do next to nothing – what I have called a ‘coalition of underachievers.’ At that point Copenhagen collapsed in failure. Yet the media headlines, especially in the US, didn’t blame Obama, they blamed Europe, typically portraying it as weak and impotent. Bizarrely, Obama was portrayed as somewhat of a hero for brokering a deal – however ineffectual – with the Chinese. Yet it was Obama who had caused the summit to collapse because if the US isn’t willing to do more, then certainly China isn’t going to.

I asked my lunch companions: ‘Did you consider holding a press conference and exposing Obama and China for obstructing Copenhagen?’ They said they did consider that, that there was much intense discussion among Europe’s leaders as they considered what message they should issue as the summit crumbled. They ultimately decided not to go on the offensive or to blame their erstwhile American partner.

It was in this context that one of them said something that was incredible to me: ‘We thought we could lead by example. We thought that if we showed a quiet leadership on this issue, showed that we were willing to make the necessary sacrifices and adjustments to our economy and technology, that others would follow our lead.’

I was amazed, both at their sincere authenticity, which I admired, and at their breathtaking naiveté. I have been one of those applauding Europe’s ‘quiet revolution’ (as I call it in my book Europe’s Promise) and its use of ‘smart power’ rather than US-style’ hard power’ – using investment, trade and Marshall Plan-like aid rather than a ‘big stick’ military as a development model for the world. But leaders have to project effectively their trajectory and influence, and they have to inspire those whom they wish to lead with their vision and a demonstrated capacity for success. Leadership by ‘quiet example,’ without the means to communicate your example, tends to get ignored – or even worse, shoved around – on the world’s stage.

I pushed on with my line of inquiry.

‘You have a product here,’ I said to them, ‘let’s call it Brand Europe. Yet you don’t advertise your product.  So why would you expect that people, either in Europe, the US or anywhere else, would understand what that brand is? And if they don’t understand your brand, why would you expect anyone to follow your leadership, whether ‘quiet’ or otherwise? Europe is like the early Apple/Macs before they became sexy, losing market share to the vastly inferior Windows PCs because of poor marketing and low profile. In the US we have a saying: ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?’ No one is hearing you because you aren’t making any noise.’

I gave them an example. ‘European companies are employing about 2.5 million Americans in the United States in the midst of this economic crisis. Providing good jobs that pay better than average wages and provide health care benefits. Yet no Americans know about it; all they hear about is PIIGS and the Greek debt crisis, and lately strikes in France.’ I continued. ‘Across the USA, Europeans account for nearly three-quarters of all foreign investment, being the top foreign investors in 45 states with over $1.4 trillion in investments. And yet no Americans know about this. You get no respect because no one has a clue about what you are doing. The tree has fallen in the forest, but no one is hearing it.

‘Why don’t you run TV advertisements in the US, telling Americans these things?’ I asked them. But it was apparent they had not thought much in these terms. Occasionally, next to an EU-funded project you see a posted sign saying ‘Paid for with funds provided by the European Union,’ along with an insignia of the EU blue flag and gold stars. But that’s about it in terms of ongoing EU promotion. Most other interactions that Europeans have with the EU is when they are bureaucratically scolded with regulations that prohibit them from making bread, beer or cheese in ways they have been doing for centuries. And European too have read the headlines about the PIIGS, causing more worry. Seldom do Europeans get to reflect on the many good things that the EU or even their national governments are doing for them. And certainly a contributing factor is that EU officials either are unwilling – ‘quiet leadership’ – or incapable of telling them about it.

I continued. ‘Part of your difficulty in explaining Europe stems from how we measure these things,’ I told them. ‘For example, Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the United States and China combined.  But if you only look at it in terms of national economies – Germany, Britain, France, Italy – then it’s not as impressive looking. Yet that’s how Fortune magazine counts them, nation by nation. Forbes magazine’s Tax Misery Index is perhaps the most authoritative source in the world for comparing which countries are the most ‘tax miserable.’ Yet they don’t look at all at what you receive for those taxes, or how much more Americans pay out-of-pocket to receive the same things that Europeans receive in exchange for their taxes.  What is the European Commission doing to counter these distorted uses of how we measure things?’

Unfortunately that question was greeted with a bit of mumbling and more blank stares.

There is no place on this earth that has more to brag about than Europe – despite current difficulties over sovereign debt overloads in a handful of countries – yet European leaders are seemingly stuck in a mentality that still views themselves as the junior Cold War partner. In the post World War II era, Europe sat in the backseat while America sat up in the front, driving the vehicle. That was a convenient arrangement. When you’re sitting in the backseat, you don’t have to take as much responsibility for the direction of the vehicle.  You can always defer the hard questions to the driver. Now that American leadership is adrift – having mired the Western alliance in the twin ditches of a Wall Street and housing-induced economic collapse as well as the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq – it is really time for Europe to put forward more boldly its own brand of leadership, vision and economic development.

Yet, just as Americans are stuck in a Cold War mentality that always sees America as the best, and so can’t stop acting out of that mentality even as the Pax Americana fades, so are the Europeans apparently stuck, perhaps comfortably so, in their junior status mentality. Yes, it can be easy to let someone else take the lead. Europe has been George Harrison to America’s Lennon-McCartney, happy to stay out of the limelight because that kept the pressure off.

But that mentality, perhaps more than anything else, is what is preventing Europe from winning the respect it deserves on the global stage. It’s not the lack of unity, or the PIIGS, or the tensions between Merkel and Sarkozy, or the UK’s stodgy ambivalence, or the cultural and language differences or a dozen other excuses that are holding back Europe. Because at the end of the day, what they share as Europeans more closely identifies themselves with each other than with any other part of the world. And all of them will benefit from a rising tide floating all boats if the world follows their leadership.

‘If you believe in what you are doing,’ I told them, ‘then you should tell the world about it.  There is a void in global leadership right now…who is going to fill it? China? The United States? Not likely. Now is the time to step up, into the limelight, and show to the world this remarkable European Way. Because this European Way represents the best hope the human race has for bringing the world together around the twin challenges of global warming and enacting a worldwide economy that can provide a decent standard of living for 6.5 billion people. Those are the two biggest dilemmas facing the 21st century. If Europe doesn’t lead, who will?’

Some nodded in agreement with me, others resisted. ‘Why should we care what the US thinks about Europe?’ said one official with a wave of his hand, breezily dismissing the transatlantic relationship.

I replied: ‘The US-European relationship has been the most important in the world in the post-War period. I still think it has much important work to do. But it won’t function effectively unless Americans value and understand Europe, and vice versa. Unfortunately you can’t rely on the media to tell your story…you will have to do that for yourselves.’

I left that lunch meeting to give my lecture inside one of the Commission’s elegantly vast meeting rooms, with translation occurring simultaneously in five languages. Europe is such an impressive place in that way. Yet the luncheon had left me with a vague uneasiness. Clearly the EU-US relationship is a work in progress, and now is a critical time as both sides re-evaluate – and re-value – what it’s worth to them. The world is poised at a grave juncture. Let’s hope the vision and drive of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic don’t fail us.

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