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Communicating EU technocracy and science: Is it the same?

Fellow editor Mathew has just published an excellent piece titled “Of technocrats, journalistic balance and telling EU stories“. His post reflects in a way what I try with this blog, that is to think about whether translation between the world of self-imposed balance and reason and the world of purposeful (or purposeless) conflict of ideas staged by the media.

Mathew’s main argument is that science and EU politics have similar problems communicating because they work with the same rationale – well-established, fact-based argumentation – but fight against gut-based, singular views that for the sake of media attention are presented in TV, radio, press, and online as equally relevant, making the middle ground something that is not reasonable anymore.

However, Mathew’s argumentation is true only under two conditions:

  1. EU policy-making is actually based on well-established, fact-based argumentation.
  2. EU policy-making is the only possible way for trans- or supra-national well-reason, fact-based policy-making.

Let’s assume – to evade philosophical deliberations – that at least the second was true, i.e. that the Union’s political system is in fact in academic theory the perfect system to achieve technically perfect transnational politics.

The first point however is something that both Mathew’s post as well as many EU policy-makers statements imply: EU policy-making is so perfect, it is so much based on balancing out all possible facts, all possible interests, that in the end it is so much on an ideal point that any deviation – except after another, years-long, well-reasoned debate – is bad.What these perspectives hide is that different to science, all politics is based on choices between alternatives.

In a technocratic system, these choices are made very early or very implicitly, most often to hide that they have been made. This perspective hides that EU politics is influenced by well-meaning and less-well-meaning interests and lobbyists who try to win the war of words, words which need to end up in law to favour the interest of all or the interests of some. EU policy-makers every day make the choice which of these voices to listen to, which of their words to chose.

But this choice EU policy-makers make is not neutral, it is based on political ideologies, turf wars between different EU Commissioners or their Directorates General. It is based on power relations between countries of different size, historic backgrounds and political majorities in the Council and between political groups in the European Parliament.

The outcome of EU policy-making in all stages of the process depends on who wins these fights, and each fight is a fight over ideas, hopes, projections and personal differences.

What comes out is thus not a balanced scientific view – if this exists – based on theory and empirical data but it is a reflection of power, power defined by the rules that structure the system and power defined by the strength of different actors making use of the system.

In the end, the EU Commission sells this as ideal situations, technically necessary and practically feasible. The problem with this way of communicating EU policies is that it is the basis for intransparent EU decision makeing-making:

The EU Commission and the EU Council’s style of confidential, often pseudo-depoliticised decision-making in particular, but also the existence of a plethora of EU agencies, are based on the argument that only behind closed doors a well-reasoned political compromise can be developed that is for the better of everyone. If this process were transparent, it would become politicised and instead of ideal solutions all we get is evil political and democratic debates that do not lead to anything.

The presentation of political decisions as technocratic, without alternatives, is thus the winner perspective of those who profit from this system. As long as there were “no alternatives”, everything that was done was right and can continue that way. Democracy and open decision-making are a threat to those in power at EU level, inside and outside institutions, and their ultimate goal is: Not to lose power.

One of their ways in keeping power is communication, propaganda, nice story-telling that hides the actual political choices made. That’s why they do not understand or want people like Nigel Farage – because those people question the basic assumption made at the beginning of the process, assumptions that if questioned challenge their power.

This doesn’t mean you have to like Farage, that you have to question those assumptions in extremis, but at least he and others play the important role of telling the emperor, time and time again, that he is naked. EU communication will only work on the day when EU administrators learn to present what they do as political choices, choices that may be wrong for many reasons but choices that are thought to be better than other alternatives presented.

Some people will like these choices and some will hate them, but it is the task of political institutions, especially in democratic systems, to be able to face this opposition and to know that this is (mostly) not an attack on the institutions themselves but on the political choices made. On the day EU institutions understand this, when they show their readiness to enter into open political debates, their communication can become better.

Until then, they will lose in media communications as science often loses in media communication. But for totally different reasons.

5 Responses to Communicating EU technocracy and science: Is it the same?

  1. avatar mathew says:

    Wow, that was fast work for such a well-presented argument!

    You’re right, of course – when drawing parallels, one can overlook or hide certain differences, some of which are absolutely fundamental.

    I think, however, that you over-generalise – not *all* EU policies are so terribly political and opaque. Of course, the media are more interested in those that are. But there are a bunch of what I called ‘bread and butter’ issues (other people call then dull) where the EU is adding value, yet does not communicate it well. Here, perhaps, storytelling could be useful.

    But no matter how well you communicate, if what you have to sell is crap, people won’t buy it. Good communications won’t help if the policies appear to be undemocratic (or at least opaque) political stitch-ups.

    As some people are fond of saying:
    – we live in a world of transparency, whether you like it or not
    – best, therefore, to be transparent
    – but if you’re going to be transparent, you’d better look good naked

    So far, the EU is not looking good naked. In fact, the more people look, the more turned off they become. Which is perhaps why we are seeing more propaganda from the EU – something (I hope you agree) I am on record as saying is a huge mistake.

    But I disagree with you that you can draw a clear line between attacks on political decisions and attacks on the Institution itself. People’s dislike of the decisions rapidly morphs into an overall dislike of the Institutions which host those decisions, and which keep the insiders in and the outsiders out.

    So if the solution for communications on these (numerous) political issues is an open debate, surely we need a healthy EU Online Public Space to host it?

  2. avatar Ronny Patz says:

    I agree with you that I over-generalise on both the opaqueness and the level of political relevance of some of the policies. (Wouldn’t have managed to write this down so quickly if I hadn’t 🙂 )

    I overgeneralised on the opaqueness to underline that for EU institutions, once a decision has been made, it is not that important anymore how the decision was made, even if this might tell about both the substance and the impact of decisions. So even if where the decisions was made rather transparently, the result is often asked to be considered as what it had to be anyway, kind of neglecting the previous process.

    This can even make rather transparent processes less open for those who only realise what has been decided when it has been decided – being told that this was what it had to be.

    And I overgeneralised with regard to the political salience of some “bread and butter issues”. What I wonder is whether exactly for these things, where reason can actually tell a lot what needs to be done based on some agreement on goals, the EU system is the perfect one. My guess is that a lot of reasonable bread and butter topics are covered by EU institutions to support the more controversial political decisions in the same policy areas. In other words, isn’t good communication in these fields on the bread and butter level often meant to be proxy communication for highly political issues? (I’m not having a definite answer myself, so the question is only half-rhetorical knowing that you work much closer on these things than I do.)

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