Healthy Euro-Skepticism?

Giles Merritt argues that improved communication is the key to successful EU elections, and integration

News | Matthias Wurz | June 2009

Editor Giles Merritt addresses ‘Public Opinion & Europe’ Symposium (Photo: Matthias Wurz)

"Reporting on EU Affairs is boring, and it’s not the journalists’ fault," said Giles Merritt, editor of the Brussels-based journal Europe’s World and Secretary General of the think-tank Friends of Europe.

Merritt’s remarks were made at the international symposium ‘Public Opinion and Europe’ held at the Diplomatic Academy on May 6 – 7, chaired by former Austrian Foreign Minister Peter Jankowitsch.

He paused after the statement, and while the audience of academics, diplomats, politicians, and the occasional journalist listened, he added, with a twinkle in his eye, "I used to be a journalist reporting on European Affairs."

In six panel sessions during the two-day event, co-organized by the Austrian-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe and the French Institut Français des Relations Internationales, high-ranking diplomats, civil servants and academics from Austria and the EU sought questioned public views on European institutions and what could be done about Euro-scepticism.

Speakers included French Senator Hubert Haenel of the committee on European Affairs and former Director General of Austrian National Bank Heinz Kienzl. The conference concluded at the palatial French Embassy on Schwarzenbergplatz, in eyesight of the Memorial of the Soviet Army across the large square with its spectacular fountain.

As the participants enjoyed cuisine française at the Embassy, Merritt, a former Brussels correspondent for the Financial Times and regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune, offered an in-depth view on Europe over a glass of French red wine.

Merrit has publicly noted that more – not less – Euro-skepticism is needed. But how can one be sure that openly voiced scepticism helps rather than hurts the idea of European integration?

"You can’t," Merritt admitted, "but you won’t avoid it by not having a sceptical debate." Otherwise, he said, one is in danger of insulting the people’s intelligence.

The essence of Merritt’s argument lies in the answers that European institutions – à la longue the European Commission as the governing body – gives to its citizens.

In Merritt’s view, the European Commission, particularly during Jacques Delors’ presidency from 1985 to 1995, was once the greatest think tank in the world. Today, however, the Commission only serves as a means to balance member states’ interests and formulate and negotiate new consensuses. The group of "high-priests of the EU congratulating themselves," as Merrit puts it, has become something like an intellectual ivory tower with little idea of the everyday concerns of Europe’s citizens.

But this is not due to a lack in information; the website of the European Commission ( is extensive, with information in 23 European languages. But the information is not easy to digest. Although simple in design, the documents provided on the site are mostly legal texts or speech transcripts. Even the ‘Easy Reading Corner,’ which gives free booklets on European Affairs, presents the perspective of the European Union, not that of its citizens.

So maybe dummy-guides to Europe are needed? Merritt smiled. "We laboured the idea for a long time that the EU has to improvise its communications," Merritt said, the disappointment apparent in his voice; the hope for improved communication was an illusion, as the European institutions did not see communication as a priority. The Brussels bureaucracy consists primarily of lawyers – as any other national civil service – who know little about communication.

The communication failure on the European and national level is also relevant to the campaign for the upcoming elections for the European Parliament on June 7. For the first time, the European Parliament together with the European Commission and the member states will run a unified campaign for active participation at the European parliamentary elections. Merritt’s predictions of the outcome?

"A shock," he firmly stated and paused, his serious expression emphasizing the gravity of the situation. The expectation is still of an extremely low turn-out and this requires, in Merritt’s words, a serious answer from the EU Commission – particularly from current President José Emanuel Barroso.

"What is he going to say about the alarm bell of the European elections?" Merritt posed a rhetorical question. Europe’s fate depends on his answer.

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    the vienna review June 2009