Who is your European icon and why?
The term “icon” is problematic for me. I don’t tend towards idololatry or raising people to the skies, as they lose their multi-dimensional nature and become more like caricatures of themselves. I like to see each individual for his or her uniqueness. But I guess it is a fundamental part of human nature to elevate some people higher than others in order to set a standard, or to create a common reference point or symbol of respect, sometimes worship. In fashion the word icon is used liberally, as it is in music and other art forms. But can it be used outside of the creative sphere?
While trying to warm up my Scandinavia- chilled bones in the Greek sun, I was pondering over what makes an icon? What qualities or characteristics does one need to have in order to warrant the title? I came up with a couple of things:
Icons seem to have an impact on people around them, so a certain level of fame is required. There also seems to be a time factor involved, as longevity is a sign of lasting influence, making icons insensitive to trends and changes in preference and taste. Furthermore there needs to be a large enough number of people who all agree that this particular individual is important enough to deserve the title “icon”. Added to all this, icons tend to have vibrant, colourful personalities and do not fear to stand out from the crowd.
The above I find quite easily applicable to the worlds of fashion, film, music and so on. But I had trouble finding a European icon. First of all, what does this mean? Is it an icon that is a European? Or is it an icon that somehow embodies Europe, the European project, the idea of a united Europe? If it is the former, then we could find a number of individuals that are Europeans and are considered icons within their field. But if it is the latter then I have no straight answer. One might mention one of the founding fathers of the EU, perhaps. Or influential politicians such as Jacques Delors or Melina Merkouri. They certainly had many if not all of the above mentioned qualities. But I am personally opposed to making politicians into icons, precisely because they lose their multi-dimensional nature and we forget that politics is about opinions and agendas, the political game.
So I ended up here: European icons to me are the people who work every day to make Europe a better place, who believe in making a difference and solving the problems that Europe faces through dialogue, compassion and an open mind. In which case there are thousands and thousands of people who deserve the title. I therefore reserve it for them.
You are a communications/PR advisor and are free to remake the EU’s image. What would you do first?
I currently work as communications strategist for a governmental body, trying to build up a brand and an image that conveys, in an honest and clear way, what it is that this body stands for and what can be expected of it. The image of this body will determine how people relate to it, what associations they have with it and how it is perceived by the masses. In my experience it is easier to build up something new than to change already established associations and perceptions. Herein lies the biggest challenge for the EU.
The European Union in its early days spent very little time and resources on communication and PR. It was more concerned with establishing the machinery that we have today, and that is a navigation nightmare even to the most seasoned EU officials. It wasn’t actually until the beginning of the new millennium, with the Swedish Commissioner Margot Wallström at the helm, that the EU started appreciating the importance of communication. Up until then it was a one-way street, with the EU pumping out information through leaflets that quickly went out of date, gathering dust in info points all over Europe. But it had become apparent that the distance between the EU, also referred to as “Brussels”, and Europe’s citizens, was so big that people had trouble even understanding what the EU was, or more importantly, WHY it was.
Since then the Commission, and other institutions, have done their best to create a positive, all-inclusive image of the EU, where the citizen is never too far away from the decision-maker, and where ordinary folk can influence what happens in the corridors of the Berlaymont. Progress has been made, new initiatives taken and change was on its way.
And then the crisis hit. To many people, including myself, who have dedicated years and years to the European project, it became painfully apparent that we have a much longer way to go before the EU can live up to its democratic promises. Discontent is spreading, people are rebelling and many European citizens wonder what it’s all for. And in the midst of all this the fundamental reasons for why the European Union exists in the first place have got lost.
Image, in order to be credible and solid, must be based on reality. It needs to reflect what is real. My first action if I were to remake the image of the EU is to reform the EU itself, make it correspond to its values and core purpose. Utopian? Unrealistic? Of course! But hey, you asked!
You are appointed EU President. What’s action point No.1?
As EU President I would make it clear that breaking EU law and going against the fundamental principles of the commonly agreed Treaties is not acceptable. I would fight for the Treaties to be improved for the benefit of the people of Europe. I would not shy away from confronting unruly and undemocratic actions taken by the Member States. I would make myself known to the citizens of Europe and make sure that they know I exist, not just see me as a bleak figure in the machinery, but as a leader, someone whose interest is in the well-being of the citizens of Europe. I would show that I take my role seriously, that my number one concern is to raise the difficult topics and argue for continued cooperation, increased dialogue and closer contact with the electorate. I would aim for my own position to be that of an elected official, not an appointed one by the lowest common denominator.
The EU today suffers from too many grey suits, too many anonymous faces, too many of the older technocratic generation whose heart is probably in the right place, but who do not have the strength, will or perhaps courage to fight the tough battles. By tough battles I mean national interests and big business influence. I would spit things out, dare to be controversial, dare to take up the challenge of making people feel they belong. I would be honest about the weaknesses of the structure I am the President of, and I would be clear about what has to be done to improve it.
It has long been my personal opinion that the EU is the way it is because of two things: national interests and half-measures. These go hand-in-hand. Of course, I do have understanding for the fact that the EU is a new type of organisation, a new construction without precedence, and that things take time, “baby steps”. But I am always amazed at the “almost there, but no cigar” nature of what we do. I always have the feeling that we are prepared to go some distance, but not all the way. For instance, we establish a Eurozone that makes banks go delirious, but have no regulations in place in case things go badly. Which they now have. And now we are scrambling, trying to get rules in place that will be acceptable to everyone, in the middle of a crisis where everyone has their own crosses to bear. Instead of doing it right from the start.
“Yes, but we didn’t know then, did we?” is an argument I hear often. Pardon my French, but that is a load of old bollocks. We are not acting in a vacuum. We have analysts, people trained to spot future consequences. We have history that we can learn from. We cannot prepare for everything, that’s true. But we can prepare for some of it. If we are willing to go the distance, to make the tough decisions.
As President of the EU I would push home the notion that national interests which are dominated by Big Business and banks are not in the best interests of the people of Europe. I would become the champion for Europe’s citizens, the defender of their rights, the fighter against the anti-democratic forces that are turning Europeans against each other, and against others. I would make sure they knew who I was and what my purpose is. I mean, why else am I President?
Europe 2100: draw a mental map. Where are the boundaries?
This has been the hardest question to answer. I think the reason it has troubled me is because I am feeling desperately despondent about many things I see, and the direction we are taking, as a continent but also as world citizens. So my first inclination would be to paint a rather bleak vision of the future, one that is, in my mind realistic and fact-based. But at the same time I feel that such a vision would serve no purpose, other than bring whoever is reading my words into my little pit of despair. And what is the point of that? We don’t need more negativity, we need more optimism, followed by positive action. In fact, we need to remind ourselves of the reasons why the European Union just got the Nobel peace prize.
Actually, that prize got me thinking. My first reaction was that of cynical awe at the audacity of the Nobel committee to award the EU such a prize. An EU further away from its citizens today than ever before. An EU that is working through the worst crisis of confidence in its history. An EU that has come to symbolise the playground for big business and banks, whilst its disadvantaged citizens turn on each other in resentment and hatred. Why award the EU such a prize? Is it a reward? Is it a reminder of all that the EU stands, or is supposed to stand, for? Or is it an expression of hope for better things to come?
Suddenly the clouds lifted from my troubled mind. Suddenly I felt that there is another way to look at this. Suddenly I was indeed reminded of why I ever started dedicating time and energy into this EU reality. For me, this Prize is a combination of all three. It is a reward for the work that has been done, imperfect as it may have been, but nevertheless ground-breaking. It is a reminder that democracy and the fight for peace is not a stagnant project that you can close the door on, it is ongoing until the end of our days. And it is an expression of hope, of encouragement to not let adversity lead us down the wrong path. What is more, it reminded me that the EU is us, it’s not “them”. And if we don’t like where we’re headed WE have to change course, not THEM.
Once these thoughts replaced the initial dark ones I felt that my mental map was a little easier to get to, because I am free to dream up whatever scenario I want. I don’t have to be realistic, or pragmatic, or cynical, because it’s in the future, noone really knows what will happen for sure. So who is to say that my scenario might not become a reality?
You see, in my Europe of 2100 we have surpassed the limitations of national interests and borders. There will have been a conflict or two, perhaps, but they will have resulted in a new-found desire to focus on peace, prosperity and citizenship. My Europe of 2100 is a place where being European is defined by one’s citizenship, not one’s colour, ethnicity or social background. While we’re at it, in my Europe of 2100 religion is no longer a question about suppressive power, it is a question of individual faith, so all those profiting from other people’s faith and trust can find another job. The geographical boundaries will have blurred and Europe will be a place of regions and localities, with mixed populations and glocal perspectives, diversity and acceptance of all. In my Europe of 2100 there is the rule of law, for everybody, including dirty bosses, shady bankers, corrupt politicians and criminals of all specialities. Because in my Europe of 2100 we will have learnt from our mistakes. We will have focused once again on what is important: democracy, freedom, defense of the weak, support of the strong, justice, prosperity and peace. And in that Europe of 2100 there is only the physical boundaries left to fight, because the boundaries in the minds of us Europeans will be gone, or at the very least, be wide open. This is the Europe I want to fight for, even if I don’t get to live in it.
So, who’s with me?