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Posts tagged with: Framing

Repeat after me: EU myth rebuttal does not work

New year. Same old UK-EU comms. Two tweets from today:

Why, oh why, do British pro-EU folks keep on doing this? If you fight a battle using the frames and the words of your opponents, you lose. George Lakoff called his practical guide to political framing “Don’t Think of an Elephant” for a reason – because you think of an elephant when you read that.

When I read Richard Corbett being defensive about the EU budget, or Damian Green being defensive about the number of pro-EU Tories, it is not helpful. Make your case, on its own terms. Do not make your case while emphasising the argument of your opponents.

If you need practical tips how do it, then either try Lakoff’s book, or the Skeptical Science Debunking Handbook (PDF). “The often-seen technique of headlining your debunking with the myth in big, bold letters is the last thing you want to do,” the handbook says. Very true.

Big on the big things, small on the small things – Brussels bullshit meaning ‘deregulation’

Back in 2013, José Manuel Barroso in his State of the European Union speech stated that the “EU needs to be big on big things and smaller on smaller things” (speech text here – phrase 3/4 of the way through).

Since then this phrase has become some sort of mantra for the EU’s centre right, and supposedly social democrat Vice President of the European Commission Timmermans has used similar vocabulary. The Bavarian CSU’s party congress happening today has been full of it:

While the phrase sounds pleasant enough, the problem is this: we have no common definition of what is a small thing, and what is a big thing.

Take the widely reported decision by the very same Juncker and Timmermans to axe legal proposals on air quality and the circular economy. Air pollution causes 58000 400000 premature deaths in the EU each year*. So is air quality a “small thing”? I think not. And air quality cannot be regulated at a national level as pollutants do not respect borders.

So it strikes me that the big on the big things, small on the small things phrase is just a neat shorthand for deregulation. Think about air pollution the next time you hear the deceitful phrase uttered.

* Updated 1938 – a reader has e-mailed me, pointing out an error in my figures. Air pollution kills 400000 prematurely in the EU each year, and the proposal would reduce this by 58000. Details on the Commission’s website here.

Rehn is more than an “expert”, and Tusk and Mogherini are not “diplomats”


When Blair was rumoured to want the job, the President of the European Council position was branded President of the EU by the British Press. Now Donald Tusk has been appointed to the position The Guardian went the other way, running a story on Saturday entitled “EU leaders pick new top diplomats”, referring to Tusk and the new High Representative for Foreign Policy, Federica Mogherini.

These terms actually matter. For me “top diplomats” implies Ambassadors – i.e. administrative people representing a country outside its borders. That is clearly not what Tusk and Mogherini are, although granted they do both play some foreign policy role. Just reverse the scenario though – would Philip Hammond, the British Foreign Secretary, ever be referred to as Britain’s “top diplomat” by The Guardian? I rather doubt it, so neither should Tusk or Mogherini.

The Guardian then followed up yesterday, calling ex-Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and current MEP, Olli Rehn, an “expert”. Yes, he is that, but his particular role is explicitly as a politician, and his views on Scotland were especially relevant due to his previous role as a Commissoner. He’s more than just an expert.

I do not quite know what is going on here. It could be that The Guardian’s journalists do not actually know what these posts do, and hence go for a kind of fudge headline instead (along the lines of Kosmopolit’s rules of lazy EU journalism). I nevertheless fear it is something deeper, and more patronising, and insipidly EU-critical – a kind of assumption that the readers are never going to know what happens in the EU’s corridors of power, and that they are all bureaucrats of some sort there, so just stick in some sort of bland word.

How, I must ask myself, can even politically astute people (The Guardian’s readers are not the same as the Daily Mail’s after all) possibly hope to understand what actually happens politically in Brussels if even The Guardian cannot correctly separate politics from administration in the EU?

From a quick post on “More Europe” to more formed ideas about EU framing

Anyone who knows me well knows I am fascinated by the use of words about the EU. Since @europasionaria first got me to read Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant”, I’ve been wondering how to apply his ideas to the debate about the European Union. I’ve even run a couple of workshops about it in the UK as well.

Where Lakoff tries to arm progressives with the right words to make their case, I want to try to arm supporters of the European Union to better be able to make their case.

My quick post – railing against “More Europe” earlier today (and, as pointed out by @karmel80 on Twitter, “less Europe” should also be avoided) – has prompted some debate and discussion about what to do. @runekier and @ktowens have proposed some kind of wiki solution, to try to crowd source some sort of guide to what words to use, and to not use, but a response from @serge_arno demonstrates the complexity of the issue – where I see a problem in the vagueness and potential downsides of the term “More Europe”.

On this blog in the past I’ve had a go at “Bringing Europe closer to its citizens“, “pro-European“, “national interest“, and “hard-headed [about the EU]“, and all of those posts have drawn a variety of reactions.

So what should be done?

If it is to be some sort of crowd-sourced, wiki based solution, how do we build it to reflect this combination of views? To incorporate the positive and the negative aspects of a phrase like “More Europe”? Conversely, I would love to have a go at writing a book about all of this – a kind of EU Don’t Think of an Elephant, something that tries to make the case for how I see these sorts of issues with more coherence than a series of blog entries ever can. But am I capable of writing a book? Would anyone read it? And, crucially, how the hell would I fund it? And is there some way to combine these two approaches?

Anyway, do comment below, or tweet me or e-mail me, and I will do my best to make something out of all of this!

“More Europe” – the next term to banish from the EU framing lexicon

The words “More Europe” are essentially used a shorthand for needing EU action in an area where the EU does not currently act, like current efforts to complete the Digital Single Market for example.

But take a step back and think about this for a minute. “More Europe” is actually therefore trying to mean “More EU”, and is More EU (i.e. more institutions, more law, more politicians, more bureaucracy…?) actually something that people would really want? A more efficient, a more streamlined, a more social EU – perhaps. But just ‘more’? I doubt it.

Second, when it comes to something like completion of the Digital Single Market for example, what we actually need is EU law to break down national barriers. That is actually more freedom, or less barriers, or less regulation, albeit through EU level action. The ‘More Europe” phrase brings nothing here.

Third, “More Europe” implies the EU should be seen according to the more-or-less, in-or-out, pro-European-vs-eurosceptic frame. This in itself is wrong – I should be able to want less money on agriculture and more on regional funds, or more rules on working time and less on digital products, and that combination according to my own ideology. What does “More Europe” mean in that context? Nothing.

Hence anyone who is notionally pro-EU, both within and outside the institutions should stop using the phrases “More Europe”, “More EU” and “The Cost of Non-Europe”. These phrases have the wrong connotations, and also prevent a more nuanced debate about what has to happen at EU level from emerging. Stop using the words. Simple.

This blog entry was motivated by this tweet from Judith Raposo that links to this EP news story, but news stories like this regularly use the words too.

Why it’s pointless to describe oneself as a pro-European

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 21.00.36In response to Barroso’s State of the Union address today, leader of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt resorted to his tired old line. The pro-European forces should unite against Euroscepticism, he said, and this will define 2014 European Parliament election campaign. Verhofstadt has been saying this sort of thing since 2009 at least. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

That is why the blog entry has the title it does – it’s pointless to describe oneself as a pro-European.

For a start how can you be pro a continent? That might be stretching it a bit, as I suppose it is OK to conclude that pro-European actually means pro-EU. But even then what does that actually mean? Am I pro-Westminster? Or pro-Landtag Mecklenburg-Vorpommern?

I use that to explain the problem in framing terms. Verhofstadt is setting out the fundamental dividing line as being about the European Union itself, not what he (or indeed his political opponents) want the European Union to be.

To put it another way, to argue using the pro-European / Eurosceptic frame sets you on a path to arguing about more or less EU, or in or out of the EU. It also leads to a way of explaining the EU that sounds like the EU we have is the only sort of EU we could have, and that to be a pro-European is to hence be a defender of the status quo.

So in a sense I am a pro-European, in that I want the EU to exist. Just as in the same way as I am pro-Westminster and pro-Landtag Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. But I am not going to ever make speeches on that basis, nor am I going to put that at the centre of my beliefs.

I am instead a social democrat, a social liberal, and an environmentalist, and a federalist, and I try to put those principles into practice as far as I can, including at EU level, and I would advocate that people like Verhofstadt try to do the same (if they do indeed have any ideology any more).

To illustrate the point, I have had interesting debates with Declan Ganley on Twitter about tax harmonisation versus tax competition within the European Union. Ganley is a free market liberal, and believes that within the European Union states should be allowed to set their own tax rates, and if this gives a state a tax advantage over another one – on corporation tax for example – so be it. I believe tax competition is a bad thing, and forces a race to the bottom when companies can easily choose their location. For me, as a social democrat, tax harmonisation has to be the solution. This debate between Ganley and I is a matter of ideology, a matter of values, and being pro-European or Eurosceptic has no bearing on it at all. Yet for Verhofstadt people like Ganley and I should be on the same side in the European Parliament elections – that is clearly absurd. The European Parliament elections should be fought exactly on these sorts of issues, giving the European Union concrete meaning but drawing on ideology, rather than slipping into the easy but limited frames politicians have used for decades about the EU.

S/he who frames the case wins the argument on the EU

Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 11.18.44According to Philip Stephens in the FT “Facts finally collide with ideology on Europe“, as his column gives solid backing to the FCO’s Balance of Competences review. The reports are “shorn of ideology and political judgments” he says, while “Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson and Philip Hammond were among cabinet ministers who protested at the even-handed approach of officials”. Commentators like Olaf Cramme, Sony Kapoor and Simon Nixon weigh in on the same side on Twitter. Jonathan Fryer goes further, saying the review exposes UKIP and Tory lies.

On the other side Retiring Violet and Bruno Waterfield blast the line about the report being shorn of ideology. In the meantime Douglas Carswell, excelling himself even further than yesterday, writes in a blog post on the website of The Daily Telegraph that pro-EU civil servants are so biased that this will assist with his case to get the UK out of the EU completely. Farage has called the whole exercise ‘a cynical and futile PR exercise‘, which lavishes a bit too much praise on the communications management of this whole thing in my view, but you see his point.

For me, the very title of Stephens’s piece shows the dearth of understanding of how UK political communications works on the pro-EU side – the word “finally” in the title is the crucial one. It is not as if only now, suddenly, facts have been confronted with ideology. This is what has been happening for years and years already, and it does not work for the pro-EU side. Stephens could produce 10000 pages of reports on how the UK economy depends on Britain being in the EU, but it is not going to convince a single person who is convinced at heart that the future of the UK as an independent nation is being called into question thanks to its membership of the EU.

Look too at the Britain in Europe campaign in the late 1990s that tried to do precisely this sort of thing – to cook up an essentially practical case for Britain’s membership of the Euro, versus the emotive, national sovereignty case of the antis. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then the pro-EU side is getting close to insane.

To put it another way, to assume that if you put the ‘facts’ out there and people will believe your case does not work. Look at the reactions of Waterfield and Carswell – they argue that nothing can be shorn of ideology (I agree), and instead of playing the facts they play the process, alleging an essential bias of the people conducting the review.

The parallels between all of this and the predicament that faced the Democrats in the 1990s in the USA are interesting. Democrats assumed that facts would speak for their side, while Republicans were framing the argument in terms of people’s beliefs. This week in the UK, Stephens and the authors of the reviews are the Democrats, and Carswell and co are the Republicans. Which way of approaching UK-EU relations is going to have greater popular resonance?

UK politics is post-enlightenment, post-fact and post-truth – s/he who frames the debate wins the argument, and it’s high time the pro-EU side woke up to this reality.

Framing Beppe Grillo

Screen Shot 2013-06-03 at 12.29.12Over a coffee after State of the Net in Trieste, Luca Conti (@pandemia on Twitter) posed me a question. “What do you [meaning non-Italians] think of Beppe Grillo?” It’s also a question that my good friend Antonella Napolitano will be trying to answer at Personal Democracy Forum France later this month.

So here’s a way to look at Grillo. If you’re outside Grillo you see in Grillo what you want to see in Grillo. You frame him your way.

He’s a eurosceptic! This is the Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell line, and also one that some British journalists have followed. Look at this man who has gained 30% of the vote in Italy, and he wants to break up the Euro! He’s one of us!

He’s a lefty! He wants to end austerity. So he is daring to say what the others do not say. He’s the darling of the alternative left.

He’s wants to keep Italy Italian! He does not want to give Italian citizenship to the children of immigrants, and so he’s one of the defenders of the nation. The British media has drawn parallels between him and Nigel Farage, and indeed there would be a parallel with Timo Soini too.

He’s building a networked, bottom-up movement against the mainstream! The M5S is like the German Pirate Party. Only it has a leader, and they ended up getting a lot more votes than the Pirates did. But M5S does have good online networking among its members.

He’s doing old style politics on the street, in the way traditional parties don’t do any more! Grillo and M5S packed town squares for face-to-face meetings during the election campaign, so is his movement actually a return back to the traditions of politics?

I think by now you get the idea, and this is before I even throw in a healthy dose of the the specific Grillo and Italian factors. Grillo himself is a one-off, a maverick with no neat parallel in other countries. Italian politics has had more than its fair share of problems and scandals over the years, and those too shape the Grillo and M5S context.