Coke, EU and Skeptics - Europe has a bit of an image problem.

, by Matthew Barker

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Coke, EU and Skeptics - Europe has a bit of an image problem.
Parabolic antenna and European flag Credit © European Union, 2011

13th July 2011 - We are bombarded by images all day long, be it on TV, the internet or the simple bus-stop billboard. The most famous of all being that of Coca Cola - after reading an interesting piece in today’s Euractiv on the lack of successful marketing the EU does for itself, my mind turned to a thorny issue that haunts the EU, particularly in skeptical states such as the UK.

Being a Europhilic Englishman brings its own problems, but one of the most worrying is the lack of press on the subject of EU, save to tell us that our bananas are not straight enough, or warning that our national football team ‘could be forced’ to wear the EU flag on their jerseys, as soon as the dastardly European Commission gets its wicked way. As comical as these stories are, they highlight a popular problem associated with the Union. In simple terms there is not enough positive coverage, nothing on billboards or television to inform the electorate of what good the EU actually does. Countries such as the UK, with advanced infrastructures and developed economies, rarely ‘see’ returns on their European investment. This perception is far from reality. As beneficiaries of the European Union Cohesion Policy will no doubt attest to, universities and further education centres in the South West of England under the old South West RDA alone received £20 million from the period running 2007-2014, with nearly £20 million more committed just to ensure that the projects did not run out of money. (Source)

Now, one can question what efficiencies are gained from such large sums of money being committed early on. One can also discuss protective measures to ensure that the money does not go missing. But this is all beside the point. At a time when the government of the UK is perceived to be cutting back on higher education (including the funding of building materials) the EU is still funding projects, be they bricks and mortar or less tangible. All of the information listed earlier is readily available on the Regional Policy website of the European Commission. The problem is that I had to look quite hard for it. As a case in point, I spent well over an hour looking for the amount of money spent by the EU on self-promotion (it is now an entirely online operation, with paper advertising slowly being phased out). Another difficulty I faced was that although I could tell you all about Cohesion, Competitiveness and the like, I couldn’t pin down any hard figures. Given another hour I’m sure I would have found something more substantial, but that defeats the point.

So what are we faced with? A flood of information is ‘easily’ available online, but the issue is how to get to it. Even Google struggles to bring up the correct financial information for the EU. Alas the Commission’s marketing strategy, though sophisticated, cutting edge and bristling with that en vogue watch word ‘Transparency’, lacks a certain je ne sais quoi! So what of the article I mentioned at the beginning? Well, the US university- educated Indian, head of the French business school INSEAD, pretty much knocked the issue on the head. In his interview he focuses on how national, or rather European (not Union) pride should be pooled and exported as a marketable image; the key components being culture, longevity and the uniqueness of European society as a whole. I’m not advocating that the people of Europe package themselves, put a gaudy label on a lunchbox and ‘sell’ themselves in order to promote the EU. The EU should instead be moving in a direction where the humble bus-stop is a chance to extol the virtues of being part of a Union. Make them region specific even - though the costs may rise, nothing makes life easier for any legislating body than being popular because of what it does. Negative press is free and readily available from all quarters, be it in the blogosphere or senior cabinet ministers. Myth busting websites go some way to alleviating this problem, but if the population doesn’t know what it is you are doing to help them personally, then it remains remote at best, meaningless at worst.

As a member of a new JEF section in the Netherlands, I feel that even in a nation perceived as being one of the most pro-EU, there is a vacuum in which many citizens don’t know what the EU is, or what it does for them. I enjoy telling new-comers about what we do, what the EU does and the benefits that come with membership of this exclusive club. That does not mean that I am blind to those excesses and failings that creep just around the corner, waiting to trip me up in the guise of another Euro-skeptic. Coca Cola tells us all the time that it’s there. Whether we look or not, it is always there - If you don’t believe me, look at the local kebab shop sign. Saturation advertising and a pervading sense of the brand gives people something to recognize sub-consciously. If you associate Coke with a vending machine, you are more likely to purchase the product next time you go to a vending machine. If you are constantly being reminded that the EU is there as a force for good and personal improvement, then the extreme views that strangle the development of the Union will fade slowly with time. Unfortunately there is no quick fix, but one must start somewhere. And where better than to publicize a new library, school, or hospital wing built with ‘your money’ from the EU.

It is just a thought - but when skeptical nations such as the UK start to add up Project 1 investments and the like, they will soon forget about those pesky straight bananas.

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