European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas moderated our first #BrusselsCalling media debate of the year and our first as SEC Newgate EU, on 23 February 2022, with a focus on the challenges of making sense of the EU, both inside and outside the EU bubble. On the panel were Leo Cendrowicz, Brussels correspondent for the I and editor of the Brussels Times magazine; Shada Islam, longstanding Brussels commentator on EU affairs and editor of EUObserver Magazine; and Suzanne Lynch, co-author of POLITICO’s Brussels Playbook.
1. Make the story relevant to all audiences.
Pointing to the challenges of being part of the Brussels ecosystem, Schinas , a former Commission spokeman, asked the journalists how they bridge the gap between what the EU bubble expects from their reporting, compared to what they think people’s expectations are outside Brussels. For Shada, it is very important to reflect on why a story is relevant as well as how to explain it to someone not sitting in Brussels. Her euro+ identity has equipped her for this, as she has developed a sixth sense about what is important and how to convey the message to different audiences. For Suzanne, clarity of expression is crucial. When writing Playbook, she is aware thatmany readers are highly expert, while others are less so . Her challenge is to make the story relevant to both audiences and communicating it in a clear fashion. When referring to the on-going Ukraine crisis, Leo stressed the importance of using different angles to make it more personal and digestible for readers. He sees media’s job as making readers understand what people on the other side of the world are facing and feeling.
2. Brussels vs. Washington bubble.
Tapping into Suzanne’s experience as Irish Times correspondent in Washington and Brussels, VP Schinas asked her about the similarities and differences are between the two ‘bubbles’. She sees the biggest similarity is the media’s role to navigate the different institutions and work out where real power lies. One of the positives of Brussels, she said, is that the EU has 27 countries that are all sovereign, with different interests and aspirations, adding that this inevitably creates tension, which is good for stories. She saw the US media as more closed and more domestically focused than the Brussels press corps. Equally, TV is much moreimportant in the US than in Brussels, where print media are extremely influential. Nevertheless, for Suzanne, the perpetual communications issue for EU institutions is : who do you call when you want to call Europe?
3. Don’t underplay the power of narratives.
Asked about her choice of languag, Shada spoke about the importance of getting the narrative right and giving two or three sides to the story. For example, when talking about migration in Brussels she noted that we are missing migrants in the room. She noted that war metaphors have no place when talking about human lives, referring to the term of ‘shield’ used when referring to influx of migrants and emphasising her own strong feelings about European values, unity, diversity and inclusion. She said some of the language used by Europeanpoliticians ‘’comes from a very hard place’’ due to a far-right narrative and called for a more balanced and humane approach, particularly.
4. The Commission needs a more authentic, confident communication style.
Donning his former spokesperson hat, VP Schinas asked the journalists what is good and bad about the Commission’s communication style. Suzanne said that while its technical briefings are very important, an ongoing issue is the use of language, which can be inaccessible to non-experts . She urged Commission officials to keep away from the script as much as possible and stay authentic. Shada agreed that authenticity and emotions are key, teferring to a speech from President Jean-Claude Juncker on migration, which she said came from the heart and emphasised the importance for politicians and commissioners to speak truth. Shada also called for more diversity within the institutions, adding that the Commission needs people who think differently. For Leo, it is as much about authenticity as about confidence. As he sees it, Commission officials often look paralysed by fear of criticism from journalists from their own member state. This inevitably spins their messaging, with policies often being hidden behind jargon and defensive talking points, he said.
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