Monday, May 27, 2013

Olive oil and the three Brussels ailments

I love olive oil. I love good olive oil. But why oh why, did the olive oil jug ban in restaurants and the subsequent U-turn become the main EU news coming out of Brussels last week? Has anyone noticed that there has been a European Council as well? Yes, it did get a bit of attention, but way less than the olive oil story.

This made me think. I often complain about how badly the EU institutions communicate. But there is more to it. I realised that there are three syndromes that from now on I will need to keep in mind when trying to find ways for the European Union to (re)connect with its citizens. And I will also have to be careful and remember that many in and around the EU suffer severely from these conditions, and not all of them are working in the Communications department of the European Union.

1) The shape of cucumbers syndrome: the problem sometimes is not how the EU communicates its decisions but what those decisions are. The Commission works on a vast number of portfolios and agriculture is a big one. But in the current economical situation, well, at any time for that matter, there are some things that the EU simply should not be dealing with. And jugs in restaurants is such a thing. Especially since countries that have such legislation already in place have serious difficulty implementing it - I wonder why.... So let's just leave it to the customer shall we?

 2) The damned if you do and damned if you don't syndrome: the fact that after the barrage of criticism Commissioner Ciolos decided to withdraw the proposal has been criticised just as much as the proposal itself. If you believe in something, then stick to it and defend it. But if you have actually changed your mind and you have the courage - because it is slightly embarrassing - to go out and openly say it, then be prepared to be slagged off anyway. Funnily, at the press conference, since most of the questions were related to how bad the proposal was in the first place, the Commissioner, after his u-turning statement, spent most of the time defending the original proposal and certainly not enough on why he had changed his mind.

Here the inspiring press conference:

3)The powerful lobbies syndrome: the typical Brussels conspiracy scenario: the olive oil industry lobby versus the butter producers lobby; the northern lobby versus the southern lobby; the quality lobby versus the quantity lobby; 'the-Commission-is-too-weak-in-front-of-industry' lobby versus 'the-Commission-is-too-weak-in-front-of-powerful-member-states lobby'. Couldn't it simply be that the Commission has made a mistake, realised it (admittedly after some external pressure) and acted on it (again, a bit too late)? Don't get me wrong: I am not saying that lobbies in Brussels are not powerful; I am only pointing out that everyone has got their 'bad lobby' to blame for something or other.

The Commission, the member states - for or against the proposal - and the European media have all behaved in a typical but frankly disappointing way: not one of them has actually explained properly what has happened: why has the idea come up in the first place? How serious of an issue it is? Why did countries like the UK abstain and later shouted against it to please their Euro-sceptic audience? Why has Cameron decided not to explain the reason for this strange behaviour, a question posed brilliantly also by Wall Street Journal's journalist Simon Nixon? Why has the coverage been so extensive but not particularly rigorous? Sadly, everyone stuck to their defensive position and kept on pursuing their own agenda.

And in the end, once again, the real losers are the European citizens whether they love olive oil or not.


Ronny said...

I think the difference between the European Council and the "Olive Oil Scandal" has to do with the visuals of the story:

A European Council is something abstract, somethings intangible, it's high level politicians agreeing on text that may become law that may be implemented nationally that may have an effect on what happens.

An olive oil jug on the table of a little taverna in a small village by the sea is a romantic image that, replaced by an industry bottle, loses its charm and becomes the dullness of reality.

In the same way, the imperfectly shaped cucumber is connected to the idyllic vision of a small market on Saturday morning, where the farmers from the region sell their vegetables, while the uniform green tube that we buy in the supermarkets reminds of the uniformity of industrial food that most of us consume anyway.

I think that only because of this (implicit) imagery the stories around lobbying (good vs evil, small vs. big), can be told in the way they are told, because the same lobbying happens around the activities that bring European leaders around the table during a European Council.

Maybe they should meet around the table of a small taverna near the market to get themselves heard (although the European Council still got its fair share of attention).

Virginia said...

You are right, visuals are really important. And surely the EU has not been very good at creating positive visual associations but suffers from the negative ones.....probably my next post! V