Errant European

At a recent conference on the international media, it took an octogenarian to cut to the heart of things: the creation of the European Union has helped prevent war on a continent that has known many wars, and was at the center of two World Wars in the last century. Ferdinando Riccardi of Agence Europe, an institution that predates the European Union which it covers for subscribers, has been aware of this message for the fifty-plus years he has been reporting from Brussels. War is news, but absence of war is, well, absence of news.

That “message” is not new, in fact it is of such glaring self-evidence that it is now almost invisible. Too bad, and too bad that the campaign for the European Parliament is such a yawn, as described recently by The Economist’s Charlemagne. The European Parliament, says Charlemagne, “is worse than dull: it does not work properly. Like a student union, only with better expenses, it spends an inordinate amount of time on subjects way outside its mandate, such as foreign policy and defence.” Most Belgians are aware of regional elections scheduled alongside the European Parliament elections next month; voting for MEPs is almost an afterthought for many.

For the international journalists gathered at the conference organised by IERI, “who speaks for Europe?” is more than a matter of whom to phone for an interview. Labib Fahmy, Brussels correspondent for Al-Jazeera, spoke of “misunderstood Europe,” the victim of its multiplicity of institutions (Commission, Council, Parliament). Sounding like an Arab Henry Kissinger, he asked “who is Europe?” American readers will be surprised to learn that Fahmy’s struggle to explain Europe to his audience (“Inside Europe”) has languished, while, “despite difficulties,” the Stateside program “Inside Washington” carries on.

Quentin Dickinson (a Frenchman with Scottish forebears) of Radio France Internationale (RFI) has covered the European Union from Brussels for years, and has seen the evolution of Europe’s spokesmen. From the days when spokesmen knew more about the subject than about spin, to today’s tendency to hire “communications” experts, with the result that the experienced journalist hardly consults them if he or she is looking for hard news.

Last word to the dean of the international Brussels correspondents, Ferdinando Riccardi. When Agence Europe was started, the European Union had morphed from its precursor, the European Coal and Steel Community. That economic underpinning – for what in reality is a unique experiment among nation-states, that of surrendering pieces of sovereignty in the name of national interest – still dogs the EU. “Brussels,” instead of being synonymous with lofty goals of peace on the European continent, is in most Europeans’ minds another way of saying mindless bureaucracy.

Let’s see what happens if and when the Lisbon Treaty is ratified. Will there be a super-spokesman, or will he or she just be another “president” with a small “p?”

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