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Lee Rotherham: The hard sell of EU propaganda - the hidden case of Slovenia

Rotherhamlee Lee Rotherham, lately returned from a tour of Afghanistan with the Territorial Army, writes about one aspect of his new book for Open Europe on the EU’s PR budget.

Recently, Open Europe has published a mammoth piece of research, The hard sell: EU communication policy and the campaign for hearts and minds. It details in depth some of the mechanisms the European institutions, particularly the Commission, use to sell themselves and the project of European integration.  This book has already been launched in electronic form, with hard copy coming out in a few days.

The problem with the subject matter, on which I worked long months with Lorraine Mullally, was that the end result was simply too overwhelmingly massive to all put into print. Some sections, in particular the annexes, had to be pruned or dropped.

One such lost element perhaps merits here putting on the record. In the UK, we are fortunate in having an alert and developed press, with a tradition of long years of critique. It is no coincidence that a pro-integrationist children’s cartoon book printed by the Commission (the infamous Raspberry Ice Cream War) was only withheld - and probably pulped - in one country, after an outcry in the national papers challenged its appropriateness in schools.

That was in Britain. In many other EU member states, the media is apparently less ready to question the manner in which the EU uncritically sells itself and its policies of ever-closer union. The result is a well-oiled PR system selling European integration. The case of Slovenia proves this point well.

Slovenia provides a useful test subject for study on EU propaganda for many reasons:

  1. Its size makes identifying activity easier.
  2. Its recent Communist past means that there are some commentators who are aware of how propaganda campaigns are managed effectively, and who can share their perceptions. I here acknowledge special thanks here to the input from leading local Eurosceptic campaigner Blaz Babic.
  3. As a recent EU entrant, the Brussels machinery is keen to accelerate the sale of the EU ideal.
  4. There is no local track record of major opposition to EU PR amongst the press.
  5. The Government supports the process.
  6. There has been no propaganda cause célèbre to awaken public scepticism of the material to date.
  7. The public itself is generally positive about EU membership, so material can reinforce success rather than having to aggressively fight an opinion war.
  8. The public was not conscious of outside funding becoming involved in what was an internal debate.
  9. The national language is not shared with the more Eurosceptic EU member states, so locally produced material is less likely to come to the attention of critics of propaganda elsewhere.  

Some Examples

The Representation of the Commission in Slovenia is known in 2006 to have provided €270,000 of funding to support TV programmes on the EU.  A similar sum was anticipated to be spent on more radio and TV programmes, including an EU quiz show. Posters and leaflets are also in abundance. One observer notes: “Material tends to look informative but at the end the substance is empty and getting worse.”  With the Slovenian Presidency approaching in 2008, a lot more design and promotional material began to be paid for.

But is that the sum of Commission involvement, or just the tip of the iceberg? To what extent is it through a partnership agreement with the state?

Certainly, there is track record. Material on EU membership is reported to have started appearing around the same time as PR product on NATO, around 1994, both explaining the inevitability of Picture_8_3membership. The extent of Commission support has long remained a mystery to local observers.  That information activity has taken place was evident, not least when in 2005 a massive yellow articulated truck turned up around Novo Mesto to spread the message on diversity policy (It is perhaps worth adding that of the 15 countries it visited, the most Eurosceptic were noticeably excluded).

Other examples of activity includes the following:

  • The Commission is understood to have funded a conference for young people, organised by Slovenian NGOs, to debate whether the EU constitution needed ratifying by referenda, followed by nibbles. Janez Lenarčič, State Secretary for European affairs and head of the local Commission Representation Mihela Zupančič (previously an NGO veteran, particularly in women’s rights) provided the introductions. The event had to be crashed by local Eurosceptic campaigners in order to be able to distribute their literature.
  • A group of Team Europe experts has been set up nationally.
  • Standard distribution procedures apply to centrally produced Commission material in Slovenian.
  • CNVOS – the state-founded and sponsored Slovenian NGO Centre – organised a conference for NGOs on mechanisms for getting involved in dialogue with the European institutions. It anticipates Slovenian involvement in cross-border NGO groups that already receive EU subsidy and support, named in the main Open Europe publication.
  • EU symbols, especially the flag, are now omnipresent.
  • Europe Day has taken over the role formerly played by Victory Day.
  • EVROFON has been run by the state as its EU support project. One recent action amongst many has been to organise a workshop for NGOs on sustainable energy and the development of EU policy. One commentator very harshly critiques it so: “Some NGOs (and with that some quisling individuals) get the money, fake debates are made public and people are served an illusion of a functioning EU democracy.”
  • An Erasmus van has also reportedly visited Slovenia as part of a much bigger tour.
  • The Commission Representation itself costs €10,000 a year to service. €40,000 was reportedly spent on buying equipment for a conference hall and for an EP information point. A further €55,000 was earmarked for “physical protection and reception”.
  • In addition to the Commission’s building and the EP’s building (Slovenia has just 7 MEPs), there are Europe Houses in both the capital and in Maribor. A key player is the Center Evropa, which is registered as an NGO – a detail that suggests a decentralised information campaign will be the one adopted in the long run.
  • External collaboration projects are on record for 2006. €22,000 went to a PR company whose key figure is reportedly a former state broadcast journalist with good contacts in government. €29,000 is listed as going to the same agency to distribute a booklet on the Euro.  €15,000 went to a privatised press agency. €18,000 went on the Representation’s website.
  • A small sum (€1,670, likely to be state funding) in 2005 funded a meeting for teenagers.  It was important for the feedback it provided the planners: “Participants were satisfied with the project but at least in summer activities they have openly admitted that they already have enough of this EU knowledge and they don't want to listen about other countries anymore”. Media coverage on the EU was seen as perfunctory and dull. Receiving EU information activity felt like school work. This clearly was not good news! Consequently, “the methods to work with children and their ways to learn about EU should be upgraded”.
  • Other listed activities that have been known to have been run over the past few years include Evropa v šoli (classroom competitions on Europe); Enake možnosti za vse - enakost spolov (Equal opportunities for all - equality of sexes), Sodelovanje v evropi različnosti (Cooperation within European diversity), Sem državljanka - sem državljan v spreminjajoči se Evropi (I am a citizen in a changing Europe), Evropa skozi kulturo in šport (Europe through culture and sport), Različni in enaki živimo skupaj v Evropi, in na planetu zemlja (Different and equal we live together in Europe and on planet earth [sic]), Naša zgodovina - naša prihodnost (Our history - our future), and Lepše okolje - lepša Evropa (Nicer environment - nicer Europe).
  • Further events that have been identified as carrying propaganda value include the following: Spring Day in Europe 2007 - Together since 1957: Schools celebrate Europe; "Goodbye to Tolar, hello to Euro!" competition; a Contest for a logo at the 50th anniversary of signing of Treaty of Rome; Contest by the weekly magazine Mag for the best column article of youngsters; Spring Day in Europe - We discuss our future; involvement in a Euroquiz with Austrian television; Web chat with Commissioner Michel; "I have become an European citizen" contest; EU essay; best postcard competition; Europe contest in school; the essay competition "I live in the EU" (views on the future of Slovenia in EU, from the viewpoint of youngsters); debate on the future of the EU; Spring day in Europe and debate on enlargement; material on the participation of youth delegates on the Convention on the Future of Europe; Young European contest; programme of research grants funded by a Commission-linked NGO; secondary school participation in a model EP; and a contest for the best paper written on Slovenian accession to the EU.
  • A recent appeal to the Government’s Communication Office for €6,000 to arrange a trans-European but Eurosceptic summer camp, on the other hand, was turned down. The sum total of grants to Eurosceptic organisations in Slovenia since independence is believed to amount to one award of €5,000.
  • Picture_9 €35,000 went to material distributed through the Students Union at Ljubljana, which we understand to be the funding behind the booklet Zgrabi Evropo (Grab Europe). This is an upbeat presentation on European evolution, with plenty of quotes from Commissioners and Team Europe supporters selling their wares, concluding with a crossword puzzle with prizes. It was a local Commission initiative, its third publication in the year. 75,000 copies were printed for students in Higher Education across the country.

Both the tenor and content turned this last publication into an item of propaganda. These varied from the comparative and simplistic, “Do you know: Every EU citizen contributes yearly to the EU budget €0.70 which is less than a price of a cup of coffee”, to some rather strange claims, such as this one from a Commissioner:

"Science and research are within the project of European cooperation a story of success. Since 1984 when 1st frame research program was accepted, the EU has helped numerous researchers and research projects. European cooperation led to inventions [sic] such as the mobile telephone, the Galileo satellite system and Airbus [“Evropsko sodelovanje je vodilo k izumom, kot so mobilni telefon, satelitski sistem Galileo in Airbus”]. It's a fact that countries could not reach such results on their own. Therefore it is reasonable to join forces to achieve more and to face successfully the challenges of today and tomorrow."

An Ongoing Programme

Even this document has been overtaken by further material. The Commission Representation has for example published 105,000 copies of what may be an annual propaganda turn. EUfora is designed for secondary school children.  The May 2007 publication, carrying a foreword by the Commission Head of Representation Mihela Zupančič, was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary. This booklet, described by commentators as “beautifully designed”, writes about what the EU offers youngsters in everyday life, celebrates the European year of equal opportunity for all, and the linguistical and cultural diversity. In the middle are four pages of comics, with drawings by Matej De Cecco and script by Peter Arko.  It follows Jure's (George) mad travel through the history of the EU. As with the remainder of the book, this glossy product is reported not to contain a single negative thought on the Union.

This comes in the wake of another new state textbook for younger schoolchildren. Opa Vropa (Opa is an exclamatory) is described as “ABC Evropske unije... Evropska unija za telebane... Vse, kar ste si o EU želeli vprašati, pa si niste upali...”, which can be translated along the lines of “An ABC of European Union… the European Union for dummies …Everything you wanted to ask about the EU, but didn't dare to...”. Pointedly, it is another idea based on an Austrian original, with an extra section bolted on for the Slovenian audience. It is designed as a teaching tool for primary and secondary schools. As such, the motivation and content have been challenged.

Lessons Learned

Some ConHome readers are now asking themselves; academically interesting, but so what?

Unquestionably, a pro-EU campaign has been taking place in Slovenia. Also undeniably, it has been one-sidedly operating in support of political integration. As such, it is by any standard or historical definition of the concept, propaganda. The state is playing the major part, but the task is made much easier by the participation and support of the European Commission, financially and in terms of source material.

This, in turn, means the support of the European taxpayer, from a budget to which the British taxpayer is a net contributor.

Pro-EU NGOs, many of which are known to be in receipt of state or EU funding, are playing a key role. This is particularly suspicious in cases where ‘not-for-profit limited company NGOs’ have been involved. So ‘off-balance sheet’ support is taking place as well.

One might argue that (however one chooses to phrase it) if a state is propagandising to its own people, that is no concern of ours. However, it is when we are paying for it; and it is if the net result will affect the future political direction of the EU club, by using reference to (EU-organised) opinion polls as a justification for ceding more powers.

Additionally, it does seem that the EU is playing the cuckoo in information points relating to the ‘broader Europe’, and that the Council of Europe is in the process of being completely usurped as an owner of the generic tag ‘Europe’. We should not be surprised. For an integrationist Commission, a supranational alternative is ultimately anathema. The effect, of course, is to skew the debate on what sort of political Europe should emerge; cooperative, or federal.

But for readers of Conservative Home, it demonstrates a key point. Whatever our own hometown Commission spokesmen might say, EU PR machinery is in place that sells a one-sided vision of European integration, which is hardly democratic. We in Britain might at times be tempted to swallow the line that it doesn’t, because we don’t get to see the worst of it.

But it does exist. Perhaps by raising it here, we might encourage journalists in Slovenia and elsewhere to review it for themselves, and make up their own minds.

Our book calculates, with remarkable generosity and restraint, that €2.4 billion of the EU budget goes on propaganda. That figure excludes a web of identified EU budget lines that have incidental but self-evident PR effect, or where part of the line is stated as being for PR purposes but where the sum cannot be isolated, because the Commission rather inconveniently doesn’t provide it. So that figure is a very reserved one on our part. What the Slovenian case demonstrates is that without the watchfulness of campaigners and the attentiveness of the Fourth Estate, this money can go a long way to skew the democratic debate.

So watch out, Ireland!


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