act-react-impactWhen I worked for National School of Government I used to accompany groups of UK civil servants on study trips to Brussels. The aim was that these visits would give the civil servants a first taste of the EU environment. On one visit to the European Parliament an old friend of mine who at the time worked as an assistant to a Green MEP came to address the group.

“You’re the enemy!” he said as his opening line.

You could hear the polite, grey suited civil servants shuffle uncomfortably. How could civil servants – even UK civil servants! – be an enemy?

The issue that my friend was getting to the bottom of in his confrontational way was what forces the European Parliament to work in a unified way as an institution. By enemy he meant that the British civil servants would be sitting in the Council in Brussels, and – when it came to legislation – the Council was the enemy.

I think this ‘we are the European Parliament, listen to us, respect us!’ sort of line still pervades how the European Parliament communicates, and comes from the history of the parliament that had to fight to be heard in the 1970s and 1980s, and has since then battled against low levels of trust, understanding and turnout. In other words the European Parliament feels it has to communicate as an institution. In contrast the Houses of Parliament in the UK or the Bundestag in Germany have, as parliaments, have nothing to prove, and hence their communication is more matter of fact, this is what we do. They are not setting out to convince people, to try to continually justify their existence.

The European Parliament needs to let go a bit, to relax, and to give its individual MEPs the tools and training they need to better communicate. That’s surely a better approach than trying to convince everyone of the parliament’s importance as a body.


  1. One big problem of the EP is the fact that it spends a lot of time and energy in institutional battles and resolutions on issues outside the boundary of its competences, and fails completely in communicating about the legislative work in policy areas, where it really has powers. The house’s credibility could be improved if its members finally get the principle that it is not up to them to decide on their own competences. Moreover, it would not be the last of the ideas to advise them to question if the operating costs of their institution are not somehow overblown in respect to their legislative activity. It is not only the Strasbourg travel circus and the interpreters that cost a lot, but also their allowances, their travel costs and their staff costs. The fact that an MEP costs about 4 times as much as a national MP (without counting the operating costs) does not speak in favour of a more cost-efficient EU.

  2. No, because we don’t think this is because the EP “has something to prove”. The Bundestag and the House of Commons essentially make laws on their own. Their co-legislators are much weaker. The EP, not so much.

  3. So, in other words, you both agree with me 🙂

  4. Absolutely agree with Martin Holterman. The main fights in Brussels are between the institutions, and not between the political parties. Hence the need to stress the relevance of the institution.

    But do you see this “[the Council] is the enemy also a lot in day-to-day communication nowadays? I am wondering because you illustrated your post with the Elections poster and tagged it with Ogilvy.

  5. When I was at the Council in ’06, the Parliament was also the enemy. That had nothing to do with self-confidence, but rather with the fact that these two are permanently locked in a (seemingly) zero-sum negotiation.

    (It also didn’t help that the Parliament had a habit of making amendment proposals that were seemingly not very well-considered. Unless, of course, they came straight from a lobbyist, in which case we didn’t like them for that reason.)

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