Making Europe’s voice louder

While public and cultural diplomacy is seen as key to addressing many of Europe’s national security challenges, the EU’s efforts remain disjointed and need revamping

Everyone acknowledges that winning “hearts and minds” in the Muslim world will be key to defeating Jihadist terrorism. Yet Europe – while well-placed to do so and with vast funds being spent by the EU-27 individually – has yet to make public diplomacy a core component of its external relations. Far from being the proverbial mouse that roars, the EU more resembles an elephant that squeaks.

The West must find a way to build bridges to Muslims while simultaneously discrediting Osama bin Laden and other Islamic terrorist organizations from the Muslim masses. As Lee Hamilton, the vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, said: “We need to join the battle of ideas within the Islamic world, communicating hope instead of despair, progress in place of persecution, life instead of death.”

In part, this will require a change in policy. At the same time, we need to neutralize anti-Western sentiment among Muslim populations. The best way forward, in the short-term, may therefore be to promote greater cultural ties and links between ordinary citizens in the West and the Islamic world.

Europe is well-placed to lead this work. In a BBC World Service survey of nearly 40,000 people in 33 nations across the globe, every country had a predominantly positive view of Europe. As Philip Fiske de Gouveia, a Public Diplmacy expert, points out: “The EU’s actions – the pursuit of multilateralism, the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the championing of the rule of law and human rights in its neighbourhood – have been of great benefit to its reputation globally.”

Though smaller than the United States, Britain and France each spend about the same as the United States on public diplomacy. France has the highest per capita spending on international cultural relations at $17 per head. Many member states run broadcasting companies – a key strategic public diplomacy tool – like the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle and France 24. And the EU, for its part, has ensured that the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership has a Public Diplomacy dimension. Many European countries also support the UN-sponsored Alliance of Civilizations.

But, as a report by the Foreign Policy Centre noted, “the way that Europe and the EU communicate with third-country publics has been atomized and disjointed.” EU-27 efforts are nationally-focused and often competitive. DG Communication, in charge of communications inside the European Commission, has no real involvement in the EU’s external relations. DG RELEX – the Commission’s mini-Foreign Ministry – spent €7 million on communications in 2005 through its bilateral delegations. But this is a small figure compared to, for example, the British Council’s £551 million annual turn-over.

Big EC delegations in Washington and Moscow employ several Public Diplomacy professionals, but far fewer work in Tehran, Sanaa and Cairo. And there is no established communications cadre within the Commission ready to deploy abroad in support of EU priorities.

More people work on Public Diplomacy in the Foreign Office in London – near 70 – than in Brussels. Other DGs – like Enlargement and Development – spend money on communications. But here, too, the effort falls short and is disjointed. Despite being the first major donor to react to the 2005 Tsunami, the EU received little credit. 

Since 2006 efforts have been underway to improve the EU’s approach. But to make real progress, as part of the new European External Action Service (EEAS) – to be established in January 2009 when the Lisbon Treaty comes into force – the EU should establish an equivalent of the British Council, an Alliance European. Such an organisation could gather all the EU’s cultural diplomacy efforts, coordinate EU country efforts and boost the EU’s engagement in the Middle East. New funds are needed for cultural exchanges, university scholarships, and similar activities. These should compliment national programmes, not seek to replace them.

Inside the new EEAS, a cadre of public diplomacy professionals should be hired. Each new EU delegation should have not only a Cultural Attachés, working to the Alliance European, but a team of communication specialists. In Brussels, an Alistair Campbell-type chief needs to assume charge and direct Public Diplomacy efforts. Crucially, the on-going process to develop the EU’s budget must make resources for such an effort available.

Boosting the EU’s cultural and public diplomacy activities must be a key part of the EU’s post-Lisbon set-up if Europe is to play a serious role in the struggle against extremism in the Middle East. Even those member states, like Britain, who are usually sceptical of additional European responsibilities ought to see the strategic benefit of a collective effort. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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