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Does the Brussels Bubble care enough?

Engaging Europeans with the EU requires a new Brussels Bubble culture.

This is the fourth of several posts written in reaction to Luc van den Brand’s Reaching out to EU Citizens: A New Opportunity, which points out that:

“to regain trust, citizens need to feel that they are the protagonists of policymaking and not just the passive recipients… the European Union needs to be where its citizens are: in local communities… involve ‘non-organised citizens’, as well as organised movements … enable them to develop proposals that can be … submitted to public authorities for further development”

As pointed out previously, it’s very easy to recommend What needs to be done, and much harder to figure out How. If public participation in EU policy was easy, it would have been fixed already.

The irony is that van den Brande’s own Institution, the Committee of the Regions (CoR), is actually well placed to do so.

Anthony Zacharzewski (@anthonyzach) and I, for example, explored one participation model earlier this year at the EWRC conference, co-organised by the CoR. But other models are available, and proven to work.

an important structural flaw in EU communications

The model we explored builds on the CoR’s existing policy participation process, and combines 15 years of EC experience with online communities with what we’ve more recently learnt bringing newcomers into the Bubble for the EWRC blogging competition.

However, the followup to this year’s competition and EWRC illuminated an important structural flaw in EU communications which potentially blocks this and many other models for EU-citizen engagement.

Of #EUInfluencers …

Bringing people into the Brussels Bubble from Outside seems a good idea until you realise that those Inside are only there to talk to each other.

Since the EWRC workshop, I’ve:

  • attended the #EUInfluencers event (described memorably by Berlaymonster as a celebration of “the fetid shallow pond of EU Twitter”)
  • helped out the Letters2EU project (here’s why) organised by blogging competition winner and “EU Supergirl” Madeleina Kay, who got the EC-funded project she profiled for her winning post onto the BBC News

The majority of the Brussels Bubble (Marco Ricorda, Coralia Catana, Magda Herbowska and Richard Medic being honourable exceptions) did little more than click Like to support Madeleina, with some of the biggest #EUInfluencers in the Bubble organising their regular #EUTweetup at the same time as Madeleina’s main event… in another part of town.

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They weren’t being nasty — most of them are lovely, and many (possibly fewer now…) are friends.

But they knew it was on: I’d promoted Madeleina’s arrival at the preceding Tweetup, invited them to Madeleina’s Facebook event, emailed and messaged them, etc.

It simply wasn’t important enough for them to remember, illustrating what #EUInfluencer’s framing so explicitly stated: people come to the Bubble to influence others in the Bubble. Particularly people with influence.

people come to the Brussels Bubble to influence other people in the Brussels Bubble… people with influence

So this is an observation, not a criticism: that’s why they’re here. It’s their job. Engaging with someone without influence from outside the Bubble is not.

… and #EUComms

Unless they’re in #EUcomms: Marco, Coralia, Magda and Richard all face outwards, trying to connect the EU to people outside the Bubble.

Unfortunately, #EUcomms people work either in or for Communications Units — and as such are not well-placed to run policy participation processes, although they are essential to supporting it, and have much to gain.

Unfortunately, #EUcomms people are not well-placed to run policy participation processes

Back to back they faced each other

In other words, the Brussels Bubble includes two groups:

  • EUComms: Institutional communicators want to connect the EU to people outside the Bubble, but don’t have the policy traction to deliver on the promise which a participation process must make
  • EUInfluencers: have the policy traction, but aren’t motivated to engage with Newcomers to the Bubble, who have by definition no power.

The problem, in other words, is Bubble culture.

I’m simplifying to make a point, of course — the messy reality of the actual human beings in the Bubble is far more complex. But until their motivations and rewards are rethought, bringing Europeans in from outside will be like casting seeds onto sterile concrete, and EU policy participation will not grow.

Update: a few months after publishing this post, Madeleina was awarded Young European of the Year. That deserves a new post:

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My Hub curates many resources about #participation, along with my posts written in reaction to van den Brande’s report. Subscribe (left) to get my next posts, as well as the best of all the stuff I curate, in your Inbox, or get just the High3lights from my CuratorBot. He can also put us in touch, or we can connect here.

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Piloting innovative online communications since 1995. Editor: medium.com/Knowledge4Policy. Founder: MyHub.ai. Personal Hub: https://myhub.ai/@mathewlowry/