How can the EU support its superheroes, without destroying their credibility in the process? And under what conditions should it even try?
Whatever direction Brexit takes, it remains a goldmine of lessons for everyone who cares about the future of our continent. After all, anyone who thinks that the UK is the only country to ever question its EU membership is being dangerously optimistic.
how can such “EU Superheroes” be supported without destroying their authenticity?
On the other hand, anyone who thinks those same countries don’t have many passionately pro-European citizens is just wrong. Case in point: Madeleina Kay, aka EU Supergirl. Apolitical until the Brexit result, she is now the archetypal pro-European activist. Brussels is full of fans, including myself, and many want to help her. Even more want to help themselves to her followers.
So I and fellow Australian-in-Brussels Richard Medic (@happeningo) decided to ask some friends to help answer a couple of questions: how can such “EU Superheroes” be supported without destroying the very essence of their appeal — their authenticity? And how democratic would that be?
Some background for the uninitiated
One of the very few anti-Brexit activists telling an unashamedly pro-EU story through a series of creative projects, products, music and costumed characters, Madeleina has challenged the prevailing Brexit narrative, energised a community of pro-EU activists, and taught thousands of British people about the rights they’re about to lose as EU citizens.
When she came to Brussels as part of a blogging competition I piloted for the EC, she got an EC-funded project onto the BBC News. Twice. Something which would wet most comms professionals’ eyes with joy.
Her Tweets (left) not only had an impact second only to one of the EC’s biggest accounts, it brought an entirely new audience to the event she was Tweeting from. From nowhere.
Yet when she returned to Brussels for her crowdfunded Letters2EU project, nobody — bar Guy Verhofstadt and Luca Jahier — paid any attention. Three months later she was Young European of the Year.
So what? Well, the UK is not the only country with an anti-EU movement, and she’s not the only EU superhero out there fighting the good fight. Perhaps we can learn from her experience to figure out how such people, and such movements, can be supported in the future. And by whom, and how.
The UK is not the only country with an anti-EU movement, and she’s not the only EU superhero fighting our corner. Perhaps we can learn from her experience
Because helping activists like Madeleina is not as simple as it first looks. This is not something that you just throw money at.
Activitists: an expendable resource?
The EU is a longterm project, built by generations of people. All paid.
Noone, no matter how passionate, can live forever on crowdfunding. Since 2017, of course, Madeleina’s been inundated by job offers from various quarters by people entranced by the size of her following … and completely indifferent to how working with them would destroy her credibility.
They seem to see her as an expendable resource, like an acquifer: they want access to her followers, and don’t care what damage they do as they buy it.
I think she deserves better, frankly, so I and Richard, who helped Madeleina and I with her second Brussels trip (ain’t it odd that two of the small handful of Brussels Bubble denizens helping out are Aussies?) recently organised a series of conversations with friends to explore how people like Madeleina can be supported without destroying the authenticity which makes them valuable.
Anyone giving or receiving such support will hang a massive target on their back
Both those giving and getting such support will hang a massive target on their back, so I also wanted a debate on the terms of such support. How could it be managed so that any support given falls visibly on the right side of the lines separating ‘information/communication’ from ‘propaganda’; and ‘supporting civil society’ from ‘interfering in a state’s national democratic debate’?
Forget the Institutions
After a long afternoon and evening in the Beer Factory, Brussels, enlivened by an unscripted cameo by Nigel Farage, the answer was pretty clear: forget the Institutions.
I was surprised at the level of unanimity on this from the cross-section of the Brussels Bubble assembled that evening: we had a variety of #EUComms and #EUInfluencers, MEP assistants and EP staff, lobbyists, political group staffers, the original Captain Europe, and consultants like myself.
Even ignoring the deeper questions set out above, no-one thought EU Institutional support was worth the Bureaucratic Overhead and the Dead Hand of Control:
“… an EC Project Officer checking every word, box-ticking monthly reports, preventing innovation and agility … treating the project as a Personal Career Advancement Plan, with an audience limited to the nearest three Directors…”
- Don’t poison the hearts and minds you’re trying to win
There was also less — although not zero — worry concerning Madeleina providing her expertise as a consultant. After all, building her social media profile from scratch with zero resources and training proves she has a lot to offer. The trick will be to keep her two activities — her mission and her consultancy services — separate, but linked by a common narrative.
But what is her mission?
Right now, as a pro-EU, anti-Brexit, UK activist, she’s in an interesting position:
“I’m anti-Brexit so the EU Commission can’t work with me, but because I’m pro-EU the UK Remain Campaign won’t let me near the stage”
Let’s put aside the Remain’s “Designed2Fail” strategy of being anti-Brexit while not pro-EU, although you’d think they’d have learnt something by now.
And bear in mind that the Commission is probably right to not work with her, for fear of being seen to take sides in a debate which is as toxic as it is vital.
But that changes when we look to the rest of the EU, which is gearing up for the EU Parliamentary elections in May 2019. The general problem we face is democratic decay, an important symptom of which is low turnout. At the last elections, some basic number crunching shows:
“Around three-quarters of the electorate believe the EU to be Unimportant OR Harmful AND/OR Undemocratic”
- Dialogue of the deaf: interpreting the election results
One of the more entertaining conversations that evening centred around a pro-democracy, get out the EU Youth vote campaign, with Madeleina training Superheroes across Europe to create a tongue-in-cheek EU Superhero League.
Such a campaign wouldn’t even have to be pro-EU — as one person put it, the key message could be “whether you love or hate the EU, VOTE!”.
RyanAir, Thalys and other potential sponsors: feel free to get in touch.
The whole point, however, was to give Madeleina new perspectives to consider, so I’ll leave the last word to her, left.
Plus Nigel, of course, for the light entertainment ;)