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Last year my colleague Giulio Carini and I wrote an article about ‘reframing’ the EU. We thought that the current frames supporters of the EU were using in the debate were obstructive and we wanted to suggest some alternatives. We were particularly motivated to do so because we were spending the week hosting George Lakoff, the American professor who has become one of the most well-known advocates of framing, both as a linguistic construct and a political tool.
Since then, openDemocracy has published a series of articles on reframing the European debate, a number of which are somewhat suspicious of our approach. In the absence of Professor Lakoff, I am not ambitious enough to defend the entire concept of framing. But I will make a case for the value of the approach in the current EU debate. Now, in light of the European Parliament election results, where stagnating voter turnout and hotspots of strident Euroscepticism were some of the most striking trends, the fundamentals of the EU debate need addressing more than ever.
There are three broad criticisms levied against framing. One is that it is a spruced up version of spindoctory; political propaganda dressed up in academic obscurities. Another related critique is that it is elitist and disingenuous, reinforcing the political status quo rather than addressing people’s real concerns. And third, it could be seen as vacuous – rather than making a new political contribution, it just repackages old ideas. These are I think the fundamental complaints about the concept of framing and the somewhat low esteem in which some hold it.
I won’t defend here the concept of framing in general: that debate is too abstract and too widely defined for my purposes. But in the context of the EU, these three concerns about framing seem to me misplaced. Framing can go well beyond spin and have transformative policy impact; it can help politicians to respond to previously neglected concerns; and it can provide a valuable contribution to the current debate on the EU.
(I’ve taken the risk here of discussing and responding to some of the critiques of our approach head-on, fully aware that I could be falling into the trap of reinforcing opposing views by putting them at the centre of the argument. But I fear that any other alternative would fail to engage with the fundamental concerns that have been raised with the reframing approach. Avoiding these arguments would do them a disservice.)
Framing as heartfelt politics
First, the question of spin. From the start of his openDemocracy essay ‘The European Union’s problem is substance, not narrative’, Marko Bucik says that supporters of the EU like reframing because it is a strategy that justifies keeping the same policies in place while tinkering with their rhetoric and simplifying their language to build support. Well, if this is what reframing is all about, then count me out.
Framing, according to our work at Counterpoint (and George Lakoff), is about ideas, not just words. Frames are mental structures that organise our ideas and experiences. They connect together different ideas into a coherent whole. Typically, in politics, frames tell a story of how a problem needs to be solved. These frames guide the way people think.
Opposing frames are therefore not just clashes over different wordings – they are conflicts between opposing political visions, with all their concomitant values, policy dilemmas and proposed solutions. Reframing the EU, in turn, is far more than a superficial attempt at rewording; it is about reconceiving how the institution should work.
One example is the current tussle over Jean-Claude Juncker, the frontrunner for the next European Commission President. This is not just a battle over one individual – it is a battle of competing frames. On the one hand, the European Parliament frames Juncker’s candidacy as the outcome of a democratic election, where voters were given the choice to support one of a number of candidates each nominated by a European political party. To not put forward Juncker now would therefore constitute a democratic betrayal. On the other hand, the UK Prime Minister David Cameron and others frame the candidacy as a power play by a European Parliament that has far less democratic legitimacy than elected national leaders. Juncker is the wrong person for the job and acquiescing now would divert power away from more democratically legitimate sources.
Both frames take the same event – the European elections – and interpret the results differently: the European Parliament highlights the success of the European People’s Party at the elections while Cameron and his allies highlight the rise in Euroscepticism. And the policy consequences of the two frames are starkly different: the former frame necessitates a Juncker Presidency (or at least his nomination by the Council before being put to a vote in the European Parliament); the latter an alternative candidate. According to each frame, of course, the opposing frame is misleading political propaganda – no surprises there. But both sides appear to genuinely believe the frames that they uphold. And these frames have serious political consequences.
So any proper attempt at reframing the EU by its supporters would not just come down to a question of rhetoric; it would outline an alternate political vision, a new way of looking at things, and it would entail substantive changes. The framing could be explicitly left-wing or right-wing; it could tell a story about the EU defending Europe from a brand of neo-liberal economics destroying traditional industries and taking power away from working people and putting it into the hands of multinational companies, or it could tell a story about the EU cutting regulation and red tape, freeing up businesses, and providing the engine for widespread prosperity and security. A new frame would be substantive, hotly contested and of real consequence. If reframing the EU did not achieve any of this, then it would be a failure – because the outcome would be the same old frame about peace and goodwill dressed up in new rhetoric.
Framing as a vehicle for addressing citizens’ concerns
Marko Bucik makes another important point. He argues that, rather than discussing how to reframe the EU, we should recognise that the EU is fundamentally unpopular. People have deep concerns about the EU; reframing is just an excuse to dance around these concerns without seriously addressing them.
I would argue the opposite: reframing the EU can help to address the concerns that people have with it. The reason is this. Frames, by their nature, highlight certain things and side-line others. In the example above, the pro-Juncker frame highlights the European People’s Party win and side-lines the public’s lack of interest in the Spitzenkandidaten; the anti-Juncker frame highlights the role of national leaders and marginalises the role of the European Parliament.
At the same time, the success of outsider and Eurosceptic parties at these elections points to a set of wide-ranging concerns about national and European level politics that the mainstream has so far struggled to effectively address. Reframing the EU – simply looking at the institution differently – can give the opportunity for these voices to be heard. Take, for instance, the suggestion we made previously that the EU can be reframed around the theme of empowerment – this frame would naturally lend itself to a democratic restructuring that gives more opportunities for people to be listened to, whether that is through more power for national parliaments, a directly elected Commission President, or the implementation of public consultations and other methods of deliberative democracy on the ground across EU member states.
Framing as a powerful political tool
I’ve tried to make the point that framing goes far deeper than political spin. But in doing so it could be argued that I’ve made the concept too vague and all-encompassing to be valuable. Is framing of any use at all or is it just a way of repackaging the perennial project of stimulating and nurturing new political ideas?
In fact, I think that the concept of reframing can bring significant benefits to this debate. Here are two important ones.
First, it gives the opportunity for supporters of the EU to connect together the different reasons for their support into a compelling story. This problem is highlighted in Olaf Cramme’s recent oD essay on framing. He states that ‘if you cannot persuade your fellow citizens in candid terms that a predominantly technocratic innovation like the EU brings meaningful and practical benefits to them, then it is doomed.’ This is a sentiment I share – but the big question is: how to effectively persuade?
One way is to list all the ways in which people can benefit from the EU: the freedom to live and work in other EU member states, cheaper international mobile phone calls, etc. Apart from the simple point that, as Marko Bucik notes, not everyone clearly benefits from all these things, the problem with this approach is that it doesn’t give a reason for anyone to back the institutions more broadly. Why should citizens trust the EU to be a positive, valuable force, not just in some policy areas, but in its fundamental outlook – and not just in what it has already done to address past problems, but in how it will handle future unforeseen challenges?
A new frame can help to make a compelling case, not only for the current benefits of the EU but for its future direction. The language used is part of this approach – not because it can be used to trick and conceal, but because it is the principal way of communicating political ideas.
The second reason to take framing seriously is that disregarding it may well leave supporters of the EU in a precarious position. Framing happens all the time – there’s no way to stop it. A missing pro-EU counter-frame leaves the field open for Eurosceptics and populists. Over the last few months at Counterpoint, we have charted the power of these frames in a series of briefings on populist rhetoric. If no effective alternative is given, then the risk is that all debate on this topic will become saturated with Eurosceptic frames. This will not be conducive to a healthy democratic debate.
Reframing is no silver bullet
I’ve tried here to make a case for not dismissing the ‘reframing’ argument when debating the EU. My feeling is that the term arouses such hostility in part because sometimes it can be portrayed as a simplistic and all-too-neat – even mystical – solution to one’s political woes. Here the critics are right: reframing is no silver bullet.
But on the crucial question of reform, reframing can actually facilitate, rather than obstruct, substantive changes in policy. Substance vs Narrative is a false dichotomy. George Lakoff, the man described as the ‘father of framing’, gets this more than anyone. Last year when he was in London, I raised the subject of the European Parliament. “What does it do?” he said. I started to recount some of the details. “But … what does it do for people?” he replied. This, not spin, is what I understand framing to be about.
Read more from our 'Reframing Europe in difficult times' debate here.
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