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Trust in the EU is falling across Europe. With elections for the European Parliament coming up next year, what can EU leaders do to capture the public’s imagination?
They should start by rejecting the view of the mind that takes voters for rational actors who make decisions by weighing up each available option while taking into account all known facts.
All too often, the EU’s solution to public disapproval is to argue that voters are not fully informed; that if only voters truly understood the workings of the EU’s institutions, that if only they were actively involved in the European Parliament elections, then they would understand that the EU is in their best interests.
Research from psychology, neuroscience and linguistics suggests that this understanding of the mind is not only old fashioned but flawed. As the cognitive linguist George Lakoff will discuss in a public lecture this evening hosted by Counterpoint, assessing decision-making must take into account the role of emotion and the associated power of frames.
Eurosceptics have already understood this. The emotional frame they use says that EU leaders are naïve idealists – well-meaning fools who once believed, after the terrible tragedies of the first half of the twentieth century, that they could create a European utopia. But this utopia, the Eurosceptics argue, is pure fantasy – the Eurozone crisis now shows that the EU is fundamentally ill-conceived. Yet pro-Europeans just won’t give in and now our country’s sovereignty is being sacrificed on the altar of a failed ideology. This ‘naïve idealist’ frame is powerful because it frames the Eurosceptics’ opponents not as evil – but just as hopeless romantics who have gone astray.
Those in favour of a stronger EU need to recognise the importance of frames. But the challenge is even bigger than this. Even when pro-EU politicians understand that they need to do more to foster support than offer facts about the benefits and policies of the EU, the emotional frames they use do not resonate with European voters. The EU often repeats a “friendship frame” which goes something like this:
World War II shows Europe at its worst – we never want to return to a Europe of totalitarianism, prejudice and war. The EU shows what Europe can be if countries find friendship with one another, if they work together and if they embrace openness, tolerance and harmony.
There’s a simple reason why this frame doesn’t work. By sticking to the ‘friendship frame’, they fall headlong into a Eurosceptic trap: EU leaders sound exactly like the naïve idealists Eurosceptics portray them as.
As Lakoff says, if you repeat or negate your opponents’ language or frames, you lose, because you end up reinforcing their frame. In a recent speech, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy made life particularly easy for the Eurosceptics by explicitly repeating and trying to negate their frame – he said “For Europe means friendship too. Some may think me naïve but was the first Franco-German Treaty not a friendship treaty?”
If pro-EU politicians continue with this frame, they will continue to be outframed by Eurosceptics. And they will struggle to make an effective positive case for the EU. To engage voters and win Eurosceptics over, they need to reframe how we view the EU.
It will take time to introduce and repeat new ideas, but the EU must move fast and persistently to convince potential voters to gain confidence in its relevance and abilities. The narrative we now suggest could serve as a starting point for reframing the debate.
Rather than the outdated ‘friendship frame’ that does not resonate with voters and reinforces a Eurosceptic frame, the EU must take into account the anxieties that people across Europe have raised time and time again – concerns about how people and national governments can no longer control their own destinies. As once trusted institutions and economic models are failing to deliver, people and national politicians increasingly feel powerless about the impact of globalisation and a world characterised more and more by interdependence. The EU has first to accept that people now feel that they live in times of uncertainty where our future remains unpredictable and increasingly frightening.
The EU next needs to shift from an institution people view as contributing to uncertainty to one that is able to alleviate it. It needs to embody the idea of empowerment – showing how it will empower us to face Europe’s challenges, ranging from youth unemployment and ageing populations to immigration and integration. In a world of uncertainty, by enabling countries to work together to solve problems, the EU should aim to be seen as a force for empowerment.
Our suggestion of the ‘empowerment frame’ is just a start. But by rooting their approach in frames – and by avoiding the defunct ‘friendship frame’ – politicians in favour of a stronger EU can start to win back the support they have lost.
George Lakoff speaks on, ‘Is all politics moral? How frames and values inform the way we vote’ with political pollster and commentator Deborah Mattinson at a Counterpoint public lecture, on October 7, 2013.
Read responses to this article by Jon Worth, Olaf Cramme and others in our Reframing Europe debate.