Nov 29 2013

Framing Europe: An Exchange

Frames are a key issue in the analysis of public discourse on the crisis in Europe. As part of their Reluctant Radicals project, our colleagues at Counterpoint have initiated a discussion on framing Europe on openDemocracy. Here we reproduce the original argument made by Giulio Carini and Marley Morris and a response by Policy Network‘s Olaf Cramme.

Reframing Europe in unfriendly times

By Giulio Carini and Marley Morris

Broken window largeTrust 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.

This article was originally published on openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

Reframing Europe won’t change anything, and here’s why

By Olaf Cramme

Six months before the elections to the European Parliament (EP), supporters of EU integration are on the defensive across much of Europe. Although the next EP is still likely to accommodate a large majority of parties which tend to argue for “more Europe”, or at least a consolidation of the status quo, the anticipated strengthening of Eurosceptic forces has already had a considerable impact on many national debates. The political momentum is clearly with those who take a tough line on Brussels’ institutions, not with those who are prepared to defend them.

This should not come as a surprise. When the “permissive consensus” in favour of European integration started to crumble in the 1990s and then crashed in the wake of the failed attempt to endow the EU with a constitutional treaty, Europe’s heads of government first chose to ignore this. They pushed ahead with institutional reform and further sovereignty pooling, drawing salient policy issues into the EU orbit. Only when the resistance to the EU’s authority and law-making grew stronger again did our politicians begin to widen the public debate on the future of the EU. In this debate, they commonly follow three kinds of argumentation.

The first emphasises the use of eye-catching statistics and figures. This is, by far, the preferred method of policy-makers to convince their respective populations that the EU is a good thing. References stretch from an increase of GDP thanks to Single Market liberalisation and a rise in cross-border trade, to a Europe-wide health insurance card and a substantial fall of mobile roaming charges due to smart, consumer-friendly EU regulation. Brussels itself now employs a good number of communication specialists who try to get the facts across. If you actually want to, you can easily find out “what’s in it for me”.

Second, some leading politicians and thinkers seek to provide a new line of reasoning when explaining the EU’s relevance in the 21st century. Fifty years ago, the EU’s raison d’être was peace and reconciliation. Now, so the argument goes, it is about power and influence: climate change, energy scarcity, international migration, terrorism, the rise of China, India and other emerging economies would all demand a much stronger collective response from Europe, if it is to preserve its living standards in the decades to come. The EU is no longer about political idealism, but straightforward Realpolitik.

The third approach rests on painting adverse scenarios in the case of EU disintegration – be it in relation to resurgent nationalism or a new wave of protectionism. This applies in particular to the threat of a Eurozone break-up which is said to be politically unmanageable and economically calamitous. As in electoral campaigning, the emphasis on negative messaging tends to be very effective in the short run. Yet it also blatantly fails to deal with the causes of unease in the first place. How to move from polarisation to reconciliation and unity remains a daunting challenge in any political system.

Looking at the latest Eurobarometer surveys gauging public attitudes towards the EU, some might argue that those three argumentative strategies, ideally in combination, are working quite well after all. If in the midst of a deep economic crisis a majority of citizens still believe in EU membership (and the euro), reason and rational thinking are indeed prevailing.

Others, however, have recognised the weakness of today’s pro-European camp. They are rightly concerned about the widening gap between policies and politics at the EU level, and how populists of all shades are taking the initiative in the debate. They recognise that there are too few recognisable politicians who can make a compelling case for transnational governance, let alone further EU integration. Pro-Europeans are therefore advised to change their “emotional frame” – nothing else will work.

Now, the influence of the ‘frame theory’ and the work by cognitive linguists such as Georg Lakoff will always be a matter of controversy when it comes to how its assumptions and findings can be applied to real politics. This article is not the place to discuss it but ultimately I side with the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, believing that “whichever side is resorting to framing devices is losing.”

Put bluntly, 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. Making an emotionally framed argument for the ‘greater good’ of Europe will always struggle to rival those who pretend to defend historic achievements or national ‘exceptionalism’.

This does not mean that pro-Europeans should be content with the quality of today’s debate and simply ignore the unfavourable dynamics. Yet they first have to accept that the fundamental problem is more structural than rhetorical: given the current division of EU responsibilities, mainstream parliamentarians in any of the 28 member states have little incentive to consider openly the many tensions between domestic, European and global politics. Rather narrowly defined “national interest” – like or loathe the term – remains their natural benchmark and blame games are the logical extension of the debate between the EU’s capitals and its central institutions.

This matters, because in the absence of effectual and trusted messengers you cannot improve the message either. For this to change, we need to make national policy-makers assume more responsibility and thereby hand them greater ownership of the European project (for instance via strengthening the role of national parliaments or integrating national MPs into a reformed European Parliament, to name just two ideas). They must no longer be allowed to hide behind their executives but instead be dragged into defining every important aspect of EU policy-making, which they then have to defend in front of their constituents.

Increased politicisation of EU affairs is no guarantee for a more informed and rational exchange that could lead to greater acceptance of European integration. But without it, EU opponents will always have an easy run at exploiting the political vacuum that Europe has created.

This article was originally published on openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.


Giulio Carini is a Researcher at Counterpoint where his research focuses on the cultural and social factors that contribute to exclusionary practices and marginilisation of communities. As part of this programme of work, he is working on the Counterpoint project Hidden Frames where he is exploring framing from a cultural perspective: how do a particular culture’s symbols, myths, narratives and metaphors contribute to the frames in which a policy is understood?

Marley Morris is a researcher at Counterpoint on the ‘Reluctant Radicals’ project and is a co-author of the report ‘Recapturing the Reluctant Radical: How to win back Europe’s populist vote‘. Prior to Counterpoint, Marley was at the Violence and Extremism programme at Demos.

Olaf Cramme is director at the international think tank Policy Network and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics’ European Institute. He tweets at @olafcramme.

Note: These articles give the views of the authors, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics.

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1 Response to Framing Europe: An Exchange

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