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October 27, 2010
 by Steven Hill

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION (THE MOST IMPORTANT BODY YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF): “WE THOUGHT WE COULD LEAD BY EXAMPLE”...Despite its perennially gloomy weather (imagine foggy San Francisco most of the year, instead of just in the summertime), Brussels has become a major world capital, the Washington, DC of Europe. It is home to most of the major political institutions of New Europe, including the European Parliament, which has the distinction of representing 500 million people (the largest democracy in the world outside India). The Parliament’s partner in this endeavor is the most important body that Americans (and far too many Europeans) have never heard of, called the European Commission. The Commission, as it is called (a rather bland, faceless, government-issue moniker, to be sure) is the executive body of the European Union; the president of the Commission, Jose Manual Barroso, is the closest thing Europe has to a Barack Obama figure (though there are key differences in their respective offices). The European Union is a confederation of 27 nations that stretches from Portugal in the west to the Russian border far to the east. Within the expanse of this geography is the most important experiment occurring today in human governance and economic development. The E.U. is the greatest attempt by humans to fashion institutions and practices capable of harnessing the capitalist engine so as to foster not only a more broadly shared prosperity but one that is ecologically sustainable and carbon efficient. More than anywhere else, the European continent is addressing the most important challenges of the 21st century.

So I approached my impending lecture and lunch meeting at the European Commission with a good deal of enthusiasm, mixed with curiosity, and a bit of nervousness. I had been asked to give the Jacquemin Seminar lecture by the Bureau of European Policy Advisers, one of the 27 departments of the Commission, and present would be many senior staff of the European Union. In addition, I would lunch with highest level senior staff, including several directors general who are the heads of each Commission department (sort of like the chiefs of staff for each of President Obama’s Cabinet members). I had gained the attention of the Commission because in recent months, as a result of my book, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, and numerous opeds written for publications in the U.S. and Europe (see oped links at, I had come to occupy a niche that I had not sought: an American author/commentator who has nice things to say about Europe.

But during the Commission lunch, I suddenly found myself thrust into a different role: that of the straight talking American. After formal niceties and a sumptuous meal, a vigorous discussion ensued in which I asked them a rather direct question: “Why is it, do you think, that Europe is losing the public relations battle to China?” I explained further: there is so much G-2 hype today in the media, casting America as the existing superpower and China as the up-and-coming superpower. Where is Europe in all this, since it has a vastly superior standard of living compared to China (and even compared to the U.S.), has an economy that is nearly as large as the U.S. and China combined, more Fortune 500 companies than the U.S. and China combined, is the largest trading partner with BOTH the U.S. and China, has done far more to rein in carbon emissions and reduce the impact of its mass society…in short, Europe is a leader in just about every way we count these things today… yet Europe is getting little respect, indeed is viewed lower on the geopolitical totem pole than China, a place people try to flee, if they can (and that tells you a lot). Why is Europe getting so little recognition, I asked them?

Some discussion ensued about how the headlines regarding PIIGS and the Greek debt crisis had made Europe appear weak and disorganized, but beyond that they really didn’t have much of a response. That was a little surprising, so I offered some thoughts of my own.

“Not many people know about your successes because you don’t tell anyone about them. You don’t have a public relations machine like Hollywood movies have been for advertising the American Way; nor have you created any public relations apparatus of your own that helps even your own citizens to understand the importance of Europe, much less Americans, Chinese or anyone else. And because the media is used to reporting on individual nations, and economists measure output on national levels, they aren’t sure how to report on this transcontinental “union” -- so they fall back on lazy journalism and inadequate research methodologies which assume that the U.S. and China are the two dominant national powers. So what are you doing to overcome this narrow media/expert vision and inertia?”

Their responses, again surprisingly, lacked much substance, but they evolved into a discussion about what happened at the Copenhagen summit over global warming, during which President Obama had left Europe looking like a jilted bride at the altar. Europe had offered to reduce its carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, and to increase reductions by 30 percent if other countries (notably the U.S., which is by far the world’s largest per capita carbon emitter) would match them. Europe had put a bold initiative on the table, showing real global leadership, and was looking for partners, especially from Obama. But instead, Obama came to the table with virtually nothing -- only a 4 percent carbon reduction, because he couldn’t get 60 votes for anything more in a “filibuster gone wild” Senate. Then, with the Europeans out of the room, Obama shook hands on a deal with the Chinese to do next to nothing -- what I have called a coalition of underachievers. At that point Copenhagen collapsed in failure. Yet the media headlines, especially in the U.S., didn’t blame Obama; they blamed Europe, typically portraying it as weak and impotent. Bizarrely, Obama was portrayed as somewhat of a hero for brokering a deal -- however ineffectual -- with the Chinese. Yet it was Obama who had caused the summit to collapse because if the U.S. isn’t willing to do more, then certainly China isn’t going to.

I asked my lunch companions: “Did you consider holding a press conference and exposing Obama and China for obstructing Copenhagen?” They said they did consider that, that there was much intense discussion among Europe’s leaders as they considered what message they should issue as the summit crumbled. They ultimately decided not to go on the offensive or to blame their erstwhile American partner. It was in this context that one of them said something that was incredible to me: “We thought we could lead by example. We thought that if we showed a quiet leadership on this issue, showed that we were willing to make the necessary sacrifices and adjustments to our economy and technology, that others would follow our lead.”

I was amazed, at both their admirably sincere authenticity, as well as at their breathtaking naivete. I have been one of those applauding Europe’s “quiet revolution” (as I call it in my book) and use of its “smart power” rather than U.S.-style” hard power” -- using investment, trade and Marshall Plan-like aid rather than a “big stick” military as a development model for the world. But leaders have to project effectively their trajectory and influence, and they have to inspire those whom they wish to lead with their vision and a demonstrated capacity for success. Leadership by “quiet example,” without the means to communicate your example, tends to get ignored -- or even worse, shoved around -- on the world’s stage.

I expressed my surprise over their naivete (though I used a more diplomatic word).

“You have a product here,” I said to them, “let’s call it Brand Europe. Yet you don’t advertise your brand, your product. So why would you expect that people, either in Europe, the U.S. or anywhere else, would understand what that brand is? And if they don’t understand your brand, why would you expect anyone to follow your leadership, whether ‘quiet’ or otherwise? In the U.S. we have a saying: ‘If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?’ No one is going to hear you because you aren’t making any noise.”

Marketing Brand Europe. I gave them an example. “European companies are employing about 2.5 million Americans in the United States in the midst of this economic crisis. Providing good jobs that pay better than average wages and provide health care benefits. Yet no Americans know about it; all they hear about is PIIGS and the Greek debt crisis, and lately strikes in France.” I continued. “In Dick Cheney’s Wyoming and Sara Palin’s Alaska, as well as in Utah, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Idaho and Alabama, European companies supply over 65 percent of all foreign investment. In George Bush’s Texas, European companies have invested over $50 billion, more than American investments in all of Asia. Across the U.S.A, Europeans accounted for nearly three-quarters of all foreign investment, being the top foreign investors in 45 states with over $1.4 trillion in investments. AND YET NO AMERICANS KNOW ABOUT THIS. You get no respect because no one has a clue about what you are doing. The tree has fallen in the forest, but no one is hearing it.

“Why don’t you run TV advertisements in the U.S., telling Americans these things?” I asked them. You can have ads with visuals of American workers on the job, building autos, working in grocery stores and hospitals, with a voiceover, saying ‘We believe in taking care of our American employees. It’s the European Way.’ Cue the closing visuals, two flags, side by side, one the Stars and Stripes, the other the European Union’s royal blue with a circle of twelve gold stars, like a halo. Fade away.

Or how about a full page ad in the New York Times that shows visuals of green hills and sparkling ocean. Children at play, fields of golden grain, with a storyline reading: “Europe is the leading innovator in preparing for global warming. Widespread deployment of conservation practices, and ‘green design’ in everything from automobiles, buildings and solar and wind power to light bulbs and toilets. Our innovations have reduced our ecological footprint to half that of America’s.” More visuals, showing windmills, solar panels and trains. “A European uses half the electricity and emits half the carbon of an American. It takes 40 percent more fuel to drive a mile in an American car than in a European one. And Europe’s green industry is exporting its innovations to the world, and has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs. That shows that jobs don’t have to be pitted against the environment.

“Europe: doing our fair share to ensure humanity’s future. And looking for partners, wherever we can find them.” At the bottom of the ad, a flash of President Obama’s grin.

I ran these and a couple of other promotional ideas by them. It was like a tutorial in the ABCs of marketing, yet it was apparent that they had not thought much in these terms. Occasionally next to an E.U.-funded project in Hungary, Spain, Greece or wherever you see a sign posted saying “Paid for in part by funds provided by the European Union,” along with an insignia of the E.U. blue flag and gold stars. But that’s about it, in terms of ongoing E.U. promotion. Most other interactions that Europeans have with the E.U. is when they are bureaucratically scolded with regulations that prohibit them from making bread, beer or cheese in ways they have been doing for centuries. And European too have read the headlines about the PIIGS, causing more worry. Seldom do Europeans get to reflect on the many good things that the E.U. or their national governments are doing for them. And certainly a contributing factor is that E.U. officials either are unwilling -- “quiet leadership” -- or incapable of telling them about it.

Europe is suffering from, as they say in the advertising biz, poor branding and low product appeal, resulting from a lack of visibility. Europe is like the early Apple/Macs before they became sexy, losing market share to the vastly inferior Windows PCs. And it’s completely unnecessary because there is no place on this earth that has more to brag about than Europe. Yet European leaders are seemingly stuck in a mentality that still views themselves as the junior Cold War partner. In the post World War II era, Europe sat in the backseat while America sat up in the front, driving the vehicle. That was a convenient arrangement. When you’re sitting in the backseat, you don’t have to take as much responsibility for the direction of the vehicle. You can always defer the hard questions to the driver. Now that American leadership is adrift -- having mired the Western alliance in the twin ditches of a Wall Street-induced economic collapse as well as the quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq -- it is really time for Europe to put forward more boldly its own brand of leadership,vision and development model.

Yet, just as Americans are stuck in a Cold War mentality that always sees America as the best, and so can’t stop acting out of that mentality even as the Pax Americana fades into history’s twilight, so are the Europeans apparently stuck, perhaps comfortably so, in their junior status mentality. Yes, it can be easy to let someone else take the lead. Europe has been George Harrison to America’s Lennon-McCartney, happy to stay out of the limelight because that kept the pressure off. But that mentality, perhaps more than anything else, is what is preventing Europe from winning the respect it deserves on the global stage. It’s not the lack of unity, or the aftermath of the Greek debt crisis, or the tensions between Merkel and Sarkozy, or the UK’s stodgy ambivalence, or the cultural and language differences, or a dozen other excuses that is holding Europe back. Because at the end of the day, what they share as Europeans more closely identifies themselves with each other than with any other part of the world. And all of them will benefit from a rising tide floating all boats if the world follows their leadership.

“If you believe in what you are doing,” I told them, “then you should tell the world about it. There is a void in global leadership right now…who is going to fill it? China? The United States? Not likely. Now is the time to step up, into the limelight, and show to the world this remarkable European Way. Because this European Way represents the best hope the human race has for bringing the world together around the twin challenges of global warming and enacting a worldwide economy that can provide a decent standard of living for 6.5 billion people. Those are the two biggest dilemmas facing the 21st century. If Europe doesn’t lead, who will?”

Some nodded in agreement with me, others resisted. “Why should we care what the U.S. thinks about Europe?” said one official with a wave of his hand, breezily dismissing the transatlantic relationship.

I replied: “The U.S.-European relationship has been the most important in the world in the post-World War period. I still think it has much important work to do. But it won’t function effectively unless Americans value and understand Europe, and vice versa. Unfortunately you can’t rely on the media to tell your story…you will have to do that for yourselves.”

I left that lunch meeting a few minutes later to give my lecture inside one of the Commission’s elegantly vast meeting rooms, with translation occurring in five languages. But the luncheon had left me with a vague uneasiness. Clearly the E.U.-U.S. relationship is a work in progress, and now is a critical time as both sides re-evaluate -- and re-value -- what it’s worth to them. The world is poised at a grave juncture. Let’s hope the vision and drive of leaders on both sides of the Atlantic don’t fail us.

Steven Hill 5:16 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (2)

As a committed European the cowardice of the European leadership in the world drives me mad.

But you forgot to mention the unhealthy role of England being a happy US tool against a common European foreign policy.

Same goes for PR. England isn't interested in a politically strong EU and the structure of the EU allows it to obstruct most efforts in this area, even if the other nations would want them.

But they too don't really want to share their sovereign foreign policy with the EU.

Posted by: Vokoban on October 28, 2010 at 4:33 AM | PERMALINK

Some extremely insightful remarks on this blog.
Mr. Hill - I read about your book just a short while ago (it's on the wishlist for Christmas now)and it took me some time to find this weblog of yours.
For the amount of eye-openers in here, the in-depth info, it's not getting nearly enough attention! I'm thoroughly enjoying it.

Posted by: Koen Eykhout on November 3, 2010 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

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