Miscommunicating across Borders: Ethnographic Reflections on EU Techniques of ‘Better Communication’ from Brussels
AbstractWhether stemming from rising inequality, economic stagnation, or technological disruption, global processes of transformation are changing European societies. With distrust in EU institutions at an all-time low, a perceived absence of a European demos or polity is attributed in part to the nonexistence of a European public square, a forum for direct communication between EU institutions and EU citizens. So-called ‘hearts and minds strategies’, such as Citizens’ Dialogues and the European Citizens’ Initiative, aim to go beyond the rhetorics of convergence criteria, stability mechanisms, and bailout packages that dominate weekly news cycles. In contrast with liberalist discourses of idealisation and universalisation, a reactionary populism fetishises a return to an age when fiscal and migration policy were the sole province of national capitals. This paper critically analyses discourses surrounding ‘dialogue’ and ‘better communication’ inside the European Commission in Brussels, drawn from extensive ethnographic fieldwork carried out within its office spaces. Through participant-observation and in-person, semi-structured interviewing with civil servants, it explores the ways in which they seek to fill the dialogical spaces currently occupied by populist voices in order to reaffirm the legitimacy underpinning the existence of the EU and of a supranational, imagined community of Europeans who identify with and belong to it. Its findings suggest that the achievement of ‘better communication’ with citizens by the European Commission is made all the more intractable by its struggle to define an institutional European identity that is inclusive, coherent, persuasive and distinct.