Public diplomacy at the EU level is carried out by many different actors and through activities of different budget lines, and even includes delegating communicative responsibility to NGOs through the financing of specific projects. Historically, the responsibility to communicate about the EU and its policies has been delegated out to desk officers working with different policy areas in the Brussels institutions and in the EU Delegations abroad, with central coordination taking place only at a very general level.

The coordination of public policy within the Commission in Brussels has only been partially successful in making all the different actors of the EU diplomacy network communicate a more or less coherent message about the EU to the world, a fact reflected in the repeated calls for the EU to increase the coherence in its public diplomacy.

On one hand, the delegation of communications authority to desk officers and people ‘on the ground’ in other countries should in principle make a better communication with local audiences, since EU representatives can this way easier adapt core EU messages and communication techniques to local audiences. On the other hand, the result of the extensive decentralization of EU public diplomacy has meant a general lack of uniformity in terms of both the content of the messages and the communicative practices. This is related to obvious differences in funding and professionalization from one EU delegation to the next.

However, the lack of an EU single voice is not merely a technical problem of EU public diplomacy that can be solved with better funding, coordination mechanisms or strategic planning. This may be so with respect to improving the horizontal coherence of the EU, i.e. the coherence between different policy areas and the communication of a core EU message by all desk officers and EU representatives abroad. The challenge in this respect is to ensure coherence among each of the policy-specific messages and between these and the identity-driven messages of the EU. Coordination and strategic planning of communication should to some extent alleviate this problem, and there is a great scope for improvement. But another main obstacle to the EU having a coherent public diplomacy across the board is the lack of vertical coherence within the EU, i.e. between the EU level and each of the Member States. In policy areas where the Member States are not in agreement, there of course cannot be any single EU communication to foreign audiences, but rather a cacophony of voices. This has also meant that EU-level public diplomacy has traditionally focused on uncontroversial issues where the Member States are largely in agreement, such as human rights, climate change or identity-driven messages. This fact points to a general structural impediment to an efficient EU public diplomacy. Often, the EU cannot respond to the demand for communication of foreign audiences and engage in a dialogue about the topics they care most about, since it depends on the existence of a general agreement within the EU among the Member States.

In sum, the EU’s lack of hard-power resources, both in terms of material capabilities and political will, seems to indicate that public diplomacy, as a soft power tool, should be an area of specific attention for the European Union. Nevertheless, the structural impediments of the EU’s diplomacy in general have also impeded the EU from turning its public diplomacy effort into a soft power tool capable of making up for the loss of hard-power influence.

Challenges to EU public diplomacy

The principal challenge to EU public diplomacy stems from the fact that the EU lacks a firm and generally accepted and coherent message about itself and its role in the world. Without clarity in this respect, there is a limit to how much the EU can do on public diplomacy, since the individuals executing public diplomacy lack the ‘great picture’, without which communication is necessarily fragmented. Clarity of message would reduce the need for coordination, since each person, to which communicative authority has been delegated, could easily fit in the specific policy-related message with a large narrative about the nature and purpose of the European Union.

There are four elements that are vital for EU public policy to be efficient:

  1. First there must be clarity about identity, which involves the capacity of the EU to link its historical experiences with its present configuration as a political entity. It is fundamental for public policy to be based on a stable and generally accepted biographical narrative.
  2. Second, to communicate about a specific topic, there must be clarity of causality, in the sense of a stable perception about what drives developments within a specific policy area (and thereby what the effect of different lines of action will be).
  3. Third, there must be strategic clarity, in the sense of how EU identity leads to have certain strategic objectives and interests within that policy area.
  4. Fourth, there should be tactical clarity, in the sense of which policies should be pursued as a logical consequence of the former three elements: clarity of identity, the understanding of how a policy issue area develops and the EU’s most basic interests in this area.

Clarity on the four dimensions is vital for the individuals that design public diplomacy initiatives and execute them around a specific event or a given policy area. First, clarity on the four elements reduces the need for hierarchic control or horizontal coordination. For instance an official of DG Trade can adapt his/her public policy initiatives and communication lines to the overall narratives, as can DG Development or an EEAS official. Thereby, the execution of EU public policy by a decentralized network will be less problematic, and the challenge of coordination will be reduced (except for cooperation with the aim of achieving synergy effects of various initiatives).

Second, if, as now, there is no overall clarity on the four elements identified above, it will be difficult for an EU public diplomacy official to engage in a dialogue, for instance at public events or via social media. A true dialogue requires the ability to think on one’s feet and respond immediately to questions or affirmations of foreign publics. Obviously, this can only be done well if there clarity about the core EU biographical narrative as well as the policy-specific narratives, true not only for the European Union, but all actors engaging in public diplomacy.

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