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September 14, 2004

Can Dirty Den rescue the EU Referendum Campaign?

Posted by Hector Boffey

With the return of our legislators from their summer holidays thought is being given to how the EU Constitution might be sold to a public that presently appears either apathetic or hostile. The European Parliament is expected to vote on the issue in December and this is supposed to kick-start the campaign prior to referendums in at least 10 countries, beginning with Spain in February 2005. In Britain, polling data suggests that there could be an emphatic no vote. Spearheading a continent-wide Yes campaign will be the former environment Commissioner Margot Wallström, who has been given the new position of vice president with responsibility for institutional relations and communications strategy.

Nowhere are the problems that will confront her being studied in greater depth than in the office of our friends Maurice and Gerhard, two senior members of the Commission staff who could be observed in deep conversation:

We've got our work cut out this time, Maurice

We certainly have, Gerhard. Margot is a tireless zealot. When she was at Environment she produced more regulations and dragged more national governments before the European Court for infringing them than any other Commissioner in the history of the EU. I can say without fear of contradiction that the economy of the eurozone would not be in the state it is to today if it was not for her. She'll want action morning, day and night.

Well, what can we offer apart from the normal platitudes? She says she wants a communications strategy that makes the voters understand the value of the Constitution and she doesn't want to duck the issue of the democratic deficit.

Well, Gerhard, that's exactly the kind of thing she would say. You know and I know that the identities of the voters are deeply rooted in their national cultures. They regard themselves as Spaniards, or Frenchmen or whatever, not as 'Europeans'. There is consequently no European 'public' and therefore no European public opinion. And without those you can't have a democracy. That's why Europe needs unelected officials like you and me to run everything. However, I have no doubt that Margot will demand dynamic action plans to encourage the growth of a European consciousness so that the voters miraculously discover their new European identity and race off to the voting booth to approve the Constitution. And we will have to humour her.

Certainly, we will need to come up with something. Margot is a very demanding lady.

Just remind me, Gerhard what we have already done in this field.

To start, with we have given away large sums of money - at least €250m per year - to pro-EU groups within member states in the hope that they can massage public opinion on our behalf.

Is there any evidence that it has worked, Gerhard.

None, Maurice.

What else?

Well, we have funded TV documentaries that present the EU in a positive light. But as far we can tell from the polling data, that doesn't seem to have worked either.

Have we tried to target the voters directly?

Yes, of course Maurice. We have given away without charge millions of euro ties, euro T-shirts, euro scarves, euro hats, euro watches, euro clocks, euro rulers, euro pencils, euro umbrellas, euro greeting cards, euro stickers, euro mouse pads, euro magnets, euro calculators, euro purses, euro packs of cards, euro board games and, of course euro flags.

And is there any sign that any of this has worked.

No, Maurice, none.

Well, I have an idea, or rather I have picked up an idea which comes from a report by the Foreign Policy Centre in London which is run by Tony Blair's New Labour Friends. It got a lot of publicity for suggesting that Tony Blair should stay as far away from the campaign as possible – advice which I suggest should apply to all EU Prime Ministers and most heads of state. But more intriguingly, it suggests that we feed pro-EU story lines into radio soaps like The Archers and TV soaps like Eastenders. Now you watch British TV on your frequent visits to that wet and miserable place. Use your imagination and come up with a compelling story line!

Well, I suppose we could have Pauline, who is one of the more popular characters say to Den, who also has a big national following: " 'ere Den, what do reckon on the EU plans for an extension to qualified majority voting?' And Den could say: "Smashing, love. Just the ticket".

Who is Den?

Den is a serial adulterer, cheat and crook who leaves a trail of social chaos and heartbreak in his wake.

You may have mastered the vernacular, Gerhard, but I don't think he's necessarily the right character to carry the European torch - he sounds far too much like some prominent EU politicians I could name. In any case, I think we need something just a little more subtle. What other prominent characters are there?

Well, there's Ian who runs a fish shop and who has had a string of business failures.

I think Gerhard, Ian may be a more suitable vehicle for our plans. We will have him tottering on the brink of his biggest-ever business failure, about to be abandoned by his girlfriend, his family and everyone who knows him, but as he contemplates suicide he learns that he has won €25 million in the European lottery. What better way to associate Europe with the idea of wealth and success in the mind of your average TV-viewer!

Brilliant, Maurice!

And we could have the central character in The Archers – Phil Archer, I believe he's called – defend the Common Agriculture Policy as a means of preserving English village life. As he opens his cheque for his monthly sheep-meat subsidy he would declare, "Say what you like about the CAP – and I know it has its critics - but Ambridge and a whole way of English life would have perished without it".

Even better, Maurice.

Well, we have made a start. Write a memo to Margot saying that by the time she takes up her duties on 1st November we will have completed the outlines of a coordinated PR strategy designed to exploit the resources of popular culture in order to present the EU as a way of preserving national culture and identity. It's a grotesque perversion of the actualité, but it should do nicely. And when you have done that, perhaps you would like to join me for an aperitif in the Grande Place.

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