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PUBLIC SERVICE REVIEW: EUROPEAN UNION - ISSUE 16 SOCIAL AND POLITICAL RESEARCH

In the eyes of the world


11 September 2008

http://www.publicservice.co.uk/article.asp?publication=European%20Union&id=353&content_nam e=Social%20and%20Political%20Research&article=10443
Professor Martin Holland and Dr Natalia Chaban, from New Zealand's National Centre for Research on Europe, evaluate the way the European Union is perceived on other continents What makes Europe unique and special for the rest of the world? Is Europe recognised and appreciated by others? Does Europe's portrait change across space and time? Until recently, the image of the EU worldwide has been judged primarily on anecdotal evidence, with only a few studies assessing international views on modern Europe in a systematic way.1 One of the most comprehensive contemporary empirical comparative studies of the EU's external image and perceptions was pioneered by the National Centre for Research on Europe (NCRE) at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand in 2002. A member of the RELEX funded EU Centres Network, and a leader of the NZ European Union Centres Network, the NCRE has conducted a series of transnational comparative projects in the Asia-Pacific region identifying and comparing views towards the EU among Australasian countries (Australia and New Zealand), Asian locations (Japan, South Korea, mainland China, SAR Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia) and Pacific nations (Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and the Cook Islands).2 The study has been generously supported by the European Commission's DG Education and Culture and the Asia-Europe Foundation.3 The project offers Europe a unique glance at itself in a mirror held up by the Asia-Pacific Other, thus providing feedback necessary for meaningful communication. This feedback, 'critical in establishing identical meanings between self and other',4also contributes to the debate on how to gauge European identity within the project of European integration. It seems obvious that external validation and appreciation of the EU, reported back to the EU citizens, may influence the internal recognition and legitimation of the Union. From inception, this innovative survey of EU perceptions and images in 16 Asia-Pacific locations was designed to inform debates on key policy issues EU foreign policy, public diplomacy and communication strategies in their mandates to communicate the Union to the world. Typically overlooked, insights into external perceptions help us to understand images that are potentially affecting the Union's external actions and capabilities, and thus affecting EU international identity, internal rhetoric and self-visions in foreign policy. Additionally, research into foreign perceptions and attitudes is a crucial element in public diplomacy, 5currently a disputed area in EU policy-making.6 The findings are also invaluable for informing local governments, so that a much broader understanding of the vast complexities of the EU external relations is facilitated. Despite the obvious importance for a systemic account of the EU's external imagery, such studies are not only rare, but also full of scholarly gaps. There is a lack of cross-country and cross-regional comparisons aggravated by narrow research methodologies that present only one element of external perceptions, rather than a comprehensive and balanced overview of the major variables (for example, an exclusive focus on elites and disinterest in public opinion or the media). To overcome these shortcomings, the NCRE designed a multi-disciplinary project with interlinking components monitoring daily coverage of EU news in the national reputable news media, surveying public opinion on a national scale and sampling national stakeholder views of, and attitudes towards, the EU.7 Comparability between national datasets was facilitated by a common, centrally co-ordinated research approach featuring theoretical priorities, vigorous sampling procedures, streamlined data collection strategies, clearly identified parameters of comparison, regular follow-up and joint analysis practices. Identical pre-tested questionnaires in local languages were employed for the survey of the public and decision-makers' opinion, identical categories of media content analysis were utilised, and all researchers underwent extensive centralised research training. The project became a vehicle for transnational liaison and academic guidance in an unprecedented cross-cultural research setting. Asia-Pacific researchers each visited other locations for research training, communicated daily with young and experienced EU scholars from Asia-Pacific, Europe, America and Africa, collaborated on coauthored publications and conference papers, and have jointly presented to EU practitioners, both in Europe and Asia. Findings To understand the dynamics of the EU's perceptions is challenging given the political complexities of the Union and diversity of the AsiaPacific region. Nevertheless, the 2002-2008 series of research projects identified several common themes in the EU's external imagery across the region. It is argued that these discovered commonalities in perceptions of the European Other contribute to constructing the regional Self in the Asia-Pacific. The major finding of this study was that in Asia-Pacific, the EU was often seen as 'a second fiddle with a few string missing'.8 While priorities were given to the USA at present and China in the future, national stakeholders and the public assigned the EU its rank between fourth and seventh most important partner at present. Encouragingly, its importance was seen as slightly improving in the future, with the EU being placed between third and fifth positions in all locations, except mainland China. There, the EU was seen by the general public and national decision-makers as second in its importance only to the USA at present and first in the future. It is argued that this perceived relative unimportance of the EU is linked to the particular framing of the Union in the reputable news media (admittedly, the main shaper of contemporary knowledge on foreign partners). EU visibility on the most popular source of information on the EU national television prime time news bulletins was phenomenally low (China was, again, different). The national press was found to be more attentive to the EU than television, yet the Union's visibility was significantly less than that of the USA. Moreover, the bulk of EU news reported the Union with a minor intensity. In contrast to the stakeholders, a significant number of the surveyed public reported no personal contacts with any EU member state individual, group or entity, thus demonstrating certain limits to learning about the Union from personal experiences. This response was among the two most frequent in the region, including Australia and New Zealand, two 'New World' locations traditionally expected to profile more links to Europe. The UK was the European nation with the most contact to the Asia-Pacific public, followed by Germany, then France. A low level of personal involvement, coupled with the modest low intensity level of reporting, raises serious issues about the EU's visibility and identity in the Asia-Pacific region. Personal exposure and heightened media attention to the 'EU Big 3' (the UK, France and Germany) could be linked to one of the stereotypical images of the EU, namely, the three 'big' powers as a synonym for the idea of the EU. The series of stereotypes also included the euro (seen perhaps as the most powerful symbol of both economic might and political unity); peaceful unification and integration (seen as a positive point of reference for the process of regional construction both in Asia and the Pacific); and culture, art, civilisation, history, tradition and heritage (seen as bordering a wider concept of Europe). Yet the most typical images characterised the EU as an economic/trading power able to immediately impact third countries' economies, positively and negatively. Certainly, across space and time, public and elite opinions in this study demonstrated a high awareness of the EU's economic

capabilities and effectiveness. It was anticipated that the Asia-Pacific media would reflect an objective reality (the EU being among the top three trading partners of all localities) and consequently profile the EU from a dominant economic perspective. Such framing was registered in all but two locations. Two Australasian countries monitored in 2004 New Zealand and Australia reported the EU predominantly in political terms. Even though this depiction could have been attributed to timing (2004 featured several major EU political developments), the monitoring of the NZ media in the following years again showed a dominance of political framing. Additionally, television coverage of the EU in the Asia-Pacific was also led by political themes,9 suggesting that the international media may have become sensitised to the diversity of EU roles. When reported as a political actor, the EU was often portrayed in the media either as an actor performing on the European continent, or acting 'somewhere out there in the world', dealing with the Middle East, Africa, former Soviet Republics, etc. In both 'external' modes of portrayal, the EU was cast in the role of a distant player, seemingly irrelevant for the domestic Asia-Pacific discourses. On the other hand, the EU as an economic power was often profiled as exerting immediate influence on the localities. The European Central Bank rates, the EU stance in the WTO, the euro, trade and single market developments, protectionist policies, subsidies and tariffs, and antitrust legislation were extensively reported featuring local 'hooks'. Unsurprisingly, the public and stakeholders recommended their governments prioritise economic interactions with the EU. With most of the EU news sourced from international agencies (dominated by British and American agencies), a particular 'Euro-sceptic' and 'EU-careful' attitude was prevalent in many political and economic reports. The EU's self-appraised achievements to enhance the daily life of its citizens free movement, common job market, public healthcare, social benefits, consumer protection, and multicultural and multilingual identity were rarely reflected in media, public or stakeholders' images of the EU. Moreover, in the Asian discourses, in the intercultural domain, perceptions of the EU were loaded with negativity euro-centrism and the treatment of Muslim minorities and Asian migrants in Europe were seen as controversial and sensitive issues. The EU's normative influence is another self-proclaimed priority that was found to clash with external visions. The EU's global fight against poverty and social injustice (as expressed through the Union's commitment to external aid and co-operation with developing nations), and promotion of human rights received minimal visibility in the Australasian and North East Asian discourses, where most of the observed countries were aid donors themselves. More surprisingly, in the Pacific and South East Asia, where the EU's contribution to the development process has been significant, the EU image was only marginally more defined. Importantly, the vision of the EU as an environmental 'champion' was marginal during its first years, but has consistently increased in its visibility and importance subsequently. In summary, when it comes to matching capabilities with external expectations, in the eyes of external audiences, the EU represents a gallery of 'personalities' depending on its role. In economics, the perceptions of the EU translated into recognition of the Union's high capacities with correspondingly high expectations the EU remains a ubiquitous 'economic giant' able to hurt or strengthen third countries. In the political area, the EU persona confirmed the 'capabilities-expectations gap'10 an insufficient EU capacity to meet growing external expectations. Indeed, the EU's emerging profile of an international leader was acknowledged in the region: 'more EU' in the Korean Peninsular crisis was advocated, the importance of European integration as a reference for regional South East Asian construction was noted, and Australasia viewed the EU as a possible global counterbalance to the USA. Yet, these opinions were in the context that Europe's performance is not living up to international public expectations because of disjointed EU actions in external relations, with individual member states often more powerful than the collective. Finally, perceptions of the EU as an international regulatory leader in environmental, developmental and human rights were the least visible, despite the EU's capacities being extensively exercised worldwide. Here, it is argued that inefficient communication of the EU's capabilities and achievements leads to an 'expectations deficit'11 phenomenon, where external expectations of the EU remain low irrespective of its growing weight and influence as an international actor. To conclude, the EU's images in Asia-Pacific and other global regions are not static, and because of their evolving state, there is a need for ongoing research of perceptions. 1 Bertelsmann Stiftung, Berlin, 'World Powers in the 21st Century', June 2006,www.cap.lmu.de/download/2006/2006_GPC_Survey_Results.pdf; US German Marshal Fund survey, September 2007. Reported in EUobserver, http://euobserver.com/9/24717/?print=1; GARNET Working Paper No. 17/07 'The External Image of the European Union', http://www.garnet-eu.org/index.php?id=27, also reported in the special issue of EFA Review 2002 'Beyond Self-Perception: The Other's View of the EU' (ed. by S. Lucarelli) 12 /3, 2007 2 Two African countries (South African Republic and Kenya) were also included in one of the projects 3 http://esia.asef.org/ 4 Glynn C (2005) 'Public Opinion as a Social Process', in Sharon Dunwody, L Baker, D McLeod, G Kosciki (eds) 'The Evolution of Key Mass Communication Concepts', Hampton Press, Inc, Cresskill, NJ, p. 139-163, p. 144 5 Lynch D (2005) 'Communicating Europe to the World: What Public Diplomacy for the EU?' European Policy Center Working Paper No.21, http://epc.eu/TEWN/pdf/251965810_EPC%2021.pdf, p. 15 6 Korski D (2008) 'Making Europe's Voice Louder', European Council on Foreign Relations,www.ecfr.eu/content/entry/commentary_making_europes_voice_louder; Fiske de Gouveia P and Plumridge H (2005) 'European Infopolitik: Developing EU Public Strategy', Foreign Policy Centre, London, http://fpc.org.uk/fsblob/657.pdf 7 For more information on the project's methodology, see www.euperceptions.canterbury.ac.nz 8 Eyal J 'Asian Perceptions of Europe: A Second Fiddle with a Few String Missing' Straits Times, 6th June 9 South Korea was an exception economic topics were again the most visible there 10 Hill C (1993) 'The Capability-Expectations Gap, or Conceptualizing Europe's International Role', 31/3 Journal of Common Market Studies, p. 305-28 11 Tsuruoka M (2004) 'Why EU-Japan Partnership Cannot Flourish: Expectations Deficit in EU-Japan Relations' (Paper Presented at the British International Studies Association (BISA) Conference, University of Warwick, 20th-22nd December 2004)