In Britain, too much of our public debate about Europe is infected with confusion, misconception and dishonesty. The language we use to talk about European issues can sometimes help to cut through the confusion — but it can also make it worse.
This page makes some suggestions about how pro-Europeans can talk accurately, accessibly and positively about Europe and the EU, and highlights some pitfalls to avoid.
Eurosceptics are masters of overblown rhetoric. Equally, though, moderates often make the mistake of repeating familiar phrases that have negative connotations, unwittingly feeding a latent suspicion that the EU is somehow distant, threatening or adversarial. The more traction these phrases gain in the minds of the public, the harder it is to correct misconceptions and communicate the truth.
Another problem is that political communicators of all stripes can rely too much on jargon, using phrases that are familiar to those on the inside but which can be off-putting to non-experts. Many political institutions are complex, and the EU is certainly no exception. But careful use of accessible language can help to overcome that complexity, as well as to defuse possible misunderstandings in advance.
If you expect to have your words pounced on by mischievous opponents, you can take steps to preclude that mischief. It is absolutely not a case of pro-EU propaganda — everything on this page is straightforwardly factual. It’s simply about improving audience understanding, and reducing the possibility for eurosceptic mischief-making that trades on ambiguity and misconception.
1. Beware “Brussels”
Brussels is just a place where European politicians meet. Don’t talk about it as if it was some sinister, all-powerful alien hive mind. The eurosceptic depiction of Brussels as Europe’s playground bully relies on this kind of delusion for its plausibility.
Yes, political commentators do sometimes talk about foreign governments as if they were cities — as in “The new treaty has the support of Washington and Beijing”. But if you spot a domestic story being reported in this way — “London has banned fox-hunting” or “London has rewritten the national curriculum” — you can bet someone has an axe to grind!
It’s interesting in this context to notice how often the SNP talk about “London” or “Westminster” when they actually mean “the UK government”. It’s useful for them to make a British government seem very distant. Don’t fall into the same trap when it comes to the EU.
2. “Member states” is jargon
The accepted English-language term for EU countries is ‘member states’. This is fair enough — the word ‘state’ refers to a self-governing country, as in ‘sovereign state’.
But be aware that, for many people, this is jargon. Worse still, to British ears the word ‘state’ has a primarily American ring, and brings along with it all kinds of inappropriate connotations: centralised government, federal structures, and the dreaded United States of Europe. Don’t boost eurosceptic rhetoric by handing over inaccurate connotations for free.
3. What is the EU, anyway?
Like Britain, the EU is not a single being. Strictly speaking, it can’t want things, or decide things, or tell others to do things. It’s just the label we give to various cooperative structures and institutions that European national governments have built.
Of course, there are lots of situations where talking about the EU as a single entity makes sense. There’s no harm in saying “the EU has opened trade negotiations with China” or “the EU has committed to cut carbon emissions” or what-have-you. But be aware that this is, technically, metaphorical.
And there are other contexts where talking about the EU as if it were some giant person with its own desires is counter-productive, because it feeds the illusion that Britain is somehow engaged in a battle of wills with the EU rather than a part of it.
When talking about the EU in general terms, consider whether it would be better to strip away the metaphor and describe what’s actually going on — especially if this helps to highlight the UK’s involvement in European-level decisions.
4. Don’t lay down the law
As with the previous point, there’s nothing wrong with talking about “European law”, “EU rules” and so on. These things exist, just as national and international laws exist.
But there are equally accurate alternative phrases which can sometimes be helpful for defusing misplaced suspicions. If you talk about a “law”, it leaves it open for a eurosceptic opponent to fill in their own story about how those laws are imposed on us from on high, or some similar piece of nonsense. But if you talk about a “binding agreement” between neighbouring countries, the space for mischief-making is closed off — even though both phrases obviously refer to the same thing.
5. Don’t “go to Europe”
Even the most fervent anti-European will admit that the UK is part of Europe — this is a geographical fact as well as a political one! Talking about the two as if they were unrelated gives the impression that Europe is somehow a totally different place where Britain doesn’t quite belong.
6. Drop the TLAs
Unfamiliar acronyms are jargon, and jargon not only makes communication harder but it also raises suspicions of complexity or even incomprehensibility. Don’t overestimate how familiar a non-specialist audience is likely to be with what might seem like everyday acronyms. As a rule of thumb, ‘EU’ is probably safe, but take care with anything more than that.
Misplaced acronyms don’t just confuse non-experts. They also make writing harder to read, even if the reader is familiar with them. Don’t litter your writing with references to “the ECJ”, even if you’ve spelled out what it means at the start. Just give it its proper title once or twice, and otherwise call it “the court”.
A particular one to avoid is using “EC” to mean “European Commission”. The acronym simply isn’t used in non-specialist discourse, and besides, plenty of people remember when “EC” meant “European Community” — it wasn’t that long ago.
7. Make sense of institutions
The EU has its fair share of arcane institutions. If a member of the public is confused about what’s what, you can bet there’s a eurosceptic waiting in the wings who’s more than happy to take advantage of their ignorance.
There is also an unwelcome caricature of institutions as “faceless”, as if they were staffed by weird abhumans or robots, rather than by professional people from countries like Britain.
So don’t just casually name a European institution — say what it actually is, who is in it, or what it does.
8. Federalist? Mind the gap
Every European commentator knows that what most of the world means by the F-word (decentralised government) is basically the opposite of what Brits think it means (centralised government). The question is what to do about it.
A decent argument can be made for biting the bullet and making the positive argument for genuine, enlightened federalism — after all, this is presumably the only way Brits and our European neighbours are ever going to be able to discuss it without talking at crossed purposes. The danger with this be-a-hero approach is that, no matter how carefully you use the word with a British audience, there will be a less conscientious political opponent waiting in the wings who will happily sling it back at you out of context (“See! I told you he was a closet federalist!”). And mud sticks.
Whichever approach you choose, don’t let confusion about what the word means distract from what you’re actually talking about — especially if it’s a bread-and-butter political issue rather than a constitutional one. There are plenty of decent alternatives to “federal” which don’t carry the inbuilt risk of misunderstanding. Depending on the context, you could talk about “decentralised decision-making”, “multi-level decision-making”, “distributed government”, “taking decisions jointly where necessary”, or “taking decisions as locally as possible”.