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EACD: How to address citizenship in a polarised world?

European Ombudsman

Brussels, 19 June 2019

Good evening everyone and thank you to the EACD for the invitation to speak here today, this event coming just after the European Parliament elections and during a week where intense negotiations are ongoing here in Brussels and in the member states over the leadership of the main EU institutions, choices which will define how the Union evolves over the next five years.

The standard narrative of the election results is that the centre bloc has been weakened, that the Eurosceptics and populists did not do as well as some had predicted, but that nonetheless,  as the Financial Times put it “It seems that the political parties built around the class and economic structures of the 19th and 20th century are losing their relevance. European voters are increasingly motivated by new issues.”

The complication of course is that those European voters are not necessarily motivated by the same ‘new issues’. What seems like a broken consensus around the ‘old issues’ also reflects the fragmentation of political allegiance, a  phenomenon fuelled by new media and its algorithms which challenge consensus through increasingly personalised news feeds and often too, prejudice.

When the new parliament meets in two weeks time for its first session in Strasbourg, big political personalities such as Silvio Berlusconi, Marine le Pen  and Nigel Farage will sit alongside Greens and climate activists, classic centrists, illiberal populists, passionate EU federalists, UK remainers, all of whom can claim to be representing the EU citizen but all with a very different type of EU citizen in their mind.

What one can probably say with some certainty is that some marginalised issues will come closer to the centre stage, as the centre right and centre left blocks will need the support of what was formerly called the liberal group, and the Greens to get parts of their agendas through and to dilute the influence of the strengthened Eurosceptic block.

I would therefore expect a greater focus on so-called ‘social Europe’, that is jobs and social protection, on climate issues, on legislative and other forms of transparency and perhaps on ethics more generally.

The necessity to achieve consensus through four political groups rather than two is arguably positive generally for the citizens as it will – if successful – involve less polarisation and exclusion at least within its own political territory.

And all of this, I suggest, is likely to put a bigger and brighter spotlight on the corporate world and an increased interrogation of what businesses are doing to align with what has become the mainstreaming of issues around environmental protection, ethical business practices, and the downside of globalisation and technological innovation vis a vis secure and stable employment.

The challenge therefore for the corporate world is how to be good without compromising the profit line. Many global corporates and smaller entities now have corporate social responsibility stitched into their strategic frameworks and their branding. Many have intuited that ethical behaviour – such as being conscious of their carbon footprint - is no longer a niche concern for a niche demographic but just as likely now to be understood by an ordinary teenager inspired by Greta Thunberg or by a viral YouTuber or Instagrammer as by an older middle class longtime activist.

What is also changing is the perception of who or what is to blame for environmental and other damage caused by the abuse of natural resources and other factors.

While many campaigns focus on individual actions – using a plastic straw, failing to recycle domestic waste, buying cheap and disposable clothing – the uncomfortable truth is that none of us as individuals could commit those sins against the environment if we were not presented with the opportunity to do so by businesses who trade in goods and services that are now increasingly coming under scrutiny.

If corporate social responsibility vis a vis climate change and health protection was to take itself to its logical limit, tobacco companies would no longer exist, the so called fast fashion trade would not be experiencing the phenomenal exponential rise it currently is because its leaders would acknowledge and act on its huge environmental cost.

Many other business sectors that use plastic or other climate unfriendly products as an essential component of their offering or whose service model relies precisely on the employment insecurity of the servers, would also be challenged.

But there is utopia and then there is the real world.  Just as climate consciousness took decades to evolve so too will it take some time to rectify problematic practices. The challenge for affected businesses is whether they attempt to hold back the tide or swim with it and adapt or even lead the change itself.

And those choices will be conditioned not just by an appreciation of what is likely to be the better long term business strategy but also by what its leadership considers to be its legacy values, or to use a word very much in vogue, its ‘purpose’.

The Volkswagen emissions scandal emerged out of the cultural dominance within that company of one kind of purpose – protecting and enhancing market share through the deliberate falsification of emission test results. Rather than work through the emissions problem by deferring US market gratification until it got it right, the company chose the easy, unethical, public health damaging, way out.

So where do the EU institutions, its new leadership and the generic EU citizen fit into all of this? And how does this address the topic of communicating in a polarised world.

As Ombudsman, my office serves as one of the interfaces between the institutions and the EU citizen. I handle individual complaints and I also carry out investigations which are in the wider public interest on my own initiative, such as for example, the transparency of trade negotiations, or the geographic, gender and interest balance of the expert groups that advise the Commission, or the interaction with its stakeholders by the ECB. 

I get complaints from businesses if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly in a competition investigation, equally I get complaints from civil society if they feel that the corporate sector is being given privileged access in the process of law making.

I work independently of the complainant and of those complained against. I also work therefore by refusing to see a polarised world, but rather a world where the old fashioned concept of common good still exists and where polarisation is essentially the failure – deliberately or otherwise – to articulate that common good and to work actively towards it.

And what is now called populism – a reaction against the centre, against globalisation, against migration – has in some circumstances come about because the rhetoric and actions of leaders in relation to the common good were viewed as inauthentic, describing a reality that felt very different to how many people actually experienced it.

It’s a problem that finds a parallel in the evolution of big tech companies. Their stated motivation, their foundational rhetoric, is now felt by many ensnared in what they have produced very differently, as a way not of transcendence and of wisdom, but of ever greater consumption and control. And it is that mismatch between rhetoric and practice that is now forcing the sort of regulatory battles we are witnessing where the common good is attempting to take back control.

But change will be slow and difficult until those companies themselves define their societal responsibilities beyond what is currently in their mission or purpose statements.  What deep down do they consider their actual purpose to be? They have brought us previously unimaginable access to knowledge and ease of communication but have also facilitated practices that actively work against the common good and which have real and not virtual consequences. They have an impact on our world far greater at times than governments themselves.

On the political front, populists from Brazil and the United States to the Philippines and to parts of Europe have had wins not necessarily because terrible things are happening to their citizens, but because they are often ingenuous communicators who can exploit and precisely identify the hypocrisy at times of the ‘good guys’ whether in politics or in business.

Donald Trump’s personal knowledge of those hypocrisies – of politicians that he had donated to for business advantage for example –  enabled him authentically to articulate a narrative about elites, which while hypocritical in itself given his own background, had enough truth in it to convince enough people to elect him.

And, arguably, one of the issues that negatively affected Hillary Clinton’s campaign – apart of course from Russian interference – was her much publicised acceptance of huge speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, a bank heavily criticised and fined for its role in the US financial crash which grossly affected so many citizens that Trump in turn could then appeal to.

And indeed, when former EU Commission President Barroso, accepted his position with Goldman Sachs, the first person to take political advantage of the move was the UK leader of the Brexit movement, Nigel Farage, skilfully using the move as an example of ‘elite betrayal’.

Populism of course has many roots, many global varieties and often emerges in countries where no strong discernible economic or social problems exist.  It also enables our darker side, with the so called ‘plain talking’ of charismatic populist leaders, allowing latent xenophobia and racism to emerge from the shadows.

In my experience as Ombudsman, I have seen that populism is enabled when otherwise good politicians and otherwise good corporations are tempted to do things against the common good, against a public interest.

It can happen at times when some businesses quietly lobby against regulations intended to protect human health or the environment or some other demonstrable common good, because they fear their impact on their business.

Of course I understand that very often European jobs can be at stake, so the issue is rarely black and white but it is important at the very least that whatever lobbying is done is done transparently and that no one interest gets privileged access.

Ethical problems can also arise when companies hire former institutional insiders essentially to provide them with the sort of networking capability which will help them when the next common good regulation they don’t like comes along.

Politics is of course an ethical minefield but politics is also called the art of the possible which implies the reaching of a solution that favours a common position, a common good.

In Washington last year, when talking about my work ‘in the public interest’ I was asked who decides what is in the public interest.  On many issues, there is of course legitimate space for argument and discussion as when two obvious public interests collide. In my own country, Ireland, there is a current debate around climate change and cattle, the public interest in supporting a critical domestic industry and the public interest in reducing methane levels.

But that problem, like others in this general area, cannot be solved I would suggest only by agricultural interests or only by politicians, but rather by the enlightened engagement of both. The public interest lies precisely in that space.  

And real leadership involves finding those spaces, where self interest is not abandoned but rather sees its full realisation in the merging with the self interest of others, just as Volkswagen might have done when it found that its technology clashed with US regulation. 

The current stark political polarisation of the US and of the UK has come about precisely because of the failure to back away from entrenched positions and seek common cause.

To conclude, I doubt if there is anyone in this room who isn’t aware of any of these issues and who is not equally aware of the extent to which the culture of their own company or business is willing to face them. 

I know there has been a debate in the EACD about the level at which a Communications Director should operate, how close to the decision makers in other words they should be.

That is for you to decide, but when you think about the issues I and others will raise, the centrality of communications becomes obvious, whether in the elections of Macron or Orban, in foreign political interference, in the rise of Trump, in the mainstreaming of climate politics, in the victory of the Brexiteers or in the current moves against the dominance of Big Tech.

There has never been a time when the world has been so open, when the capacity to communicate so widely has been so far devolved from traditional leaders and influencers into the hands of the once powerless and silent. The world can turn on the impact of a video gone viral.

The biggest story of the late 20th and early part of the 21st century will possibly be the astonishing reshaping of everything from politics to business through new media technologies, whose ongoing transformative effect we can only guess at.

They are technologies that can be used either as weapons or as the enablers of positive change in the common good.  It is for every individual and every business to decide which side they take. As the new EU political cycle begins, all of you will be adapting to new players, new mood music, new ambitions. How you choose to exercise your own leadership in this new world will help determine its five year outcome not just for yourselves, but for all of us as citizens of this Union.

Logic would therefore suggest that you – as communications directors – do indeed need a seat at the top table, to be part of the wider conscience of the company and not just the person cleaning up when things go wrong.

Corporate social responsibility and its communcation cannot be a back office role, a pretty ribbon intended for no other purpose than PR and decoration. As a former Ombudsman colleague of mine once said in relation to mission statements, ‘We need to live it, not laminate it’.

Thank you.