Bruton sets out Irish strategy for leading EU

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The Independent Online
John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, is launching a new marketing strategy for an old product. The product is called "Europe" and Mr Bruton knows it is going to be a hard sell.

Consumer confidence in the product has been ebbing of late. "Most people haven't a clue what Europe is trying to achieve," Mr Bruton told journalists as he set out Ireland's programme for its six-month rolling European Union presidency, which starts today.

It is vital , he said, to "bridge the gap" between the leadership of the EU and its citizens. Mr Bruton conceded that the task would be long and hard. But he announced a new slogan as the centrepiece of his campaign: "Secure peace, safe streets, solid money and secure jobs." His new theme is "memorability", because "people can only recall four things at once.

The question is whether Mr Bruton's campaign strategy for Europe contains anything new. Ireland takes over the presidency of the EU at a testing time. Just a week ago Europe's heads of government were desperately trying to patch over divisions caused by the beef war, and it will be Ireland's aim to ensure that the aftershocks of the crisis do not continue to undermine progress on Europe's bigger projects.

By December, Mr Bruton hopes that member states will have agreed a draft treaty on how to rebuild Europe's institutions in the negotiations of the inter-governmental conference (IGC). The Irish also expect to preside over the first serious estimates of which countries will be ready to join European Monetary Union. In December member states will produce their own economic forecasts for 1997, thereby indicating whether they expect to meet the Maastricht criteria to qualify for the launch in January 1999.

While steering Europe's engine of integration steadily onwards, Mr Bruton has chosen the additional role of bringing the aims of the Union back into focus for its citizens. His strategy may be glossier and snappier, but its message appears to contain little that is new.

"Secure peace" is a slogan which will have little meaning for most Europeans, whose closest experience of war in recent times has been the conflict in the former Yugoslavia which the EU was unable to avert. "Safe streets" is intended to inspire the citizens with confidence that the EU is now playing a prime role in combating drugs and international crime. But promises of a new "war on drugs" are likely to ring hollow when the debate reverts to an arcane institutional wrangle over how to give the Brussels institutions more power over justice and home affairs.

"Solid money" is a slogan which attempts to boost confidence in the coming of the euro. But European citizens so far remain unconvinced of the euro's "solidity" and are unlikely to be won over without more convincing proof of the benefits of the single currency. "Secure jobs" is a slogan which has been shouted from the European rooftops for many years. Every EU summit in recent times has been presented as a "summit for jobs".

Mr Bruton concedes that the slogan is little more than an attempt to focus Europe's values, and does not offer any meaningful answers to the problems of unemployment. He hopes that a new chapter on employment will be inserted into Europe's new treaty during the IGC. But he said last week: "I cannot think of anything which we cannot already do under existing EU law on employment. But we need new political focus."

Ireland is well-positioned to be the country promoting new confidence in the European Union. It likes to boast that it is the most enthusiastic country about Europe in the Union. The causes of this enthusiasm lie all around, as signs pop up proclaiming that roads, bridges and factories have been built thanks to EU regional aid fund.

European Union membership is partly the cause for Ireland's successful economy which is likely to steer it towards membership of the first wave of countries in the single currency. However, even the Irish may not be entirely convinced by Mr Bruton's new campaign.

On the horizon looms the prospect of the enlargement of the Union, whereby Eastern European countries will be given membership, expanding the union to up to 27 members. Ireland can only lose during this process, as the EU cake is carved up once again and funds flow out to the poorer cousins to the East.

Over the next six months the Irish presidency will battle to shore up the rights of smaller countries when the process of enlargement gets under way. But all the signs are that regaining popular confidence in the European product is set to get harder. Mr Bruton's hard-hitting slogans seem unlikely to be enough.