Pro-EU forces in the U.K. may be having trouble finding a message that will convince British voters to remain in the Union, but they’ve agreed on a clear one for the European Commission: Keep calm and stay out of our way.
British In campaigners say they are concerned that EU officials on a special Commission task force dealing with the referendum will do more harm than good if they get too publicly involved in the U.K. debate.
“The general feeling is that the less the Commission says and does in public, the better,” said Petros Fassoulas, secretary-general of the European Movement International and former chairman of the European Movement U.K., a leading pro-EU group.
EU officials are clearly aware of the sensitivity around the issue, with the head of the task force, Jonathan Faull, now acting as a kind of gatekeeper authorized to control the Commission’s communications with the U.K. This includes vetting commissioners’ travel to Britain, sources said.
The task force includes seven officials and according to its charter — spelled out in an internal memo from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker — is engaged in coordinating EU strategy on the referendum and “overseeing the Commission’s input to information activities in the run-up to the U.K. referendum.”
It’s that last phrase that set off alarm bells with British pro-EU forces, who say that any public involvement from the Commission is potentially counterproductive. In many U.K. media outlets, “Brussels” is a synonym for bureaucratic meddling.
The memo language is “Commission-speak for gathering and disseminating what it means to be a part of the EU, like they want to inform the debate,” Fassoulas said.
The Commission insists it is not campaigning in the referendum, and that there are no plans to put Juncker or Vice President Frans Timmermans on a Eurostar whistlestop tour of Britain any time soon.
Officials said the Commission’s information efforts consist mainly of “myth-busting” fact-check activities aimed at stories in British papers about the EU — something they have tried to do since long before there was ever a referendum debate. Now, with the new increased focus on the In/Out question, there is a realization among senior Commission staff that anything more than that would be “counterproductive.”
“It’ll be incredibly sensitive for anybody with an EU salary to involve themselves in the U.K. debate,” said an EU diplomat. “If Juncker and Timmermans can bring forward a degree of honesty, they’re not going to be stopped. But at the end of the day, the British don’t like to be told what not to do.”
Faull, a 30-year Commission veteran and one of the most senior Britons working for the EU institutions, is in charge of making sure nobody gets carried away. While commissioners have the final say over their own travel plans, a spokesperson said, Faull’s team is “helping with the provision of input for the briefings of the commissioners traveling to the U.K.”
Sources said Faull has also avoided getting personally involved in the debate, turning down requests for interviews on British television.
But even with the tighter controls on messaging, the EU isn’t keeping completely mum.
The Commission’s office in London has been actively trying to counter some of the press reports and messages from Out campaigners. This effort includes a special web page that aims to debunk “Euromyths” as well as leaflets and publications extolling the benefits of EU membership.
EU officials in the U.K. are also not afraid to step in and spin journalists when they see fit. In an October 9 e-mail entitled “Facts on EU legislation,” the London office’s head of press, Mark English, responded to a claim by Out campaign group Leave.EU that Brussels produced 20,256 legal texts this year.
“Here is some factual background information on that,” English wrote to journalists. “This figure is quite correct and has in fact increased today alone to 20,504. BUT: ‘Published’ is the key word. Most of these are NOT new EU laws and many of them do not emanate from EU level at all.”
Asked about the message to British media, English said the “role of the London representation is to explain EU policy to stakeholders and media in the U.K. and — based on listening to people here — to report back to Brussels so that views from across the U.K. can be better taken into account.”
But he stressed that neither the Commission’s U.K. office nor the institution as a whole had a role in “campaigning in national referendums or in providing funds for others to do so. This obviously includes the forthcoming referendum in the U.K.”
That doesn’t prevent the U.K. office from engaging in the broader debate about Europe, including on social media channels. Last week the Commission’s London representation took to Twitter with an infographic showing an “alphabet of 26 false stories about the EU banning things,” and launched a discussion with the hashtag #euromyths.
The EU has not been as reticent to get involved in other national political debates. The institutions took a proactive role in the Croatian referendum on accession in 2012 by assisting in spreading positive information about EU membership including TV spots, web and radio quizzes and leaflets. The Commission spent nearly €4 million on a public relations campaign between 2010 and 2012 ahead of the enlargement referendum, according to documents.
Some pro-Europeans, however, worry that by staying too coy the Commission risks being sidelined in the referendum discussion.
The Commission “has a legal and political duty to see that the [referendum] conclusion is positive,” said Andrew Duff, a former British MEP who is president of the Union of European Federalists. “If it were seen as failing to try, it would be seen as failing to do its duty.”
“Even the pro-Europeans are so frightened of the EU that they can’t even deploy it properly,” Duff added.