EU Expert in Brussel. A chat with a correspondent

Brussel 1 024

Walking between the high static buildings of Brussels i pass a security guard holding the tip of his hand on his ear. Youth with laptops enjoy their coffee. Business men leaning against expensive looking cars. In front of the entrance at the European Commission a journalist is talking with, what looks like, an important figure. The cameraman is ready. All people i walk by are different in age and looks, but what unites them is a card hanging fashionably around their necks. Access to power is only granted if you show something first.

The European Union. Brussels. Europe. Centre of power. The city, home to supranational institutes like the Commission, the Parlement and the European Council is often summarized in one word. Keep things simple. Not to difficult please. Travelling back to Amsterdam after spending my first day in Brussels, i hear a reporter on the radio say ‘that Brussels has decided something..’  I laugh, knowing i am listening to a big lie.

”There is that strange idea that Europe is some kind of animal that lives in Brussels. The whole story that Brussels decided something is just plain bullshit. Every journalist or politician that tells you Brussels decided something, lies.”

You work in Brussels since 2009. A lot of journalists are leaving Brussels. Is there a shortage of news?
No, i never hear somebody tell me there is a shortage of news. Colleagues have writing work enough. But, then you talk about what one calls ‘latest news’, thats what i make to: what happens, and why. I never have time enough to write background articles. But, if i would have the time, i am sure i would be able to sell them to newsmedia.

A part of the work you are doing is for TV. What is the average time you have on air to tell your story?
Well, that depends. If i have breaking news and i am the first to report in the evening, it is approx. 100 seconds plus a conversation with the host. I answer two or three questions, 60 to 100 seconds each. Combined, you are talking about 4 or 5 minutes max. But, thats big news. Today i ran a story about Syria and the weapon embargo. I had 1.40 minutes. Thats enough.

Is there material you have to throw away?
There’s always material i have to throw away, because i don’t have enough time for it all.

Can you use that material for other purposes?
We (the broadcasting service) have different media: radio, internet and television. On television i am bound to those 100 seconds average. On radio most of the time you can broadcast a whole conversation you had with a politician or somebody else. The conversation i had with the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Frans Timmersmans, of the Netherlands) this afternoon has been broadcasted on the radio in full. I put the same interview on our webpage, so people who are really interested and follow the news closely can look it up any time they want.

Public debate is becoming increasingly critical on Europe. Is that how you experience it here as well?
It really depends on how you look at the debate. The public on the internet has been called critical. Lots of them have no idea how it works out here, but have an opinion. I talk about Facebook and other social media then. I think thats not ‘the public’. The public also not consists out of the people who vote. And, if they vote, most of them vote for pro-European parties. Ministers of State visit Brussels and make policies in a European framework. In general, people in the Netherlands are pro Europe.

Following the media, you sometimes get the feeling its exactly the opposite. That people are taking a more Euro-critical standpoint.
Is it Euro critical? I don’t know. I do think you are right if you say Europe as a topic is easy to bully on. In the past, immigrants like the Moroccans or people from East-Europe coming to the Netherlands where an easy target. In the public debate there are always one or more topics that people seem to dislike more then others. I don’t believe their opinions are supported by a lot of knowledge on the topics itself.

So, you have to know how Brussels works.
At the start of my work here, i couldn’t stand colleagues or other people who wanted me to explain ‘how Europe works’. In the end though, i discovered that they where right. There is that strange idea that Europe is some kind of animal that lives in Brussels. The whole story that Brussels decided something is just plain-bullshit. Every journalist or politician that tells you Brussels decided something, lies. Brussels decides nothing. It is a Prime-Minister that decides something, together with Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande. The whole story that Brussels decides something, in most cases, is just nonsense.

Does Europe in that sense exists?
Yes, as the very boring explanation of countries who do not give up their sovereign rights, but come together in Brussels to make important decisions on a global scale. But, how boring that may sound, it is extremely important to understand that process in order to grasp whats happening here. If you do not, there is a temptation to view the whole proces as some kind of abstract enemy who needs to be fought because its ready to take over ‘something’. Decisions are made by sovereign states, represented by their Prime and other Ministers. Often they lose a debate over a certain subject, sometimes they win it. In the latter case, they sell it as ‘i have done it’. If they lose, its ‘Europe’ who has done the harm. Europe is not a ‘thing’. Its a conference room.

The perception of Europe as you describe it. Can it be frustrating?
Well, look. I don’t have to defend thes institutions. I don’t even have to explain it. My job is to explain what politicians decide here, by whom and why. In that sense, personally, it don’t bothers me.

Did you have the same opinion on ‘Europe’ when you began, in 2009?
I was a lot more cynical then i am now. I tended to join the popular bashing mode. At a certain moment i corrected myself on that, try to report on it more efficiently. Stick to the facts. What do people decide, without using words and sentences like ‘Eurocrats’ and ‘Brussels as a powerhouse’. At the beginning, certainly at debates i then organized, i sometimes used to call the Parlement ‘a chathouse’ and used similar disdainful lines. You can have your opinion, but often its better to keep them for yourself. It has no use to feed the public debate like that. All disdainful or funny lines are extremely popular in the public debate. But, the more popular the debate, the more i see it as my task to focus purely on the facts and to explain the decision making process within a historic perspective.

Often its the case that politicians decide something and tell a story to the press, in the hope journalists forget what they said a week before. I think the task of a correspondent is to follow the debate closely and to know what they told about Greece last year. ‘We will never bail them out’. A year later exactly that happened with the private sector. And right now, when politicians tell you countries won’t do the same, you just know it will happen next year. So, the historical perspective you frame your work in, is important.

You talk about your working methods. Did you change them a lot over the years?
You have a bigger network of people around you. And, because of the crisis, you explain more. In the beginning i tend to make reports about something that was happening. You do your research, and you write a piece about it. Thats what i still try to do, but the crisis makes me more a weekly reporter explaining what happened and trying to provide some context. You can only provide that context well by talking to a lot of people who know whats at stake. And, that what they tell you may not always be right. To investigate that, you have to keep yourself busy talking and calling with people, including colleagues.

Whats your opinion on the attention ‘Europe’ gets in national and international newspapers?
Thats different for each newspaper. In general, i think it is a lot. In some newspapers the reports about Europe are biased and tendentious, in most ones they write extensively and good about it. They have much more space then i have, so thats an advantage. Dutch newspaper ‘de Volkskrant’ ran a great piece about the taxfraud we talked about earlier. From cups of coffee in cafes to the big guys with accounts in Luxembourg. A professional and very educating piece. But, the attention is only there because a big Eurotop is scheduled.

The article in Dutch newspaper ‘NRC’ about Jeroen Dijsselbloem (Dutch chairman of the Eurogroup and Minister of Finance in the Netherlands) was good as well. In the piece they talked about the criticism he received from his colleagues in Brussels. It was typically an article fit for print, where you talk with anonymised sources. I also have plenty of conversations with anonymised sources, but on TV its harder to explain all that in the amount of time i have. And, i don’t think its my task to bully about our national Minister. When he really did something stupid, you have to report it. But, just in general, its not a topic for TV. On one occasion i guess, i have reported about the criticism he received in international media. Just briefly.

Both articles are examples of news within a negative frame.
Yes. Offcourse its more ‘juicy’ to report in your newspaper that your own Minister (Dijsselbloem is also Minister of Finance in the Netherlands) is being laughed at by international media. The other side of the story is also true. That he’s in this position because of Germany, who decides what the policy in Europe is going to be. I think in that sence he is doing a good job. And, he’s doing offcourse what the Netherlands wants him to do. Everyhing he says about the banks and the role of the depositor is a very familiar story. Our former Minister of Finance (Jan-Kees de Jager) told exactly the same story. Him being the chairman of the Eurogroup doesn’t change that a lot. Maybe Spain dislikes what he says, but he knows that. He is just doing his job because Germany wants him to implement a certain policy, and the Netherlands agrees with it.

But yes. Next to running an article about his reputation, you can also write a whole different piece that makes sense.

The cliche, good news is never newsworthy, counts for most media?
Yes.

Media won’t tell you it’s all going flawless in Brussels.
Well, last week there was an article about Greece’s situation improving. So, in the newspaper you see those articles sometimes. But i will not open the evening news with a subject like that, no.

How is the communication with the newsdesk back home.
We have lots of communication about what happens here. Every morning we discuss what we will do during the day. We talk about their wishes, and what fits possible broadcasting. But, most of the time we will pitch the subjects. ‘We can do this interview, because of that, for that long, and for radio and TV, because of that event.’

How often do they tell you: thats not something we will run.
Often i know what my bounderies are. Offcourse we have discussions now and then. Sometimes i bring something forward, and they say ‘can’t we do something else?’ Or, they are looking for a topic within a specific timeframe. But its the same the other way around. Then they want to focus on a topic i think is covered enough already. Thats the level of discussion. But in general, almost all the time, we agree pretty quick.

The other big news agency in the Netherlands does not have a correspondent in Brussels.
No. I think it’s a financial question first. It is expensive to have somebody following the news on a fulltime contract. And, according to what they are communicating, the Hague is close enough to Brussels to track the news from there. One reporter works from the Hague, another journalist comes to Brussels when there is a Eurotop or another important conference. The big disadvantage with that structure is that you can’t talk to people who work here on a daily basis. People at the Parlement or at the Commission have lots of information and knowledge that can be useful. Working in the Hague, no way you have time to call or be able to speak to them. How boring it may sound, but walking by the Commission for a chat or cross the road to the Parlement can provide you with important information.

And, what i said before. You can’t put your news in a historical perspective. The fact that somebody says something, but in reality the story is slightly different because you spoke to somebody here, is what you miss. A Minister can travel to Brussels and scream easily that the budgets for Europe should be downsized cause they stealing ‘our’ money. If you report that without providing context of how the European budget works, there’s a gap in your reporting. I think we, with a permanent spot here, can add value there.

Talking about ‘our money’. In a lot of countries you see that news about Europe is brought within a national frame. Is that something you pay attention to while reporting?
I think we always have to know how a topic plays out on different levels. If a couple of countries want to downsize their European budgets, and the majority takes the same position, then you have to report on it more broadly. But i don’t try to fight against a national frame. I can understand my editor back home who produces a progamm made for a big audience, coming back from work tired laying down on the couch. You have to get the attention from the viewer. The news we are making has to connect with peoples daily lives. In our case the Dutch position on a certain topic is more useful for them then to explain what position Spain took.

Is Europe, by definition, not a place where there is a big dependency between the countries? So, why not show that?
Yes, but i don’t work for Europe. I work for people in the Netherlands who want to know what news is relevant for them. And that, no matter how you twist and turn it, often connects to a Dutch point of view.

Sometimes i get the feeling the public outside Brussels has no idea what happens there, and what people are actualy doing. Including members of parlement back home.
I think thats right. If you ask Dutch public servants here about the debate back home, they will speak about it with anger. But, looking at the other side, i can also imagine the public , for instance,  asking legitimate questions about the salaries public servants in Europe receive. I think those are ridiculous high. But, i can have all these opinions about it. In the end its all useless. A manager at Shell makes a lot of money to. I can be jealous about that as well.

I can give an example that contributes to this topic. Last week the Parlement back home discussed the Eurotop about taxfraud. 99% Of the debate is about the amount of money the Netherlands should contribute to Europe. That is a very complicated subject, but they didn’t take any step to really understand how that system works. They all have an opinion. ‘It’s a shame, and we should pay less.’ The Eurotop in Brussels never discussed this topic. The Parlement back home discussed it in full. So our Prime Minister (Mark Rutte) can go to Brussels, arriving at a Eurotop where the discussion is about B, C and D, but not about that stupid contribution to the budget. He can do what he wants. He never received any kind of message from our Parlement on what to do here. Conclusion: the debate about the Eurotop in Parlement does not cover the Eurotop. I am curious how members of Parlement look at it on television.
The Parlement and ‘the Hague’ in general is focussed on party politics. It doesnt matter a lot if you know how policies are being made. If the Minister is in danger, thats the news. The fun part of Brussels is that the politics play a slighly different role here. Its more substantive then back home. But, because its more substantive, its more complicated as well. If you don’t feel taking the time to understand it, having an opinion is enough.

Our correspondent elaborates on the process more.
There is always the situation that Ministers serve a national interest. Then there is the personal interest of the Minister in terms of his career. So, there we have the PR guys.

Last week i asked Prime-Minister Rutte: ‘Do you think it is important for Luxembourg and Austria to give up their bank secrets? Yes, thats important cause in times of crisis these sort of practices are no longer favourible. ‘Do you think the Netherlands can continue with attractive tax constructions for big corporations? Then he answers, more or less: ”if we can look at this on a more broader scale, internationally, then i am open to look at those constructions”. So, we write on the internet: ”Prime Minister Rutte open to look at Dutch tax constructions”. The hours after publication, you get PR people at your desk and on the phone telling you that what Rutte said, has not been said. Its the daily routine with politicians.

Another example. Yesterday, our Minister of Foreign Affairs arrived at the Eurotop about taxfraud. A colleague of mine, working at the radio, had interviewed him. After that, he talks to the international press feeling a bit more free. He explains, calmly, that the atrocities in Syria should stop. In that context he explains that we should look for openings to end the embargo on weapon delivery, so Syrian President Assad can be forced to negotiate. So, we put on the internet: Minister of Foreign Affairs, who always took the opposite position, now wants to think about it”. Untill today, i have PR people of his department ringing me, telling me Mr. Timmermans is against ending the embargo. But he tells the international press: we are open to discuss it so we can put pressure on Assad.

As you can see, its always a negotation about interpretations of words. That makes it exciting, but also complicated.

Besides PR people, the European Commision itself tries to influence the news by sending law proposals and ‘fit to print’ news articles to journalists.
Yes, and we have the phenomenon that Commissioners start their own news channels. They have no idea how to do that, but sometimes you run into a video interview with a commissioner made by themselves. There is also a
Midday Press Briefing with a ‘menu of the day’. The message they give you is more or less: there you go, we made your work and life a bit easier. They expect we listen to them and use the material. And, if not a lot of journalists show up at the briefing because they get the same standard stupid answers each and every day, they start their own TV station.

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One thought on “EU Expert in Brussel. A chat with a correspondent

  1. Pingback: Inside Europe Blog | Interviews with EU insiders. Some quotes

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