EU Expert in Brussels. A chat with a freelance writer

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The number of journalists who are leaving Brussels is increasing. You are freelance, you can write and have lots of knowledge about Europe and can tell in-depth stories about it. So, why don’t make a move to the Belgian capital and report about it? It seems like a perfect formula, but when reality comes in, it’s a hell of a job. You discover it’s actually pretty difficult to get your articles published in your own language, says this interviewee.

” I intended to work as a writer and journalist, but i approach it more and more as a part-time job alongside other activities. ”

So, it seems pretty difficult to pitch in-depth articles about European topics to newsmedia? Why?

” Well, look. You have several reasons. Europe as supranational institute is not very popular and not accepted on a broad scale. The second reason is that media have been under financial pressure and still are. It’s a combination of factors.

I know quite a bit about Europe. I took European courses, i had an internship that had to do with Europe and did lots of other activities. I thought i had extensive knowlegde on the subject. When i started working here, Europe was one big eye-opener. I thought i was an expert, but i witnessed how huge and complex this Brussels machinery is. My ambition was to choose four or five topics to report on. Now i focus on two, maybe three. I write about the ‘Eurocrisis’, the digital economy, and the general political agenda. Thats it. And thats enough.”

What topics would you like to cover, but due to the lack of time, you can’t?

What i really would like to cover is foreign affairs. I would really like to put a lot of effort in to a topic like Syria. Or the trade agreement with the USA. Or the European relations with Russia. The expansion of the Union with Turkey.. To name a few.

Another more practical example: i was reading a report on countries like Romania, or Ukraine. 50 Percent of the people are still working in the agrarian sector. In other countries that’s approx. 2 percent. You see they have an enormous difficulty adapting to a modern economic model. In terms of competition, these countries can never compete with the more northern countries. The European Comission has created several programs and even a seperate institution to tackle this problem, but not a lot of local business owners know they exist. Important and very interesting to report about.”

You have tried to write about these kind of subjects for several media back home, but the response was marginal. What is the explanation they give you?

Lets give an example. For an international development magazine i wanted to write about the new European budget, and what that meant for the development budget more specific. One editor actually told she wanted me to write an article about it. When she left, her successor didn’t react at first. Later she asked what my focus was. So i told her my story that i wanted to write about the budget. I never heard of it again.”

Did you call them? To verify why?

No. Look, it was a low-paid article as well, so in the end i didn’t put a lot of effort in it. As a writer you sometimes have to take such an economical approach. What do i receive for an article, and how much energy do i put in to it.

Another article i proposed was about a program for the digital agenda of Europe, where hundreds of new jobs and internships where being created. They told me that the subject was not interesting enough, because ‘there was not a direct money question’ involved. It probably didn’t fit the frame they where looking for.

Another one: i asked European Commissioner Neelie Kroes (responsible for the digital agenda) if she wanted to quit roaming. She told me she wanted to. That was really breaking news then. Even her Press Officer was surprised she told me that. Media showed no interest at all. Later i read an article in a newspaper that she would run for a third term, witch she confirmed at the same conference. I guess that was more exciting. But, she will become 72 years old this year. She will never get a third term.

The fact that media back home are showing no genuine interest in Europe when it goes deeper then what we call ‘latest news’ is something i hear around me from other journalists as well. It’s a general complain. Thats not the case for journalists working at more smaller and local newspapers or correspondents. They already earned their spot. But if you are new, and want to take a more investigative approach, it is very very difficult.”

You are in Brussels since January now. How did you start?

First, you have to get an accreditation, the famous press pass. You have to fill in hundreds of thousand of forms. That gives me access to the midday press briefings and all the institutions.”

Is it difficult to get accreditation?

It’s not easy. You have to really proof you are working as a journalist. Sending bills from former clients, show you live in Brussels and all that.

I also went to the European Journalism Center, and you have something that is called ‘Journalist at Your Service’. They help you with insurance, workspace and housing. Furthermore i have spoken with local journalists and did send out e-mails. Some journalists where open-minded, some not at all. Drinking beers with peers is very important to create a network around yourself. And, off course you read a lot of newspapers to search for topics that are interesting to report on.

And then the Commission is starting to send you prefabricated press packs and news articles.

”Well, in a way it is helpful. You get a clear overview of the political agenda for the coming weeks. Last month i could join a team of journalists to Strasbourg. They facilitate you and pay for most expenses. Other e-mails i receive are so called ‘express mails’ or ‘rapid service’. It’s basically a big wave of useless quotes from Euro Commissioners. Its a diarrhea of messages you get, trying to influence your work. And then there is ViEUws, a TV station payed for by the Commission. They make interviews around hot topics, and send you these e-mails with a link in the hope you embed the video into your story. That’s just their propaganda machinery. Good to know, but it is only useful for me to know how the game is played, not for publication. Most of the time i just delete them instantly.

I do used to go to the press conferences of the Commission, but i have skipped that as well. I can’t use it for my stories anymore. The same logic applies:i do learn from its workings, just like the other institutions. There are very valuable stories to tell about the workings of the machinery itself. But, the most important is to find a national point of view depending on the country you want to pitch a story to. Its how the media logic works, otherwise you have no chance to get your stuff published.”

I can imagine that if media in your home country don’t pay attention to proposals, you can write for foreign media in the English language.

”Yes, that is what other journalists from smaller countries do a lot. They go international and write articles for foreign newspapers and magazines. I have decided to do the same. From now on, i only write in English and will only occasionally work for media of my own country. The other reason is that i am busy with other projects that absorb a lot of my time. I still want to profile myself as EU-expert though. I have been called by TV-programs back home, so my work is drawing attention, but i am going to divide my time more even. Not a lot of other writers or journalists are profiling themselves, besides correspondents with a good contract, as EU experts. I thought it was a good niche. I still do in fact.

Another reason is the payment. If you do some work for TV and make a report, it pays you an average of 300 Euros. Radio pays an average of 72 Euros. Those are numbers you can’t earn a normal living with considering the costs you make producing them. So, i also focus on moderating debates and seminars. Lots of them are unpaid, some are well paid. It’s the economic situation in general that is causing organizations to cut down costs as well.”

You have written a book as well.. Was it well received?

”The book was about Europe and how powerless sovereign countries are. That lots of the decision making process is being done right here in Brussels, although people back home still tell otherwise. It’s a message that people don’t want to hear. Politicians just don’t tell the honest story, because they fear the next election. I have spoken to high class public servants back home who told me i had the right analyses at the right moment, but the message at news desks stayed the same: not interesting enough.

I have been interviewed on TV about it, but newspapers didn’t pay attention to it. They inquired, but there was no genuine interest. They didn’t read the book. Radio is okay though. You have an average of seven minutes to make your point, but often the people ask their questions within the same ‘ what’s in it for us?’ frame.”

Did you spoke with people at media outlets more extensively about your rejected proposals?

”Well, i know some folks working at newspapers who write in detail about Europe, but those jobs are rare and newspapers do not have a lot of people working in Brussels on a permanent basis. It’s a really small group. In general, the national media is playing hide and seek. What i did hear is that news desks often find Europe to technical, to boring. An article i wrote for an opinion magazine, and witch i had send to several people judging it on argument structure and quality in general, was refused. Not because the analysis was not good, but they just didn’t respond at all, while the subject couldn’t been more fit to print. Then i published the article online. For free.

So, i focus more on American and British media now. They are paying so much more attention to the EU. There is more change to get published for a wider audience. The same counts for debates and seminars i want to moderate more. My next book will be in English to.”

What story would you really like to start covering tomorrow, if you had the time?

Youth unemployment. I would find it very interesting to dig deeper into that subject. I follow it up close already. And, i think it would be very interesting to cover the whole process of how the Parliament is working. How it plays out on a daily basis. And, the fact that more Euro Commissioners are working in Brussels compared to accredited journalists. Whats that about? The amount of journalists has really dropped the last couple of years. It’s a pity, but i am still hopeful. I stay her for at least one more year. Elections are coming up, you know. I hope the changes increase and attention grows.”

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