Tuesday, 6 October 2009

In the Brussels bubble (2): The informality sphere

My trip to Brussels is over, and after my earlier article on my first impressions from Brussels (re-published on page 26 of the latest issue of the New Europe weekly newspaper) let's look at the human side of the bubble.

As I have told before, I wanted to use my first real trip to Brussels to meet a number of people involved in European affairs, in particular in EU communication, and I managed to speak with about three dozens of persons - alone or in groups, shorter or longer - over three working days and the Saturday evening (after the Irish referendum results where out).

I could meet several journalists, lobbyists and PR agency consultants, staff and activists of European parties, officials from the Commission and the Parliament, persons working in European NGOs as well as a number of persons I knew only from the euroblogosphere and eurotwittersphere before (some of the latter overlap with the former).

Surprisingly, and in contrast to what I have described in my first post on the Brussels bubble, the people I met were much more open than the eurodistrict architecture lets expect.

I had extremely interesting talks and discussions with everyone I met - and I am not exaggerating out of politeness - so I am thus extremely thankful for anyone who was willing to meet and was ready to discuss about EU communication issues from different angles.

The main thing I have learned is that, within the Brussels bubble, most information is available on an informal basis by anyone who is (professionally) working to get them. And if a direct contact does not know, he or she will have a contact that knows.

The problem is that much of this information is not sharable or not shared beyond personal relations, meaning that it remains in the hands of a limited audience instead of being spread into a wider public.

This "informality sphere" is probably a specific feature of the political system of Brussels in which human contacts seem to be the main channels to raise awareness; only through them you notice political processes that are actually ongoing but not yet or never covered by national and international media and their EU correspondents.

Different to national public spheres with a fully developed media scene that is able to cover even minor political events or to keep track of longer legislative projects, there is no such pendant in Brussels where most EU correspondents, small in numbers, report for very specific national audiences on anything EU-related. Due to these dispersed audiences and the lack of width and depth in reporting there is enough room for the "informality sphere", filling the gap of public information flows with private information exchanges.

This might not sound surprising for insiders - and maybe not even for outsiders - but talking to many of the people you see that they actually know quite well what is going on around them, that they have information they would like to share, but that there are no means to communicate publicly since there are no mechanisms in place beyond the informal personal meeting.

However, what I have realised by the readiness to meet me and to talk openly about work and EU politics with a blogger, including critical remarks about certain developments within or outside one's own institution, is that there is a lot of room for informed citizen journalism or insider reporting from people working with or within the institutions.

The bubble is ready for this kind of information dispersion, you just need some people who are ready to take on the challenge and do it. Some of the (probably true) rumours that are available in the cafés and bars of the eurodistrict could actually find a wider European audience, pressuring institutional actors to confirm or officially deny them.

In the end, the human face(s) hidden behind the walls of the eurodistrict buildings or behind cups of coffee in the bars of the Place Luxembourg only has to be made visible - and I will use my next post on the Brussels bubble to talk more about blogging and the use of social media to achieve this goal.


Jon Worth said...

Very valid observations. These person-to-person interactions are the things that keep a lot of us going in the EU bubble. It's sometimes hard to maintain that AND keep a sense of perspective from the outside though.

Joe Litobarski said...

Interesting post, Julien.

I like where you seem to be going with this...

Looking forward to your next post!


Mathew Lowry said...

Good post. You're absolutely right that social media - by focusing on people - provides a new, informal channel through which information can pass.

In fact it already helps information circulate, both within the bubble and from it into relevant wider online communities (e.g., where national policies are debated). This latter flow is still in its infancy, but it will mature.

There is a risk, however, that someone, somewhere, in their enthusiasm will poison the well, setting back this maturation.

Other large organisations try and manage this by establishing social media guidelines for their employees. When will we see this for staff working for the Institutions?

Insideur said...

Yes I also think this is an interesting line of inquiry. I think that subconsciously, this is part of the reason that I started my blog - trying to get some of the informal gossip that I want to share with the outside world out there on the web somehow.

french derek said...

Many years ago I made contact with my local EMP. I needed to know how to get access to possible grants for work we were undertaking. She was amazingly helpful - names, phone numbers (this was pre-internet!), etc. And, thereafter, everyone of her suggestions turned out to be unstintingly helpful - I was embarrassed by their concern and support.

It seems those inside the "bubble" and those outside the "bubble" fell too isolated from each other? Who has to do what to open up the networking opportunities?

HughBS said...

Julien - this comes as close to a Web2EU manifesto as we're likely to get. H

Julien Frisch said...

@ Jon:

This problem of perspective is one of the things I will write about in one of the next posts. I realised this while being in Brussels, and it needs to be addressed.

@ Mathew

I think you also raise an important point regarding the possibility that everything gets spoiled - but maybe thing mature quick enough to not make this happen...?!

@ Joe, Insideur, Derek, Hugh

Thanks for your supportive comments!