Belgium – Brussels – 2016 was not kind to the European Project. Previously ironclad beliefs in the European ideal and its direction of travel have been shattered by Brexit, and populist sentiment is on the rise across the continent. Political shocks have become less shocking. Yet a hefty schedule of elections across the European Union (EU) over the next 24 months gives plenty of opportunity for further uncertainty. The 2017 question for governments and for corporates is whether they are in a fit state to meet that future, to ensure that opportunities can be identified, seized and exploited from amongst the seeming chaos.
Recovery and growth – be it economic or electoral – is unlikely without a better understanding of the politics at play. And even then a clear strategy for weathering the uncertainty and capitalising on its opportunities is required.
For governments, administrations and political parties, this means proactively – but intelligently – selling their message and broadening their support bases.
The EU is an apt example. For too many, the EU has become synonymous with what was previously the domain of British eurosceptics; an institution run by faceless and unelected bureaucrats. National governments deserve part of the blame: Europe is, after all, an easy scapegoat for domestic woes. EU officialdom, however, deserves its share of the blame as well; it all too often falls into the trap of all governments, ponderously reacting to events and failing to communicate the purpose and value of its work to its public.
Admittedly, the EU is confronted with an ever growing and more informed audience, oftentimes from questionable sources. The challenge is great, but it is no greater, proportionally, than that which faces all governments. Namely, that nature abhors a vacuum. And being reactive in communicating successes, ideas, and values creates vacuums. And it is precisely in these vacuums that populism – be it through a catchphrase, unsubstantiated assertion or an image – so easily takes hold. The consequences can be abrupt, unforeseen, and dangerous.
This is not to say the EU doesn’t have successes on which it can build its fight back. From its pan-continental research programmes to its humanitarian aid, from its support for economically struggling regions to its fostering of conflict resolution or the single market, the EU has created opportunities and successes that no single country could have delivered (or coordinated) on its own. The bureaucracy that is responsible for these successes is – again, proportionately – smaller than any of its Member State’s civil services.
Where it needs help, like all governments, is in communicating these wins. Admittedly, the ways of the Union are arcane and complex. Its leaders and technocrats are overly reactive, and – even when they attempt to be proactive – they are all too often incomprehensible in their instinctive resort to jargon filled slogans. Yet the world is almost incomprehensible without it; its existence touches on the lives of its 500 odd million citizens and their USD$15 trillion economy. If Europe is to survive 2017, it needs to communicate these facts more clearly, more aggressively, and more persuasively.
This communication challenge is one that all governments face. And it will only become more challenging as the global media becomes ever more flat and decentralised. This complexity, tied to increasing global interconnectedness, means that governments are no longer able to rely solely on their diplomatic arms to convey their messages effectively to domestic, let alone international, audiences. The communications marketplace has, in short, become too crowded and too undifferentiated. The insurgent campaign run by President-Elect Trump in the United States, the growing strength of anti-establishment parties around the world, and the use of aggressive strategic communications for diplomatic aims by an increasing number of nation-states (Russia, China, France), have all demonstrated how agile communication strategies can completely undermine the status quo if they aren’t aggressively countered.
In the absence of better, and more agile, strategic communications from governments, the private sector is going to have to devote even more resource to analysing, understanding and addressing politics in 2017. Political risk is no longer the preserve of the developing world, and those corporates that fail to analyse, understand, and respond to the various political storms are increasingly heading for a fall. Moreover, with so many elections looming, the forces are gathering for 2017 to eclipse the shocks of 2016. The false security provided by US growth data may rapidly come to a screeching halt when confronted with the electoral maths in France, the Netherlands, Germany and possibly Italy.
Establishing, and then investing in, political networks should be a priority. It should be ranked alongside corporates’ efforts to protect their public image via costly PR plans. It should act as both an early warning for systemic risks, but also a savvy search party for smart opportunities.
This requires political understanding and insight, and then a strategy for exerting influence through political networks. It is all very well to plan for the likely shape of a post-divorce relationship between the UK and the continent, but it would be far more useful, surely, to act proactively to influence its shape. Unless corporates know how to communicate their red lines and interests to governments, then governments can hardly be blamed for listening to the loudest voices, seeking out the-most popular vote-winning routes, and being blinded to the wider economic or political consequences.
As it is, governments and investors appear simply to be taking things in their stride – shrugging off the Brexit vote, Trump’s election, or the Italian referendum result in less time than it took news networks to explain them. But this quietus may well be the calm before a probable economic and political storm. Uncertainty is likely to be the catch phrase of 2017, not smooth sailing.
Faced with this uncertainty, governments and corporates need expertise and help. They need to understand the rapidly changing world, identify their objectives, and then develop a strategy that gets them there. Any workable strategy must be robust and flexible enough to respond to shocks, but also one that is sufficiently visionary and compelling to carry an ever more wary and untrusting audience.
Doing nothing is not an option. Governments and political parties with poorly developed strategies and communication plans will see their voices drowned out, and their support bases chiselled away. Corporates who ignore politics, and don’t invest in risk mitigation, will be swamped by noise of the coming shocks, and surpassed by competitors who spotted the opportunities earlier.