Belgium-Brussels – No amount of clichés can capture just how shocked and traumatised the political establishment is by the events of 2016.
This time last year, the Financial Times predicted that Hillary Clinton would beat Ted Cruz ‘because elections are still won in the centre’, the UK would stay in the EU, and Angela Merkel would go. At the time, these were not bold predictions, and the FT certainly wasn’t alone in calling it wrong.
Predicting 2017 will be no easier. Merkel is back seeking a fourth term, and it would be hard to bet against her. France’s Right will attempt to face down the hard-right Marine Le Pen in spring’s presidential elections, potentially leaving huge space for them to be outflanked on the left. And the Brexit Cold War will blow up into full-on negotiations that will likely paralyse already cumbersome EU decision-making processes.
But rather than boldly predicting either an ‘establishment bounce-back’ or the continuing disintegration of the European project, this article will predict what the new, uncertain political reality will mean for EU decision-making processes. What factors will shape decisions? Where will the influence lie? And what does it mean for political and public affairs campaigns in Europe?
Quite simply, 2017 will be the year of the man and the woman on the street, not the man or woman in a suit.
As politicians try to better understand what motivates their voters, they will give far more weight to what they hear in their constituencies, and worry far less about what they hear from Brussels lobbyists.
Surprise election results have been attributed to an electorate who feel disenfranchised and unrepresented – working-class voters who have been persuaded that they are the victims of creeping globalisation and of an establishment that doesn’t represent their interests. In 2017’s electoral battle-fields, candidates will be wondering how to reach these voters, and what messages they can deliver that will resonate with them. And they will be listening carefully to what they hear on the doorsteps.
Even away from the campaign-trail, European politicians – including those unelected ones in the Commission – know that they must spend more time attempting to divine and understand what the European public wants. Because the consequences of not doing so are too great. Brexit was the wake-up call, and it was a loud one.
And listening more closely to the public voice invariably means blocking out the voices of the suits in Brussels – whether they claim to be representing industry, workers or civil society.
Already, the trend in lobbying has been noticeably shifting away from traditional ‘access’ and old-school lobbying. In 2016, Red Flagcarried out an extensive series of expert interviews with Brussels’ top lobbyists across all sectors. The outcome of this research – aptly called Closing Doors – was clear:
• 62% of industry lobbyists believe they are at risk of having their access limited
• 46% believe that their access to politicians will be worse in 10 years than it is now
• More than half of all lobbyists interviewed have already been refused meetings because of the industry or sector they represent.
The door to EU decision-makers has not yet been slammed in the face of lobbyists, but they are clearly concerned about the trend.
As establishment decision-makers try to be more responsive and more relevant, lobbyists must react or be left behind. They must adapt their campaigning techniques and develop new ones.
Candidates and lobbyists alike must learn the lessons from the successful campaigns of 2016. Micro-targetted social media campaigns can reach small groups with messages carefully tuned to change their minds. On one day in August 2016, the Trump campaign A/B tested 100,000 different Facebook ads. This ability to segment and to reach is a powerful tool.
Likewise, lobbyists must harness the power of the public voice rather than trying to supplant it. European companies and industry groups will have to learn how to engage their customers, their members and their users, in the way that activist groups have begun to mobilise their members. This type of grassroots campaigning is well established in the US, but European industry is slowly waking up to its value.
Since Red Flag was founded four years ago, our campaign teams have been geared towards the ‘Red Flag moment’ –the moment you see an issue on the horizon and decide to act. And we’ve been building the campaign toolkits to respond.
2016 delivered one Red Flag moment after another for the entire European political establishment. 2017 promises many more. This is an exciting moment to be building the brains of the platforms that will deliver these improvements.