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Why EU speeches are so damn boring

Why EU speeches are so damn boring

by host

STRASBOURG — Honorable members, valued stakeholders … prepare to fall asleep. 

That’s how most speeches would start if politicians in the EU bubble were being honest. 

As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen prepares to deliver her much-anticipated State of the Union address, POLITICO asks: Why do EU’s top brass usually inspire yawns instead of rousing applause?

The first challenge facing an EU speechwriter is how to interest an audience in policies that feel so remote.

Dan Sobovitz, who was European Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič’s speechwriter for five years, pointed to an additional challenge — intermediaries. “European politicians will never be able to reach intimacy because there are other proxies, like journalists, like influencers, at the national level who are going to interpret Brussels for them,” said Sobovitz, a Hungarian-Swiss-Israeli communications expert.

The antidote? Tell personal stories. “I would try to make a mix between the policy lines … and his personality and biography, that come from him,” Sobovitz said.

Renée Broekmeulen, who’s written speeches for Dutch politicians and CEOs for 25 years, described the caliber of oratory in the EU bubble as “sleep-inducing.” Broekmeulen said: “The way to make a very abstract subject very concrete, very touchable, is to tell stories.”

Countering populist rhetoric can only be done “by making clear what the European Union is actually doing for people, what it means for people’s lives,” she added. 

Late Tuesday, a senior Commission official who was granted anonymity to speak in advance of the von der Leyen speech remained tight-lipped about what her narrative would be — though he did suggest there would be one. “She works very intensively on these speeches, it’s a story she wants to say and she’ll do that a lot more elaborately than I do,” the top official told journalists.

Vincent Stuer, a former speechwriter for ex-Commission President José Manuel Barroso, elaborated on the concept of a narrative — and how von der Leyen gets there.

“The speech needs to be one story: one person delivering it, one narrative and one pen writing it,” said Stuer, who now works for the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament. 

Von der Leyen — who has kept the penmanship limited to a very small circle of trusted advisers — will also use this strategy, he said.

The first challenge facing an EU speechwriter is how to interest an audience in policies that feel so remote | Christian Ernhede/Getty Images

“She just locks herself up for a week with three advisers, and then says, ‘Here’s my story, take it or leave it.’ It’s great for the speech — but if it’s great for Europe, that’s a different matter,” Stuer said. But her actual policymaking process should be more open and consensus-based than her speechwriting tactics, he added.

Less is more, he said. When Commission directorates-general are allowed to give their input, the final product degenerates into a “Christmas tree,” he said. 

The senior official said that there had been a period of “extensive feedback” in the summer involving directorates-general, commissioners and heads of government.

Helene Banner, who in 2019 wrote speeches for two presidents of the Commission — Jean-Claude Juncker and von der Leyen — said learning the speaker’s biography inside out is key to developing the narrative. “What was really important when working with Juncker was really knowing how he thinks; what does he read, what poetry does he enjoy,” she said.

The Commission communication problem may be baked into the institution itself, said one former speechwriter who worked in the previous legislative period and was granted anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. 

“Most people who work at the Commission are lawyers, and lawyers are terrible at communicating. And EU lawyers are particularly bad,” the wordsmith said.

Another factor sapping linguistic flair is the EU requirement to interpret every bit of verbiage into 24 official languages. Both Juncker and von der Leyen make speeches while switching between three languages: English, French and German.

And you can bet your bottom dollar that a chunk of the audience is going to misunderstand some of that (you should probably use a different saying that doesn’t involve “dollar,” while you’re at it).

But beyond getting lost in translation, any speech also needs to be malleable enough to survive entry into 27 separate national political contexts. 

“That’s an impossible challenge to get right,” said Banner. The language sometimes ends up being “more careful, to get everyone on board,” she said.

“The art is to be personal, to be mission-driven, to be relatable,” said Banner, who teaches political communication at the College of Europe in Bruges. “And to have the courage to say less.”

And regardless of what surprises von der Leyen might have coming, don’t expect to laugh. 

“She lacks that tongue-in-cheek humor, the self-deprecation that I like in people — she doesn’t have one ounce of that,” said Broekmeulen. “She needs a little bit more emotion, a little bit more passion — but — well, she is German, so it’s difficult,” said the Dutch speechwriting expert.

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