In 2008, I was lucky enough to be contracted by the European Commission to work within its Directorate General of External Relations. Like many of my former colleagues, I spent Thursday evening glued to my computer screen.
While many who had hoped for Britain to remain in the EU took solace in early predictions, my former colleagues and I had seen this movie before. Neither Brussels, political pollsters, nor the Cameron administration had the ability to forecast last night’s results within an acceptable margin of error. As the dust settles and finger pointing begins, the US should turn its finger squarely at itself. We’ve cheapened not only our own political discourse but the world’s, with dire consequences on both sides of the Atlantic.
First, however, three key variables led to last night’s decision:
1 – The EU has always focused on developing good policy, broadly leaving its member states to communicate those policies to its citizens – creating a fatal layer of separation between EU legislators and its constituents.
2 – Both Labour and Conservative Party candidates have used the EU’s complex policies and matrix style governing body to take potshots at Brussels in order to capture easy political points.
3 – Most importantly, America’s greatest export, and it’s most toxic, is its campaign culture that feeds on emotion and fear to skew the facts to fit a candidate’s agenda, bolstered by increasingly politically leaning media outlets.
First, it’s critical to understand that the European Union, and particularly its executive body the European Commission, are unlike any legislative body in the United States. The European policymaking process is a highly complex and varied system where supranational institutions not only have independent implementation functions but also strong decision-making functions, the result of EU’s endeavor to de-politicize decision-making.
Complicating the issue, the EU broadly ceded control over communicating its policies to Member States’ governing bodies, who are less inclined to de-politicize the policy communication process. Campaigning on an “anti-EU / anti-establishment” platform became increasingly popular over the past decade for both liberal and conservative candidates, dramatically reducing the pool of potential EU advocates to balance the political discourse. This reality first reared its ugly head following the Irish Lisbon Agreement vote eight years ago.
The Lisbon Agreement was a simple treaty that sought to move certain voting measures from unanimity to majority vote, a common parliamentary procedure in most major legislative systems, including in the US. However, Ireland decisively rejected the Lisbon treaty on European Union reform in a referendum in 2008, plunging the project into chaos. Caught off guard and humiliated at the polls, the Irish prime minister admitted that his administration had underestimated his countrymen’s disdain towards the European Union as a governing body. They were particularly stunned by the hostility to the EU reform deal among Irish constituencies that had benefitted from European integration.
The bitter divisions became visible in the run-up to the Irish vote. Ugly scenes ensued between the finance minister and members of a radical anti-abortion group, which opposed the treaty on the grounds that it would enable European legislators to supplant Irish bans on abortion – a scenario the Irish government tried but failed to correct time and again during the campaign.
To be certain, misinformation and political spin is neither new nor unexpected in the European political arena. However, the exponential use of social and digital media in political campaigns has single handedly created the largest communications channel of misinformation that the Continent has seen since Stalinist Russia. Misinformation and sheer sophistry is being pushed out to vast audiences, not only by national political parties and interest groups, but also by foreign entities.
When Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThose on the front lines of climate change should be empowered to be central to its solution The Memo: Trump's justices look set to restrict abortion Minorities and women are leading the red wave MORE’s 2008 campaign strategists decided to launch what would become the first global digital and social media political campaign, they likely never realized how dramatically they would change the nature of political campaigns across the globe. The Obama campaign created a steamroller of public sentiment over which they had little control. Now they find themselves in its path.
It was no surprise when Jim Messina, President Barack Obama’s election guru, was hired as a campaign adviser by the “Remain” campaign. Messina had helped Prime Minister David Cameron secure victory and a second term in office in last year’s general election and is currently co-chairman of Priorities USA Action, the super PAC backing Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBudowsky: Why GOP donors flock to Manchin and Sinema Countering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE for president. In response, the “Leave” campaign hired referendum specialist Gerry Gunster, managing partner of DC-based public-relations firm Goddard Gunster Inc., as well as Cambridge Analytica LLC, which was brought on to tap data-driven solutions in the U.K. similar to those it has used to support Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzProposal to move defense bill running into new GOP objections GOP anger with Fauci rises Senate nearing deal on defense bill after setback MORE’s presidential bid. Gunster out-Messina’d Messina.
The result was a “Remain” campaign that relied on facts and figures to drive their message, and a “Leave” campaign that stoked British unrest through evocative messaging based on emotion. Unfortunately for the “Remain” campaign, by the time they realized that emotion was eclipsing facts, they had little alternative other than to try and match the “Leave” rhetoric. Their gambit fell short.
It is critical that other European governing bodies learn from this hard-taught lesson, but even more imperative that the Clinton campaign take notes and adjust their campaign strategy. The Irish and now British PMs were caught off guard. For Hillary, forewarned is forearmed.
Patrick Hillmann previously worked for the European Commission, where he served within the European Commission’s Directorate General of External Relations. Hillmann is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK and has guided foreign heads of state and global corporations through high-profile global risk events for nearly a decade.