From reunification to EU communication

Interview with Pavel Černoch, Press Officer at the European Parliament

Pavel Černoch, PhD

Pavel Černoch is a historian and political scientist. Born in the Czech spa town of Marienbad, he grew up on both sides of the Iron Curtain. He was among the crowds at the fall of the Berlin Wall and during the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution in November 1989 and he completed his M.A. degree at Erlangen-Nürnberg University in 1995.

He then worked for the European Commission Delegation in Prague and became, as a Czech member, involved in the reconciliation process in Czech-German relations.

He taught European Studies at the Jean Monnet Centre at Charles University which he had co-founded, and at the Grinnell College in Iowa as a visiting professor.

His academic focus is on transatlantic relations, Central Europe, the new EU25 and European identity after EU enlargement.

In October 2003 he became the Director of the Czech Cultural Institute in Brussels. Between October 2005 and January 2007 he was the deputy spokesperson of the Czech Permanent Representation to the EU. In February 2007 he joined the Press Service of the European Parliament.

Pavel is fluent in 13 languages.

He also draws satirical cartoons covering various topics, ranging from EU politics on to cultural differences and daily marital disputes.

Pavel, you have been a press officer and web editor in the EP for over 3 years and as a journalist, you must believe in the power of the word. Do you believe that the EP is making the EU more accessible to European citizens ?

I work in a fascinating place where people work together in 22 languages. There are very few places like that in the world. My job is to explain in a plain language a lot of complicated issues dealt with in the European institutions. It is making the ‘Latvian grandmother’ - so to speak - realize that what is being decided in the EU can actually have an effect on her daily life.

Moreover, as web-editors we reach out to anyone who has access to a computer and the internet. Also we’re now very present in social media ! We’re on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, online chat rooms and we publish photos on Flickr which you wouldn’t necessarily find in a newspaper. So we believe that we can reach out to people and that people reach out to us. In order to be successful we are constantly looking for new attractive ways to be relevant.

How is it to work for the most democratic body of the EU and to stand, in some sort, outside of the political debates as a journalist ?

Obviously the European Parliament is a political body with different political opinions, but it is interesting to work for an institution that knows that in order to have influence it needs to reach out for consensus. The attitude of people who work with consensus at the back of their mind, in contrast to people who are rather confrontational, is very rewarding. In fact, it forces you to listen and to reflect about other points of view, even if you don’t share them. This is something we should be able to apply in politics as well as in our daily lives.

You have been an assistant professor for several years at different universities. How does it differ from communicating EU politics as a press officer ?

First, in an academic setting you have instant feedback as it is an interactive setting. Second, you have more time to explain your ideas. Most importantly, I could not only transfer knowledge but also my personal enthusiasm about what Europe means to me. Having been a student leader during the Velvet revolution and the fall of the Berlin wall, European integration, cooperation and the abolishment of borders had a major effect on me. Being part of this made me believe in Europe and that acting in a European spirit was much more important than just living in a national context.

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National angle in EU news ?

Author : Pavel Černoch

How free are you to give your own journalistic opinion when writing for the EP ?

Of course I don’t write under my name so being a press officer gives you limits. But this makes sense because people do not want to read what Pavel has to say, but what the EP has to say. If I feel like expressing my personal opinions I can do so on my private blog. Readers expect us to be professional and they should be able to recognize - in all 22 languages - that it is the EP speaking to them.

Why is the average EU citizen not well aware of EU politics and institutions ?

It’s simple. The EU seems distant although it influences things on a universal scale. If you live in Bremen or in Sevilla you will first want to read about local news. But bringing the citizen from Bremen together with the person from Sevilla will make them realize that they do have a lot in common. This can happen thanks to mobility and communication !

You speak 13 languages and you lived in many different countries. How does it feel to live in a multinational city and to work in such an international environment ?

It’s a total bliss and a wonderful source of energy ! Meeting people from all over the world means you constantly speak different languages and you learn about their views and experiences. Thinking European means accepting our differences and exploring what we have in common. On the downside it becomes difficult to live outside that bubble ! As my grandmother always said, the more languages you speak the more persons you are. A friend of mine said that if you want to live an interesting life, be curious as a monkey. If you combine languages and curiosity, you enlarge life. When my students ask me how to grab the European spirit, I tell them to be curious.

Do you think that Brussels changes the viewpoints of young people who come to Brussels ?

Definitely. The experience of working or studying in an international environment widens their cultural horizons as they get the opportunity to meet people from other countries and helps them realize that they have a lot in common. Then again, when going back onto the streets of Brussels they go back into a completely national Belgian setting. There is a gap between the national Belgian and international EU setting where you have no other choice but confront yourself to other cultures. Especially young people who come here perceive the gap that exists between the EU Brussels bubble and normal life in what’s just another European capital which happens to be next to the EU institutions but doesn’t necessarily share its spirit.

So what happened when Belgium took over the EU presidency ?

Well suddenly they had to realize ‘oh ! We have to deal with those guys across

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Communicating EU politics

Author : Pavel Černoch

the street !’ but of course the Belgians have 2 advantages. First of all, they didn’t have to walk too far to talk to them, and secondly they are one of the founding members. They have a lot of people who throughout their careers have been switching between national and EU politics. Europe is not an alien topic to Belgian politics. And Belgium was very well prepared for that.

Do you perceive differences between the older generation of EU officers from former communist CEECs and the new generation which grew up in an open liberal world ? Do they experience life in Brussels differently ?

If you start your career at the age of 25 you quickly adapt to the working conditions. You don’t necessarily appreciate big changes because you have to learn things from scratch. That’s the problem faced by older generations. People who were used to work with typewriters suddenly have to learn working with computers and the internet. Some people adapt more easily than others. The same thing applies to politics. If you grew up behind the iron curtain under a totalitarian regime, you didn’t enjoy freedom of expression and your own opinion was not appreciated. It is difficult to adapt to a liberal political context. I think this is why the young generation from Eastern Europe is so appreciated. They are like sponges, they are curious and eager to learn, in contrast to people who have been here for a long time and take many things for granted.

What can be the ultimate tool to bringing Europe closer to its citizens ?

There’s no one single solution. But everyone should start realizing, in their professional and private environment, that there is not only a local but also a European dimension. Of course this involves learning languages, travelling and being curious ! More concretely, schools should continue using European programmes such as Erasmus or Confucius. Teachers are overwhelmed by their workload, but these extra activities are essential for students to realize that there is a world out there. There is a big difference between those students who have and those who haven’t experienced the exchange with students from other countries. This spark people get from ’being European’ just never goes away.

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