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Back-room media strategists in the "Club of Venice"

The Federal Government’s press spokespersons discuss the presentation of controversial foreign-policy issues with the EU and NATO in the "Club of Venice"

By Andrej Hunko

Government spokespersons from the EU Member States regularly engage in discussions with EU institutions on how controversial political issues can be presented in print and online media. In 1986, the 12 members of the European Community at the time founded the "Club of Venice" with this aim in mind. The meetings of this group are prepared and run by the European Commission and the secretariat of the Council. The goal is to provide support for the policies of the European Commission from the Member States.

In addition to the plenary meetings which take place twice a year, "specialised workshops" on specific "communications issues" also take place. Since the Club is specifically intended to be an informal group, no minutes are taken. It is only over the past three years that the Club has begun showcasing its own work, presenting selected discussion pieces on its website.

The German Federal Government is a founding member of the "Club of Venice". It is represented at meetings by high-ranking officials, usually deputy government spokespersons. The Press and Information Office sends heads of directorate-general, heads of division or senior policy officers to the meetings. The Federal Foreign Office also has a communication directorate-general which sends representatives to the workshops. In response to a minor interpellation, the Federal Foreign Office has now for the first time revealed details.

According to the answer provided, Federal Government representatives have on several occasions given talks on their own communications projects and presented reports on experience gained. Apparently, briefings on "new communications techniques" have also been given. According to the Federal Government, the "Club of Venice" focuses on so-called "public diplomacy". The Government understands this as meaning "dialogues with citizens and civil-society groups", with the goal of "communicating foreign policy" in Germany. And it views the press and public-relations work of the German missions abroad, intended to "communicate German policy", as even more important.

The discussions in the "Club of Venice" forum are described as "mutual support in communicating complex political challenges". The EU’s statistical office provides figures from recent polls, which then serve as a basis for discussions. And some of the issues concerned are indeed controversial. The Club has, for instance, discussed "communications challenges" on the subject of TTIP.

We can assume that these discussions focused on how this free-trade agreement with the USA can be given a positive spin and resistance to it broken. Further topics discussed included the ways in which governments should depict migration flows or the wording to be used regarding "terrorist attacks in EU Member States". The EU now wants to use the Internet to convert radicalised young people or adults by presenting alternative narratives.

The idea is for well-known YouTubers who are respected by young people and seen as able to communicate in an authentic fashion to send "de-radicalising" messages. The Federal Agency for Civic Education is also involved in this; this project is likely to be presented in Venice. In March, a representative from the Federal Foreign Office already gave a presentation at a workshop on "digital communications trends".

At the last two plenary meetings, the Club members placed "communication in the Russia/Ukraine crisis" on the agenda. Amongst others, a representative from Nato’s strategic communications department was asked to give a briefing. It is obvious that the idea behind the discussions is not to present the conflict in a balanced fashion.

Indeed, we can assume that the members of the "Club of Venice" are trying to gain tips on how to ensure that the European media unanimously blames Russia. According to the Federal Government’s answer, lobbyists were also invited to attend relevant discussions. These lobbyists are described as "experts from think tanks, foundations or scientific institutions". We are not told, however, who they were and to what extent they talked on the subject of media spin regarding the Ukraine conflict.

Download of the minor interpellation "The coordination of European communication strategies in the Club of Venice"