What Has the EU Ever Done For Us?: Countering Euroskepticism with Viral Videos and Monty Python
BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, April 23 2014
Ahead of the May 25 European Elections, the most intense campaigning may not be by the candidates or the political parties. Instead, some of the most passionate campaigns are more grassroots efforts focused on for a start stirring up the interest of the European electorate.
One such effort has ended up illustrating the timeless dissonance between political disaffection and the role of government by drawing on a classic piece of European culture set in the Roman occupation of the New Testament era, by coining the tongue-in-cheek "People's Front Against Europe" campaign.
The revolution leader behind the front is Sebastian Jabbusch, a 30-year-old political science graduate in Berlin who works as a social media strategist for a non-profit media initiative focused on encouraging political interest among young people, and has previously held leadership positions in the regional Pirate Party.
In an e-mail to techPresident, he recalled that in many recent conversations with friends, he got the sense that people were "fed up" with the European Union, even those that generally had a liberal or cosmopolitan attitude.
"In my opinion, one of the main causes of this insanely large and wide-spread EU-frustration, is that the EU is still an extremely undemocratic operation, in which the public is just barely allowed to join the conversation through the parliament, even though it is still fairly powerless in relation to the European Commission and the Council. Real change of power through the public is not even possible," he wrote. "With this frustration we have forgotten why we are even doing this 'EU thing' and why [we] should even go vote. The motivation, the euphoria and the vision for an integrated Europe have evaporated, also because the other countries may not have shared this 'German vision' and didn't support our intentions toward stronger integration."
Mulling over the point of the EU and what it had actually accomplished, he had been thinking about creating a supercut video of the European Parliament's "moments of glory," such as European Parliament President Martin Schulz dressing down Silvio Berlusconi, Malala Yousafzai receiving the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize and MEPs putting on Anonymous masks as they vote against the anti-piracy bill ACTA. "But as I was doing the research, I realized that it was really difficult to get at the relevant video footage and that getting video rights clearance would have probably taken about one trillion years," he wrote.
"As I was nevertheless continuing to search YouTube video clips for the supercut, I at some point ran out of search keywords," he continued. "Somewhat by accident I entered 'What has the EU done for us' and then the Monty Python clip 'What have the Romans ever done for us' came up. And then everything was clear." He threw out his original idea and decided to convey his message in the form of a sketch remake, drawing on the Greek theatrical tradition known as teichoscopy, "viewing from a wall," which allows characters to narrate events occurring off-stage.
With that concept, he entered a video clip contest organized by the state chancellery of Lower Saxony to mobilize youth voter participation in the European Election with the motto "Erste Wahl," a German expression playing on the double meaning of "first election choice" and "first-time voting." His concept was one of three to get an initial nod from the jury consisting of a chancellery official, and local media professionals and filmmakers. Each winning concept received a budget of €5,000 to create a professional-looking film. The initiative has now posted all three films and will award another €2,500 to the clip that gets the most views by May 21.
In the e-mail, Jabbusch wrote that he did not have any specific statistics in mind about EU enthusiasm or disaffection, but pointed to a general sense of the popularity of euro-skeptic parties, such as the Alternative for Germany (AFD), but more importantly the intense EU frustration felt by him and his friends. "Even I as a big supporter of the 'European Idea' am not really happy anymore," he wrote. "We need a new reasoning ... a new 'idea' for the EU...We need less pathos, less wallowing in emotions and need to place in the foreground the usefulness of these 28 nation coordination efforts." A fall 2013 Eurobarometer survey found that two thirds of European feel like their vote in the EU doesn't count. Nearly 60 percent of respondents said they felt like a citizen of the EU, down three percentage points from spring 2010, but 40 percent said they did not, up three percentage points from spring 2010. Average EU voter turnout was 43 percent across all countries in 2009, ranging from 19.6 percent in Slovakia, 34.7 percent in the U.K., 43 percent in Germany, 65 percent in Italy and over 90 percent in Belgium and Luxembourg, which have mandatory voting.
All the money went towards paying for actors, extras, direction, theater tech and props, Jabbusch wrote, noting that this was the first film he produced, though his director and editor, Kerstin Kockler, had more experience. Filming took place in one day with 22 people in what he described as a "run-down" youth center cellar in Berlin's arty Kreuzberg neighborhood that was large, dark and quiet enough.
The result is two clips in German and English that recapture the humor of the original Monty Python Life of Brian scene featuring John Cleese and others as the People's Front of Judea rebels questioning "what have the Romans ever done for us" and transport the relevancy of the message to 21st Century Europe.
The English video opens with the rebels, dressed in the black revolutionary gear style of Judea in 33 AD, saluting each other with calls of "F*ck the Euro."
"They've bled us white, the bastards. They have taken everything we had. Not just from us, but from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers...," the group leader, taking on the John Cleese role of Reg, announces to the group. "The question is, what did they give us in return?"
The group members then offer suggestions that Reg only acknowledges dismissively.
"ACTA. They put an end to that anti-pirating bill."
"They reduced the roaming costs."
"Yeah, remember what we used to pay?," another co-conspirator agrees.
"The good condition of the roads?"
"Well, obviously the roads, the roads go without saying," Reg replies, getting worked up.
"A Europe-wide student exchange program."
"Common environmental standards."
"I can visit my sister now in France without a visa," another adds.
"We can live and work anywhere in Europe without any special permission."
"Yeah, and they were the only parliament to allow Edward Snowden to testify," the revolutionary to the right of Reg notes.
"Oh boy, you know how afraid the national parliaments are of America. We can't make a stand against the NSA by ourselves," the one to the left agrees.
"Okay, okay, okay," Reg goes on. "But apart from the ACTA rejection, and the roaming costs, and the roads, and the exchange program, and the common environmental standards, the regional subsidies, the open borders, the possibility to work everywhere in Europe, the consumer protection, and the hearing of Snowden, and the data protection, apart from all these things, what has the EU ever done for us, huh?"
"Brought peace?," another rebel offers quietly.
"Peace, peace ...oh shut up!," Reg snaps.
The video then switches to a text with voice-over noting the upcoming election on May 25 and the message "We have a lot to lose."
With some initial social media promotion so far, the German version of the clip has gotten over 18,000 views and over 5,000 Facebook likes or shares, with many shares coming from the Pirate Party, but also from social media accounts associated with the German Social Democrats, Greens or Left Party, Jabbusch wrote. He added that he hopes to see more shares from within the European Parliament and ideally by the two top commission president candidates Social Democrat Martin Schulz and Conservative Jean-Claude Juncker, noting that if they have enough of a sense of humor the creative commons license would even allow them to show the video at election events, and that he is even going to try to get the attention of the original Monty Python members. So far he has seen less enthusiasm from the more Conservative parties. "And yet I think it could especially help them stop voters from migrating to the populist, right-wing fringe," he wrote.
On the campaign's social network accounts, the plan is to promote the message by posting about EU benefits. "The idea is that these will be especially unusual or less-well known points," Jabbusch wrote, with links back to the website with the video. And the same cast has also remade another scene from the Life of Brian film set for release in two weeks, he wrote.
"The reactions of the EU opponents are interesting, they see themselves as the target and so of course are ranting a lot under the video and calling it one-sided propaganda," he wrote. "One can't really get a better acknowledgement that the concept has had the intended effect."
But one of Jabbusch's most important insights is not about European electoral politics. "Through the intense preoccupation with the clips I have realized just how much genius and perfection is in the work of Monty Python. The original is unapproachable and gets all my appreciation."
It's not the first time the scene has played a role in German politics. The Social Democrats redubbed the original German version of the scene in the run-up to the German national 2013 elections to suggest that the party officials in the Conservative CDU headquarters would give credit to the Social Democrats for all their popular campaign ideas, while a youth wing of the liberal FDP Party had independently done their own redub to take credit for some of their accomplishments as part of the previous coalition government.
The other two selected European video finalists include a clip with the title "Europe, I Love You?" in which six YouTube personalities from several European countries talk creatively about what they love about Europe, including history lessons referencing "How I Met Your Mother" and "Game of Thrones," and another clip, to be posted shortly, that features a chance encounter between two young people on a train.
And that is not all in an election campaign that will also as a first see several TVdebates and the associated Twitter commentary, a result of the more personalized contest between top candidates Schulz and Juncker. There is even a Change.org petition urging German public broadcasters ARD and ZDF to show one of the debates with top candidates from all parties, not just Schulz and Juncker, on the main channels rather than Phoenix, the German equivalent of C-SPAN, which invokes Europewide interest in the Eurovision Song Contest, a situation that may be similar for TV channels in other EU countries.
German video journalist Tilo Jung, who has gained prominence for his "Jung & Naiv" video interview format in which he interviews politicians and policy experts in a naive style inspired by Stephen Colbert, is running a crowdfunding campaign to pay for a road trip across European countries ahead of the election, following some broadcasts from Ukraine in March.
European University Institute Prof. Alexander Trechsel, based in Italy, cooperated with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University to create euandi, a tool that lets users from every EU country answer questions to determine to what extent they agree with the political parties in their country and euandi users in other EU regions, an effort that has the support of over 140 political and social scientists across the EU and around the world on its advisory board and as part of country-specific teams that helped develop the party matching methodology. The tool has echoes of MyVote2014, a VoteWatch Europe tool based on MEP voting data and the now classic German tool Wahlomat (Vote-O-Mat), which will launch its European Election Edition at the end of April.
The League of Young Voters in Europe has produced a Happy Voting video in the style of the popular Pharrell Williams videos featuring a variety of Europeans from a construction worker and a teacher, a drag queen, a nudist and several MEPS dancing to encourage youth voter turnout.
The German government, the European Parliament and the European Commission are running a public service poster voting campaign in Germany that is the result of a contest for design students including one with a message channeling Yoda from Star Wars: "Great power in Europe, you have."
But in the end, it may just come down to having a sense of "What has the EU ever done for us?" One EU politician who seems to get it is Neelie Kroes, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda. Jon Worth recently highlighted in a blog post how her tweet complaining about WiFi fees in Düsseldorf Airport ended up getting results, with the airport announcing it would offer 30 minutes of free Wi-Fi beginning in April.
"Her experience is the sort of thing regular travelers encounter all the time. It's surely also something that the other Commissioners capable of using a smart phone also have encountered. But unlike the rest of them, Kroes connects her everyday experience with the politics of the matter and actually seeks to do something," Worth notes. Kroes ended up posting another tweet asking her followers to offer examples of airports with positive and negative Wi-Fi experiences, which she the rounded up in a blog post and linked to the importance of constant connectivity, lifting roaming charges and implementing fast 4G service.
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