Author Archives: Laura

Juncker’s State of the Union 2015

+++This piece was by Laura Shields (@mediawhizz) +++

What is the purpose of a speech?

Judging from some of the conversations I’ve been having with people on Twitter I have been unfair on Juncker because I wanted him to deliver his State of the Union speech in an engaging and convincing manner.

When I make comments like this, people in Brussels often assume that this is somehow a dig at the speaker’s English (which is usually perfect) and that I should cut them some slack because they are often talking in their third or fourth language.

So before I start this blog in full I want to make a number of things clear.juncker

  • I am in awe of people who work and communicate in several languages. As a Brit who works almost exclusively in her mother tongue and speaks passable (but not professional) French and Spanish, I know how hard it is to work at an effective and nuanced level in other languages.
  • Doing speeches in multi-lingual environments is incredibly tough, particularly as cultural differences exist over what makes an authoritative speaker. Personally I think speeches should be banned from EU policy environments because they don’t add anything and almost all policymakers do better when taking questions rather than delivering set piece speeches which they aren’t good at.
  • I don’t want everyone to sound like Tony Blair. Or Angelina Jolie.  Far from it. I want them to be the best possible version of themselves if they are going to convince an audience to listen to their message. This does not make me superficial and unduly fixated on metaphors.  Nor does it mean I overlook substance in favour of rhetorical flourish (whatever that is). Rather, it means I accept that all public speaking is an exercise in creating and sustaining a convincing connection with an audience over a set period of time.  The Greeks knew this thousands of years ago when they were using speechmaking to cement ‘democracy’ in Athens. And not being boring matters more than ever in the increasingly impressionistic digital age we now live in.

So, caveats aside, the speech was a game of two halves. It was beautifully crafted, with lovely soundbites, great numbers and sticky stories but delivered in such a flat and listless way that it made me want to put a biro through my eyeball.

Quite simply, you  wouldn’t have known this was the make or break speech it had been trailed as.

The Good:

  • Beautifully written: lots of sizzling soundbites such as  ‘There is a lack of Europe in Europe and a lack of union in the European Union’ and ‘Europe cannot house all the world’s misery’. Chapeau to Juncker’s speechwriters, who have done a very good job in focusing the content on their audience.
  • Great numbers – such as 20mn Poles live outside Poland – helped create a strong narrative arc and context for discussing the refugee crisis.
  • Strong storytelling and examples to help make the speech visual and real. There was also very little jargon.

The Bad:

  • Just one major point: the delivery was flat with terrible energy  and no light or shade (in all three languages, not just English). This is not a language issue. It’s a performance issue. No speaker will be convincing if they do not seem interested in and engaged by their own subject.  Most of us have to fake energy and enthusiasm when it comes to public speaking. It does not mean you have to be a fake to do it.

I am a broken record on the energetic delivery point. I cannot emphasise this enough. You can have the best or worst content in the world but if you have no ooomph as a speaker  then you will always fail to ignite or even connect with your audience.

A strong speech certainly helps. But performance, passion and conviction are everything.

20.10, 1900 – Violeta Bulc (Transport)


Political Flair 7.5/ 10
Credibility 7.5/ 10
Energy 7.5 / 10
Warmth 8 / 10
Ability to connect with people outside Brussels 7.5 / 10
Likelihood of being approved by the EP 8/ 10
Overall rating 7.5 / 10

Bulc is the new Slovenian nominee, replacing Alenka Bratušek. The review of Bratušek’s hearing is here. Šefčovič will replace Bratušek as VP Energy Union, and Bulc will have a hearing about the Transport portfolio that was previously Šefčovič’s position. The review of Šefčovič’s first hearing (on Transport) is here.

So this was interesting because Jon and I disagreed completely about Bulc (he didn’t rate her, whereas I was pleasantly surprised).

From my perspective, despite the nature of her appointment and some of the scurrilous commentary which had preceded the hearing, Bulc actually delivered a solid if unspectacular performance. She was anything but the fruitcake that the media would have liked to portray her as.

If anything, the speech was deadly dull (lots of ‘essential backbones’ (eh?) and ‘solutions’) and I have to confess that as soon as she started talking about ‘integration’, infrastructure’ and ‘innovation’ I wanted to put a biro through my eye in despair.

But you have to pity Bulc and her speechwriters who had to mop up what was left after Sefcovic’s first effort. But once it was over she did much better with the Q&A. There were some nice stories (including about her time as manager of Slovenia’s cohesion funds, travelling to airports in the Hebrides and Slovenia) which seemed genuine and showed an ability to communicate what is, frankly, an unsexy brief, to audiences outside Brussels.

She also made the right noises about ‘social dumping’ (she’s not a fan in case you were wondering) and Ebola (the EU shouldn’t restrict transport systems to combat it). And her energy levels, eye contact and warmth were mostly good.

The downsides were a lack of  overall vision (she was definitely a bit too on message), too lengthy answers and an absence of really hard facts. But she seemed like a real person, showed an ability to get to grips with a brief quickly and was calm and authoritative. My sense is that she’ll be good if given the right support and doesn’t borrow too heavily from the EU Lexicon when she goes out to meet people.

Photo: CC License from Flickr – original source here.

06.10, 1830 – Federica Mogherini (High Rep for Foreign Policy)


Political Flair 8/ 10
Credibility 9/ 10
Energy 9 / 10
Warmth 8 / 10
Ability to connect with people outside Brussels 7 / 10
Likelihood of being approved by the EP 9.5/ 10
Overall rating 8 / 10

Mogherini’s hearing was always going to be scrutinised for evidence of a pro-Russia bias and proportionately she did receive more questions on this topic than on others. However, in the event she was completely on message and across the brief almost to the point of being a bit dull.

But she had gravitas, came across as a listener (a skill which also served her predecessor Catherine Ashton well in relation to Iran and Kosovo) and seemed calm if a bit nervous. And there was the odd flash of charm and self-deprecating wit too. Speaking in English and apologising to the French speakers, she won smiles up front by saying that it would be impossible for her to speak in Italian and say everything she needed to in fifteen minutes.

We had all the buzz-words that the MEPs would have wanted to hear without Mogherini actually sucking up to them as the ‘conscience’ of the EU (which is how Malmstrom referred to them in her hearing).

So there were pledges to appear in front of the EP more often than Ashton, as well as saying the EU should give ‘full support’ to Ukraine and treat Russia with a combination ‘of diplomacy and assertiveness’. There was even a bit of role play involving a bear analogy (watch Richard Howitt’s question) which she went along with but (mercifully) knew how to get out of before it became embarrassing.

But there was an awful lot of safe talk about ‘partners’, ‘streamlining’, ‘cross cutting’, ‘strategic’ management of EU Foreign Affairs Ministers’ meetings and NATO. And at one point she seemed to perform a shout out to every single Foreign Affairs partner the EU has ever worked with. There weren’t a great deal of numbers or good stories to make it real for audiences outside Brussels, although she did mention Tunisia as an example of a success story from the Arab uprising and one that should be made more of.

So, in short, this was an unspectacular, safe and very competent performance. If Mogherini is confirmed hopefully she’ll relax a bit and let some of the charm and personality out a bit more. Then she’d be a pretty impressive High Rep both in Brussels and beyond.

Photo: CC License from flickr – original source here.

01.10, 1800 – Miguel Arias Cañete (Climate Action & Energy)

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Political Flair 10 / 10
Credibility 9 / 10
Energy 9 / 10
Warmth 7 / 10
Ability to connect with people outside Brussels 7 / 10
Likelihood of being approved by the EP ? / 10
Overall rating 9 / 10

Note: the controversy surrounding Canete makes me wonder if we should have opened a separate category for ‘character’ credibility. Let us know what you think. Thanks.

Plagued by accusations of sexism and conflicts of interest, Canete’s hearing was always going to be one of the most colourful. In the event, he he came out of the box swinging but did not deliver a flawless performance.

Bombastic in manner and imposing in stature, Canete raced through his (largely technocratic) opening speech in a volley of Spanish that left the interpreter sounding breathless and stressed.

Clearly watching the clock, Canete decided to deal with the character issues up front, which, depending on your view point, was a a proactive gesture towards transparency, or a cynical attempt to shoot your enemy’s fox outside your hen house. (Sorry for all the mixed metaphors today but I’m in a hurry to get this piece out).

In the end, he apologised for making sexist remarks earlier in the year and argued that he had sold his wife and son’s (and his own) shares in family related oil forms.  He held firm on this when pressed about his brother in law in the Q&A (which he handled in flawless English and French), even going as far as to explain that it takes 3-5 days to sell shares in Spain.

Canete also demonstrated considerable knowledge about renewable energy and the structural problems within Europe’s energy markets. This grasp of detail combined with a passionate defence of his green credentials (including a personal anecdote from his time as Environment Minister in Spain) made it very difficult for his critics (the Greens and Spanish Socialists) to land any real blows. How, after all, are you supposed to criticise a man who counters UKIP’s climate sceptic questioning with the phrase: ‘global warming is not a question of opinions, it’s a question of statistics’?

So yes, controversial. But also impressive and knowledgable.

Will this be enough to get him through?  I have no idea. I’ve given him a very high score for his performance in the Q&A and knowledge (hence he does well for credibility). But clearly others feel he is not a credible candidate. And he still could be the one that the EP sends back. But it won’t be on the basis of this hearing.

Photo: CC License from Flickr – original source here.

We shouldn’t forget the hearings are theatre

We’ve had some interesting feedback on the scorecard so far. So thank you for all your input. One of the themes (criticisms) we’ve come up against is the idea that we’re avoiding taking a stand on the politics and policy by not commenting on the ‘substance’ of the hearings.

In fact, we do include the grasp of policy in our criteria (it’s included in credibility and we all refer to it in our individual pieces).  We just don’t make it the centre piece of our assessment. Because that’s what everybody else does. And we don’t have a political or policy axe to grind so we’ve chosen not to have that conversation here.

Of course the substance matters. But the idea that the Commissioners are going to have the depth of knowledge or experience of this particular brief before they are in the job, or are going to drop some kind of moral howler which will force them to withdraw is naive.

Furthermore, we shouldn’t forget that these events are highly stage managed pieces of political theatre where opening statements and follow up Q&A are not only prepared in advance but tightly corralled in terms of time.

As such they are, in many ways, a series of long elevator pitches in which smart Commissioners set out their vision and (some) MEPs ride their particular hobby horse so that they can tweet about it afterwards and say they are doing something. Everyone knows the rules of the game and cuts their cloth accordingly.

In this context, making an assessment of how well a Commissioner weaves their substance (or lack of) into an argument, connects with their audience and seems fired up for the job is not un-important. For too long these qualities have been considered secondary in Brussels, which is almost certainly one of the reasons why euroscepticism is on the up.

The aim of our project is to try and make an early assessment of the kinds of skills the Commissioners will need if they are going to make the EU more accountable and accessible to all Europeans. Policy and personal character matter as well. But they are not the only skills that should be valued.

01.10, 1330 – Jonathan Hill (Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union)

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 14.37.10

Political Flair 8 / 10
Credibility 6 / 10
Energy 7/ 10
Warmth 8 / 10
Ability to connect with people outside Brussels 8 / 10
Likelihood of being approved by the EP 7/ 10
Overall rating 7/ 10

Given the narrowness of the tightrope Hill had been given to walk, he did the only politically sensible thing he could. He walked carefully down the centre. And on tip-toes.

This was an old-school Tory on a charm offensive, seizing the low hanging fruit straight away by adopting the self depracating manner of the lesser-spotted Brit speaking a foreign language abroad.  (French and Italian).  And of course this will have gone down well in Brussels in a way that Anglo-supremacists who’ve never lived abroad (and think the best approach with foreigners is to bark more loudly in English) will never fully grasp.

Furthermore, his language and manner oozed moderation. This was a man who wanted the Parliament to know that he had a ‘proven record of consensus’, that he is ‘open-minded’ and that he thinks the choice between ‘regulation and growth’ is a ‘false dichotomy’. And all delivered in a soft tone, with lots of eye-contact, glasses being pulled on and off (why not just leave them on?) and peppered with literary references from across Europe.

All the while the sharks were circling, whether in the form of UKIP trying to call him out over his inability to protect the City of London or French socialists desperate to pin him on details of what ‘safe regulation’ really means.  He balanced on the tightrope through all of these.

So far, so tactical. Unfortunately, charm cannot make up for gaps in knowledge .  And while I have some sympathy for the Commissioners-designate who are expected to become overnight experts, to say Hill didn’t seem to have a full command of the brief would be something of an understatement. When pressed on CNAV funds, Eurobonds, Solvency Two or the Capital Union he kicked the questions into the long grass with long, woolly answers and an emphasis on due process.

It’s hard to tell whether this approach was deliberate or reflects a lack of a grasp of the substance. I liked Hill because he came across as sincere and thoughtful. But there’s a limit to how far the  Hugh (pre-Divine Brown) Grant act will carry him if he can’t back it up with the substance in what is clearly a very complex and technically challenging portfolio.

Photo: CC License from wikipedia – original source here.

01.10, 1330 – Věra Jourová (Justice, Consumers & Gender Equality)

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Political Flair 7 / 10
Credibility 8 / 10
Energy 6/ 10
Warmth  7/ 10
Ability to connect with people outside Brussels 6 / 10
Likelihood of being approved by the EP 7.5/ 10
Overall rating 7/ 10

Tasked with a new portfolio that combines the sensitive areas of justice, gender and consumers, Jourova needed to find an early leitmotif that could yoke these three seemingly disparate themes together without making it look like a random shopping list. In the end she went for ‘more choice, more protection, more trust’, using an uncontroversial  tricolon to create a red thread that will ‘put people’ at the centre of her mandate.

This was also a deeply personal speech, citing Jourova’s experience of being wrongfully imprisoned for corruption, as well as a reference to Czech national hero Vaclav Havel as a champion of the values that Europeans hold dear.

So far, so catch-all, so crowd-pleasing. And Jourova will have hit all the key dog whistle words needed to mobilise the groups she’s been assigned to protecting. That said, some MEPs were clearly annoyed that she will have to share these issues with other Commissioners andhow this works in practise may well be a problem.

In terms of delivery, Jourova came across as sincere and credible and she got a round of applause at the end of the hearing when she conceded she was tired and thanked the MEPs for the nice and unexpected atmosphere. And at times she even looked as though she couldn’t believe her luck that she was sitting there being interviewed for this job.  But she came across as a little cool and lacking in energy, which is a shame since she clearly feels her experience at the sharp end of the Czech justice system has given her the fire in her belly to do this job well.  Again, this comes down to reading off the page and she probably also has a naturally low key style.  But I have marked her down (possibly a bit unfairly) because she didn’t communicate her internal enthusiasm convincingly enough.

Jourova has a real chance to use her portfolio to connect with Europeans who feel that the EU has brought them nothing but trouble. But her team will need to work hard to find real stories  (noticeably absent from her speech) to back up her argument that her term will ‘put people’ at the centre. Otherwise the talk of women’s and Roma rights and  creating a ‘fairer’ single market will remain lofty legalese that rings hollow in the ears of people outside Brussels.

30.09, 1330 – Johannes Hahn (Neighbourhood Policy)

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Political Flair 7.5 / 10
Credibility 9 / 10
Energy 7 / 10
Warmth 8/ 10
Ability to connect with people outside Brussels 6/ 10
Likelihood of being approved by the EP 9 / 10
Overall rating 7.5 / 10

Hahn was a completely mixed bag. I wanted to write him off as a technocrat hiding behind the safety of process and a set-piece speech. On the one hand he was relaxed and approachable during the Q&A, combining gravitas and sincerity with flashes of an impish wit (both in English and his native German). But the speech was mostly dull and safe. By and large an uncontroversial second-term candidate, Hahn set out his stall with three broad brush ‘make or break’ issues (the rule of law, economy and democracy) which no one sensible could really take issue with. However, he frog marched through the speech at a pace that was practically brusque and didn’t alter his tone when moving from relatively untroubled countries such as Armenia to Syria, Egypt and Libya. There were very few personal anecdotes (beyond referring to his experience at DG Regio) and there weren’t a great deal of numbers, although he did say englargement was off the table for the next 5 years. His body language warmed up considerably once the Q&A started but he was evasive on migrants and refugees and resorted to the safe EU language of ‘sustainable solutions’. Overall, he was a bit frustrating to watch. This is clearly a man who is confident of his material, isn’t afraid of the limelight but can’t be bothered to add any stardust or passion. Which is a bit of a shame but not a deal breaker.

Photo: CC License from Flickr – original source here.

29.9, 1430 – Karmenu Vella (Enviroment, Fisheries)


Political Flair 5/10
Credibility 6 / 10
Energy 6 / 10
Warmth 6 / 10
Ability to connect with people outside Brussels 5 / 10
Likelihood of being approved by the EP 8 / 10
Overall rating 5.5 / 10

I’ve revised the likelihood of Vella being accepted by the EP down to an 8. I still think he’s likely to get through but there are question marks and the lower score reflects that.

There’s no way to put this nicely but Vella looks and sounds like one of the old guard i.e. an older white man in a grey suit. Straight out of the box, he had his buzz words – ‘sustainability’, ‘circular economy’, ‘green economy’, ‘competitiveness and jobs’. Just what Brussels needs more of, right?  Vella can’t help his background and age but his liberal use of EU jargon was straight out of the hand book and won’t endear him to a disgruntled electorate or some of the MEPs. Vella was clearly well briefed and, as he quipped, if he’d spent as much time getting to grips with his university degree as he did with his portfolio then he’d have got a PhD by now. The opening remarks were composed and assured (if almost entirely read from the page) and he used examples from his time as Maltese Tourism Minister and his childhood to counter difficult questions about whether he would protect Maltese birds and fish. He also knew his way around the treaties and international fisheries treaties. But he didn’t come across as fired up or enthused about the brief and I didn’t count many smiles (from him or the MEPs).  And that matters. Overall, I’m reminded of the answer one-time Republican hopeful Fred Thompson gave to reporters when asked on a scale of 1-10 how much he wanted to be President. ‘About a 7’.

Photo: CC License from Wikipedia – original source here.

29.9, 1430 – Ceclia Malmström (Trade)


Political Flair 8 / 10
Credibility 8/ 10
Energy 9 / 10
Warmth 9/ 10
Ability to connect with people outside Brussels 6.5/ 10
Likelihood of being approved by the EP 8.5 / 10
Overall rating 8.5/ 10

Update on 2 October.

Having seen some of the others I’ve revised Malmstrom up because she was a lot better in comparison. And because she was given a harder time than some. And because she went first which is always hard.  At the moment I’m still not convinced she’s got enough  to communicate effectively with people outside Brussels.

Update on 30 September. I’ve revised down my score for the likelihood of Malmstrom being approved by the EP. I still think she’ll get through but it’s hubristic to give her a 10 especially in light of the concerns about her.

Malmstrom has done this before and you can tell. What she lacked in a coherent vision and watertight answers she made up for with warmth, enthusiasm, empathy and inclusive body language. As such, she was mostly pretty good to watch.  She even showed a flash of anger (which can be a good rhetorical aid) when pressed about the leaked emails relating to the EU/US trade talks. That said, she set out her stall early on as being all about ‘transparency and accountability’ then struggled to define what this would mean in practice. When pushed by British Tory Emma McClarkin in the Q&A she couldn’t spell out the tangible benefits of current trade agreements (e.g. Singapore) which means her speech would probably have worked for the Brussels Bubble but not a wider audience.  Her top-line grasp of the substance was impressive – she was able to reference minutiae from the Canada and Singapore agreements.  However, she needs to make trade – which she concedes is a ‘dry and technical’ subject more concrete for Europeans. Overall, she’s set the bar quite high though. Not sure if the others will be as impressive in how they hold it together.

Have a look at my #EPHearings2014 tweets (@mediawhizz) if you want to see more live comments from the actual session.

Her opening remarks can be read here.

Photo: CC License from Flickr – original source here.

Introduction to the project

Welcome to Commissioner Hearings project – to assess and rank the performance of the Commissioners-designate during the hearings in the European Parliament.

We are a group of independent consultants working on EU-related stuff, whether in speechwriting, social media, media training or other areas of communications and public affairs.

From 29 September to 7 October we will score the candidates according to a set of criteria where we think we can add value. The final results will be ranked in a league table that will remain online once the hearings finish. A short analysis paragraph will also be provided for each candidate.

Our criteria broadly cover the qualities we believe should be met by anyone who wants to be an ‘ambassador’ for the Commission specifically, and the EU more generally.

This means we will be looking for the Commissioners-designate to demonstrate credibility (knowledge of their brief and ability to handle tough questions), warmth and energy, rhetorical flair (or lack of) and the likelihood of them being accepted by the European Parliament.

We will also assess them for the common touch i.e. whether they look like they will be able to connect with an audience outside the Brussels Bubble. This is particularly important in light of the EU’s dreadful standing in many Member States, as well as President Juncker’s pledge to make his new team more accessible to the media and ordinary people across Europe.

Our assessment will be based on each candidate’s speech as well as some of the initial Q&A. Clearly, it is not intended to be exhaustive. Rather, we aim to provide a snapshot of how the Commissioners-designate stack up on their first major outing. Second term Commissioners may have a slight advantage over some of the rookies but having spent four years in Brussels is by no means a guarantee of being an impressive speaker.

Finally, we do aim to cover all of the hearings as they happen but given that we all have other work (and family) commitments we apologise if some of the analysis and scores don’t appear until a bit later!

We hope you find this project interesting and look forward to your feedback.

Laura (Shields), Jon (Worth) and the rest of the team.