Vox populi, vox Dei?

At the time of writing, prior to the referendum result in Greece being known, an unreal atmosphere pervades Brussels as it swelters beneath Mediterranean skies and those working in government and public affairs struggle to come to terms with the potential ramifications for the rest of Europe stemming from Alexis Tsipras’ shock announcement to call a referendum last weekend.

The adjective ‘’momentous’’ is one much overused by political journalists but this week has been an exception to that rule. Events unfolding this week in Athens and Brussels around the long heralded Grexit, truly have been momentous. Developments are unfolding at such a breakneck pace that the media is having problems keeping up with reporting them as the opposing parties brief and counter-brief against one another as blame is attributed as to who bears ultimate responsibility for the negotiations breaking down.

It’s fair to say that most people in the Brussels village hope that the Greek people ignore their Prime Minister’s exhortations to return a ‘’No’’ vote but sadly that’s only so much wishful thinking.  Time and again since Syriza was elected by the Greek people, it seems that Brussels, the ECB, the IMF and Berlin have consistently misread the coffee grinds when it comes to second guessing Greece and its government.  When on Monday of this week the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, announced that he would travel to Greece to personally campaign for a ‘’Yes’’ vote, one couldn’t help but feel that Brussels still does not quite get it.

For now, the spectacle of a fast approaching Grexit has knocked talk of a possible Brexit off of the Brussels agenda but everyone within the Brussels Bubble knows that the respite is only temporary and more uncertainty lies ahead just around the corner. This week, the only game in town until next Sunday evening will be predicting the result of the 05th July Greek referendum. Whatever the result of either referenda, what does it say about the current state of the EU that the political leadership of two very different member states, feel they have no alternative but to consult their respective peoples on how to define the nature of their countries’ future relationships with the rest of the community?  However ambivalent one might feel towards either Syriza or the Tory party, surely something is profoundly amiss at the heart of the EU if it has come to this.

One cannot help but feel sorry for Jean-Claude Juncker when it comes to having to intercede between David Cameron and Alexis Tsipras, on the one hand, and the other heads of state, on the other. It must be a thankless task.  It all takes one back to the heady days of the inauguration of the Juncker Commission last November when the man himself declared that ‘’unless we get things right, we could be presiding over the last ever EU Commission’’. A claim that seemed overblown hyperbole at the time but, in retrospect, now appears perhaps eerily portentous. Let’s hope not.

Whatever one thinks of Jean-Claude Juncker, one cannot deny that the man has tried hard to embrace change since assuming the presidency of the Commission. The condemnatory tone Juncker adopted when delivering his verdict on Alexis Tspiras and his Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis this week behind closed doors to the EPP Group at parliament, whilst not diplomatic was a sincere reflection of the exasperation this old Brussels hand feels in the face of the two ‘’upstarts’’’ deliberate refusal to play the classic Brussels game and at least try to do things by consensus.

One cannot help but feel that something profound has changed in the way business is done in Brussels. Lessons urgently need to be learned from the handling of the unfolding Greek saga if the UK referendum is not to inadvertently end in catastrophe. The advice this Europhile Brit would give Mr Schulz would be to please stay put in Brussels and not cross the Channel to campaign however much his heart might be in the right place.

Author: Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs, Aspect Consulting

Also published on: http://www.publicaffairsnetworking.com/news/vox-populi-vox-dei-

Fog in Channel; Continent Cut Off

The last week has been portentous for the future of Europe. In fact, it’s hard to remember a time in recent decades when the continent’s political leaders were faced by so many weighty headline issues competing for their urgent attention. ‘’Europa in seiner schwersten Krise seit Jahrzehnten [Europe in its most difficult crisis in decades]’’ read the Bild in Germany this week. And for once, the tabloid could be forgiven for its hyperbole.

German tabloids are not alone in their angst. Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the President of the Eurogroup, said at the start of the week that the time available for a Greek request to extend the existing bailout package was running out, insisting that ‘’We can use this week, but that’s about it’’. At the end of the week, however, the Syriza government seems no more inclined to extend the bailout package, even despite pressure exerted on Athens by US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.

Germany vs. Greece: still 0-0

There has been much speculation in the European press that the profound personality clash between German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and his Greek counterpart, Yanis Varoufakis, could produce fireworks at today’s (Friday) third meeting of the Eurogroup in Brussels. Considering that on Thursday the German government rejected the letter Varoufakis had submitted to Dijsselbloem on Wednesday requesting a six-month extension of its Eurozone loan programme – instead of renewing the existing bailout deal – chances of a clash are not inconceivable.

What with the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland(AfD) party having won its first seats in a regional assembly in western Germany in Hamburg last weekend and a recent TV poll conducted by ARD television channel delivering a result of 41 per cent of viewers wanting Greece out of the Euro, Schäuble cannot afford to be seen domestically as a ‘’soft touch.’’ Worryingly, from a German perspective, it is no longer clear whether the European Commission and Berlin, as Greece’s biggest creditor, are on quite the same page following events this week.

Friends, foes and forgotten

The rollercoaster negotiations between the new Syriza government in Greece and the Eurogroup might have captured everyone’s attention in the ‘’Brussels Bubble’’, but from Mitteleuropa to all points east on the map, it was the question whether or not the new ceasefire in eastern Ukraine would hold that was more on people’s minds. As ever, the Bild newspaper captured the contemporary Zeitgeist in Germany with its overblown headline on “Der Russe oder der Grieche: Wer ist gefährlicher fur uns? [The Russian or the Greek: who are the more dangerous to us?]”.

Once again German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government have proved to be at the heart of those momentous events as the de facto leaders of Europe since the financial crisis began to bite Europe (if ever there was any doubt). Even more glaring, however, was David Cameron’s absence in diplomatic efforts to mediate between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroschenko. Some commentators both in London and Brussels have noted this week that the current Ukrainian and Greek crises give an unpalatable foretaste of what life might be like for the UK post-Brexit, with Britons having to get used to seeing their country being on the margins. In some quarters in Europe, the perception is that Britain has already begun its withdrawal from the continent.

Author: Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs, Aspect Consulting

Also published on: http://www.publicaffairsnetworking.com/news/fog-in-channel-continent-cut-off

10 years… and counting

There is something about the number ‘10’.  People make top ten lists; the pop charts focus on the top ten; 10 is the number Lionel Messi wears – as did players like Platini and Hoddle.  And for the rugby fans, your 10 is the man that should run the game.  Oh, and the Prime Minister of Dear Old England resides at No. 10.

This month, ‘10’ is a special number for Aspect.  We are now (cue drum roll…) 10 years old.  Difficult to believe if you are part of it, but we have been providing communications and advocacy advice to some of the world’s largest companies facing some of the toughest challenges for more than a decade.

What has changed?  Well, speaking at least personally, we are all a little older, greyer and fatter.  And wiser too, I dare say.  Ours is the type of job where you really do learn, if not every day, then certainly every project.  Not only because every client and every situation is different, but also because the world is a dynamic place.

10 years ago social media did not have the all-consuming relevance it has today.  No-one had ever knowingly used the word ‘austerity’ in public discourse.  The music was still playing so bankers were still dancing.  The world is probably a little less secure, a little more tense, and feels less prosperous than a decade ago.  Half of our decade has been taken up with the worst recession for a century.

But Aspect Consulting is still going strong.  Like every SME, we have our good years and bad – but we are entering our second decade in fine fettle.

On behalf of the management of Aspect, I have many people to thank.  Superb, loyal clients – who are the basis for everything else.  We have been fortunate to work for some wonderful people.   We have also enjoyed the support of some great suppliers and business partners, all around the world.  They too have been a part of this journey.

Our wives, husbands and partners have had to endure those good times and bad times, and they too deserve my recognition.  Only they know how important they are.

But my biggest thanks go to all those who work, or have worked, in Aspect.  One of our staff once signed off an all-office email with the phrase “Proud to be an Aspectonian”.  I am proud of all those who have played a role, larger or smaller, in creating the small, but perfectly formed history that is Aspect.  And I thank them all.

As the saying goes, here’s to 10 more years.  What stories will we tell in 2024?

Author: James Hunt, Founding Partner of Aspect Consulting, on the occasion of Aspect’s 10 year anniversary celebration at the BELvue

Reaction to new Juncker Commission approved by European Parliament

The performance Jean-Claude Juncker put in at parliament on Wednesday was marked not only by his usual deadpan wit but also by a surprising degree of candour when he presented his College of Commissioners and their programme for election; endorsing them to the house as ‘’the last chance saloon for the Commission to bring Europe closer to its citizens.’’ Such candour, however tongue in cheek, has to be welcomed. All eyes will surely then be back on Juncker in December for more forthcoming details about the €330 billion Investment Programme for Growth and Jobs which he said was ‘’so close to his heart.’’

We predict a busy time ahead, in particular, over the next 5 years for Frans Timmermans, Juncker’s Vice-President, who is responsible for Better Regulation and Inter-Institutional Relations given both his boss’s frank reassertion of the ‘’community method’’ to regulate EU decision-making internally and the fact that, externally, public affairs professionals are now presented with a newfangled conduit along which to channel influence at the highest level in Brussels.

Author: Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs, Aspect Consulting

Europe’s disquietude lifted but threats remain

Into the unknown

If last week saw the Brussels public affairs community collectively sitting on the edge of its seat in anticipation of Jean-Claude Juncker announcing the composition of his College of Commissioners; this week has been overshadowed by the imminent result of the Scottish referendum. Pundits have fallen over themselves to predict the results of both and many have gotten egg on their faces as a result. The impact on the EU of a potential ‘’Yes vote’’ in Scotland would have been more profound and far reaching for the community than the worst predictions foretold for Team Juncker by even the most ardent Eurosceptics.

A trawl of this week’s news in Europe gives the impression that we are living through a time of flux. Institutionally speaking, member states seem to find it increasingly difficult to react to these challenges in a meaningful and united way. How best to react to the prospect of Scottish independence being a case in point. This week saw Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, going out on a limb to rebuke the Scottish Nationalist case in the media across Europe placing articles proffering dire warnings for the future of the EU if a Yes vote in Scotland set a precedent for Catalan and Flemish nationalists. Not surprisingly, this unease filtered through to policymakers in Brussels.

The near abroad

This week saw the ratification of Ukraine’s association and free trade agreements with EU in the Strasbourg and Kiev parliaments. Yet the 14 month suspension in implementation of the agreement would suggest that something is amiss. The President of the Social Democrats, Gianni Pittella, certainly thought as much when he asserted in parliament that “this delay may be seen as a Russian victory in a Cold War climate.” What is clear is that EU member states are still not united on how best to respond to Vladimir Putin. The community’s lack of unity regarding future Energy Security policy for Europe perhaps being symptomatic.

The threat posed by ISIS to Europe received wide coverage too across Europe, adding momentum, if any were needed, for the EU to pursue a policy on Energy Security that is fit for purpose. The robust approach taken by the government in Kosovo this week who clamped down hard on radicals arresting 15 people, including clerics, allegedly involved in recruitment of volunteers for ISIS, served to underline the threat the organisation poses to Europe.

French and British navel gazing

Whilst events on the periphery of the Europe continue to play out, the attention of two of the EU’s main powerbrokers seemed firmly fixated on domestic concerns to the detriment of all else. France and UK continue to seem much distracted when viewed from Brussels or Berlin.

If the referendum in Scotland did not go its way, then Westminster could have gone into a tailspin of mutual recrimination at the end of this week. There was much speculation in the press as to the fate of David Cameron as Prime Minister if he presided over the death of the Union.

In France, despite the Valls administration recently surviving a ‘’vote of confidence’’ motion, government seems to lurch from one crisis to the next and events seem to favour the rise of the National Front as the Socialist party’s natural constituency deserts it in droves. On the very day that Pierre Moscovici’s nomination as EU Commissioner designate for Economic and Financial Affairs was made public by Jean-Claude Juncker last week, in Paris the French Finance Minister announced France would again breach EU deficit limits next year.

What the future impact will be both domestically and in Brussels of Commissioner Moscovici having to potentially rebuke his own government in Paris for failing to get France’s deficit under control, remains to be seen. Marine Le Pen for one, must be relishing the prospect. If a reinvigourated David Cameron decides to press ahead with plans for an EU referendum, if his party wins the next General Election in UK, then Europe could be in for even more uncertain times ahead.

Author: Eliot Edwards, Director of Public Affairs, Aspect Consulting

Do print this e-mail! Communicating for the future of the pulp and paper industry

Although the paper industry has made real strides in reshaping and building its reputation in recent years, it will have to significantly increase the impact of its communications if it is to convince a world increasingly sceptical of its long-term future.

While times are tough for most industries, the European paper and pulp industry faces a number of complex and particularly profound challenges, including the growing impact of online and digital media, increasing competition from China, stagnant demand and increasing regulatory demands.

But the real challenge can be summed up by the frequently-seen exhortation “Do not print this email”.  In five words, the industry’s challenge is captured.  A digital world, infinitely more efficient and sustainable than a paper one – isn’t it?

Sustainable or not

The pulp and paper sector has made significant advances in terms of environmental sustainability over recent decades. The development of FSC certification (much copied in other industries), increases in sustainable forest management and carbon sequestration, massive increases in recycling rates, and clean technology-driven sulphur reductions. The sector is also the biggest industrial producer of bio-energy in Europe, and has a legitimate claim to being one of the world’s most sustainable industries.

Yet, despite this reality, most people still have little or not knowledge of its contribution to sustainability. The worrying and grossly unfair belief that the industry is somehow an ‘evil deforester’ and ‘major climate change contributor’ persists – a fact confirmed by recent research released by IPSOS.

Their survey of 4,500 European consumers found that the paper and pulp sector is still viewed as the single most damaging industry for forests, and is seen to be as harmful as construction and even worse than fossil fuels. A whopping 76% of consumers believe there is a connection between paper manufacture and the loss of tropical rainforests; and 80% believe that forests in Europe have remained the same or decreased in size over the past 50 years – where the reality is that they have actually increased by 30%. It also found that consumer’s understanding of the extent of, and industry role in, paper recycling was very limited.

These mistaken perceptions have allowed, perhaps encouraged, lawmakers to impose ever-more-stringent legislation and regulations on the industry, both at EU and national level; placing a disproportionate burden on paper and pulp manufacturers in the years to come. Overturning these perceptions and positioning the industry as a key player in terms of Europe’s response to climate change and sustainable manufacturing is absolutely essential if the industry is to maximize its influence over the rapidly evolving regulatory and legislative framework.


The industry believes, but it is the consumer that counts (image courtesy of Sappi)

This is not, however, a cost free approach because as the industry’s relevance and future is increasingly cast in terms of environmental sustainability, so awareness will build that there is also the “right type of paper” in environmental terms. The pressure on companies “lagging behind” in terms of their own environmental performance will dramatically increase. They will have to quite literally put up or shut down.

It’s a digital future – or is it?

But even more dangerous is the erroneous linkage of this ‘unsustainable” industry with disruptive digital technologies which, happily say paper’s enemies, make it irrelevant to the future. Certainly, at first glance, the rise of digital communication represents an absolutely fundamental challenge to the pulp and industry; one that, according to some, threatens its very existence.

However, everybody within the industry understands that the reality is very different. And so do consumers when asked.  The industry knows that it makes no sense to push back history, and engage in some “either-or” battle against digital communication. Rather, it has to more self-confident in presenting the reality: that the rise of digital tools and content in no ways undermines the unique and complementary role paper has to play in meeting modern communication needs. Paper vs digital is not a zero-sum game.

Encouragingly, recent surveys confirm that there remains a very strong emotional attachment to paper even amongst the “digital natives” – those aged 18-24 years – with 83% preferring to read from paper rather than off a screen. The industry must harness the considerable emotional bond all of us with paper, build a clearer understanding, and contrast, between the sustainability benefits of paper on the one hand, and people’s digital footprints on the other.

Creating a more positive and long-term narrative

Far too many people still think that the pulp and paper industry in Europe is old-fashioned and low-tech, of marginal economic importance and environmentally damaging. This is not the basis upon which the industry can maximize its influence on the political and regulatory process, respond to the challenges of the digital age, or shore up and increase its growth prospects.

Psychologically, it is always more difficult to be positive in times of difficulty, but that is exactly what the industry must do. The industry needs to develop and embrace a more positive narrative and this needs to be communicated with real belief and vigour.

This narrative must emphasise the positive contributions that the industry is already making in terms of driving sustainability – in its broadest sense – explain the ongoing importance and value of paper in a digitalized world, and reposition the industry as dynamic and innovation driven. Crucially, it must also provide a long-term vision for the future of the industry: one that positions the industry as relevant and vital to our future.

The industry also needs to rethink the ways in which it communicates this narrative externally. This is partly about greater industry wide coordination, greater creativity and embracing new media. Crucially, it is also about every company galvanizing its own people; turning them into genuine ambassadors for the industry. This means making everybody, whether they work in accounts or on the shop floor, and not just customer facing personnel, genuinely proud of the industry and equipping them with the tools – often very simple – to although them to make the case for the industry.

It’s the consumers, stupid!

All too often B2B industries still think of consumers as falling ‘outside their mandate’; this is something for B2C companies to deal with. For the pulp and paper industry the stakes are just too high to delegate this responsibility. Fortunately, this reality has been recognized by many within the industry and significant progress is already being made to take the industry’s message direct to consumers.

The Two Sides project is a notable example of how the industry is taking its message directly to the man in the street. Its objective and messaging is clear: whilst consumers are still showing strong preferences for paper, the industry can do more to teach them about the industry’s role as ‘forest guardian’, its great environmental record and its positive contribution to the growth of Europe’s forests.

At a minimum the industry must counter the guilt that many consumers have about using paper. The industry should however set its ambition levels much higher and aim to convince consumers that by using paper they are actually making a positive contribution to environmental sustainability through reforestation and carbon sequestration.

A campaign approach

Educating consumers and other stakeholders so that they have compelling long-term reasons to value and support the industry is not an easy task. It takes time, and requires a campaign mentality and approach, characterized by frequent communications, through multiple channels and towards a very clear common objective.

The most effective campaigns are built around coalitions. The wider the interests represented, and the more credible they are, the greater their impact. Again, the industry has certainly made significant strides in this direction, but much still needs to be done. In particular, it should make a more concerted and coordinated effort to engage with the environmental NGOs. This will not be straightforward, but the more the industry is aligned with, and endorsed by, these NGOs, the more powerful its sustainability message will become.

The pulp and paper industry has the raw materials required to reshape its reputation and significantly increase its standing. It can help create a more favourable growth environment, shift perceptions amongst key audiences and increase its influence on political and policy developments.  But to do so, it needs to be more self-confident.  It must create a more compelling industry wide narrative, engage more directly with us all, and find the strength to say to say ‘hey, print that mail! It’s OK!”

Frans Green

The Bio-Based Economy Needs a Re-Brand

The bio-based economy is at a critical juncture. Unfortunately for anyone that believes in its vast potential for setting the world on a sustainable, prosperous future, it is not clear which path it will take next.

It’s October 28. We’re in Amsterdam, at the European Forum for Industrial Biotech, Europe’s leading conference for industrial biotech. The mood is upbeat: numbers are up and there is a frisson in the conference hall and break-out areas. The meeting ‘pods’ are all in use.

And there’s much to talk about. Second generation biofuels, for long a laboratory curiosity, are on the verge of commercialization. Bio-based chemical production is scaling up. Big corporates – from soft drinks to car makers – are getting behind bio-based materials. Critical mass seems within reach, technology is rattling along, yet all is not well.

The problem is communication. Proponents are convinced the BBE is A Good Thing; that their technology will help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, fend off climate change and help the world become a better place but the world at large doesn’t see it this way. The media too often relates the bio-based economy to high food prices and questionable land use change and energy firms are dropping biofuels from their marketing: little wonder, then, that governments are having second thoughts about how much support they extend to the sector.

To be fair, none of this is lost on the industry and kudos to Europabio, EFIB’s organiser, for placing the issue of communication high on the agenda. Rein Willems, a former president of Shell Nederland, used his keynote to warn that NGO opposition was slowing the bio-based economy’s progress, while leading lights such as DSM and Novozymes all called for transparency, social inclusion and better communications.

Can the bio-based economy become A Good Thing once more? Undoubtedly yes. Technology and international agreements will help, but it’s a communications failure that got the industry where it is today and it’s communications that will, largely, get it out again.

Let’s look at what hasn’t worked so far. The industry’s biggest failure has been in exciting, inspiring, educating and explaining to the world. Coming up with a viable way of weaning ourselves off our dependence on fossil fuels should have been an open goal; somehow it became an own goal.
Another strategic mistake was to underestimate the strength of opposition from vested interests. Whenever there are winners, there are losers and when they comprise whole industries, cities, communities, there’s always going to be a fight back.

All of which requires a concerted response. In communications, we talk about platforms a lot but this is what the bio-based economy needs; to consolidate support, convey relevance and inspire hope. There are plenty of potential supporters out there who just don’t yet realise it: farmers that can make a second income, rural development agencies that can secure new investment and infrastructure, environmental organisations that want to see CO2 emissions cut, members of the public that want an alternative to constantly rising fuel prices.

This may require some fresh thinking. If the bio-based economy doesn’t work as a moniker for the new green industrial revolution, then let’s get a new name. If the word biofuel has become toxic then let’s call second generation fuels something else.

It definitely means digging in for the long haul. The bio-based economy is still a young idea with a lot of promise and nothing to hide. It needs a champion to campaign on its behalf, to sharpen its arguments, to raise its profile by making it more relevant, passionate and exciting to the world at large. The idea will never win everyone over, least of all the fossil fuel industry – and those who cannot be convinced needs to be engaged, and defeated in open debate. If the industry can achieve this, the path to realising the massive potential of the bio-based economy will be open.

Oliver Cann


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