Three weeks back I had the chance to talk to Communication Manager Tremeur Denigot of the European Commission about EU’s presence at EXPO then and now, the current obstacles an European Union faces and the chances it brings about for younger generations to learn, love and share. Here is, what he has told me.
P.Honisch: If you could shortly tell me something about you and what brought you to EXPO and the EU pavilion.
T.Denigot: I’m working in the European Commission task force for Expo where I am head of communication. I’ve been involved in that project almost from the beginning. Here I’m not talking about the initial decision to participate, because I wasn’t involved in that, but from the time when the project had to be set up, almost 2 years ago. At a time I was working in another Directorate general of the European Commission and had to join the JRC, the Joint Research Center, which is basically the scientific arm of the European Commission. Its primary task is to do scientific research to support the European Union policies. It is composed of different institutes located in five countries across Europe and one of the biggest sites is located precisely on the Lago Maggiore in Ispra. This also explains why the JRC has been chosen for leading the EU participation to Expo: for its location as well obviously of its expertise in the field of food security. When you have scientists a one hour drive away from the EXPO site, it helps a lot in terms of logistics. To come back to me, what I have to do is to focus on communication, that’s my role, and here we are talking about internal and external communication. It’s not easy to define, really, since it deals with many things. We had to start from a white page – you know – from scratch, so a lot of brainstorming was needed at the beginning and a lot of coordination had to be done before coming up with a well-defined project.
P.Honisch: You are referring to the pavilion, as it is right now?
T.Denigot: Yes, but it’s not just about the pavilion. When you participate to an EXPO and you have a pavilion, you obviously have to think about this in the first place, what you’re going to put in the pavilion, because it’s one very important aspect. But it’s not just that. You’ve got to set up a whole program of events and in our case we have 200 events of various kind, from communication actions open to the public to high level scientific conferences but we also have a full B2B program. This requires a lot of work and coordination since it involves many directorate generals of the European Commission but also other European institutions among which the European Parliament in the first place.
P.Honisch: You’ve got a different kind of pavilion then, as well, because the most pavilions are plainly there for commercial reasons and for promoting their own country for example, like the businesses to speak so and the EU is one of the sole participants, who does it differently.
T.Denigot: The first thing to say on that point is that the EU is not an official member of the Bureau International des Expositions and that’s something for researchers on Expo topic that is very interesting. We have to look at History here, because the Exposition Universelle – and I say it in French, because as you know the BIE still has French as an official language, and it’s not by case that the headquarters are in Paris- are a product of the 19th century.
P.Honisch: Yeah and French had been the lingua franca back then.
T.Denigot: Absolutely, and in the 19th century it made sense to have such events, because the idea was to celebrate science and progress in the frame of the industrial revolution, when Europe was the part of the world who took advantage of this revolution in the very place, and when there was a strong common belief that science and technology could positively change societies. Then the countries also had the possibility to compete during these events and show their achievements and power. This was the case in the thirties for instance when Expos led to some quite nationalistic confrontations. The Second World War totally changed the perspective, both in terms of politics and relation to science, and Expos became thematic with a focus for 6 months on one specific theme. Nowadays countries are still the members of the BIE, so all the member states of the European Union for example are members of the BIE, but the EU as an international organisation (born after the second world war) is not an official member. Still, as times are changing, I do believe we need the UN and the EU to be present in such events but also maybe to become official members of the BIE. This is a personal belief. International organisations don’t bring the same things to Expos as the single countries. We of course are having a very common approach, and in our case focus on the broadcasting and showcasing of the European Union policies and values. We have nothing to sell but the common successes of the European collaboration.
P.Honisch: Since when does the EU participate? Because I know that in Shanghai they were present as well.
T.Denigot: That was one of the first questions I asked myself, and it was not easy by the way to get the information. First of all because the EU exists just from the Maastricht Treaty, if we talk about the European Union, it’s 1992, before it was the “communauté communique européenne” so the EU could not participate of course.
The first participation of European Institutions to a World Expo dates back to Brussels 1958, when it was still the European Coal and Steel Community, followed by the pavilion of the European Economic Community at Seattle 1962. The last EU participation in a world Expo was in Shanghai in 2010. So Europe understood as institutions has participated to all Expos after the Second World War. Some participations have been more memorable than others such as for instance in Sevilla, which was a main success, one of the biggest EXPOs, we’re talking about 42 or 43 million visitors. It was amazing and there was a proper European area in this Expo with all members states one close to one another.
P.Honisch: We’re talking 1992 right?
T.Denigot: Yes. EU institutions were present there, and it was also the case in Hannover and in Shanghai when apparently the decision to participate was taken a bit late, so the EU had to negotiate with the Belgian Pavilion the possibility to be hosted by them. I mean there was a European Union space within the Belgian Pavilion, which was not the best of the situations, but it was the only way for us to be present. Things have been different for this year exposition, because as you know we have a dedicated pavilion, even if technically, as the EU was invited by the Italian pavilion, it is a part of that central space we call here the “Cardo” which belongs to Italy.
P.Honisch: I see. Because we were talking about education before. You told me right now that after World War 2 the “EU” – kind of – became part of the EXPO. Why choose exactly that date? Was there some kind of idea behind that to promote an EU worldwide.
T.Denigot: There were no European Institution before the Second World War, so it was impossible to participate before of course. Then the Second World War had created such a radical change of course, not just for what regards international relations but also from a more philosophical point of view. It was time for a change, because it’s true that the last World EXPO before the war became really nationalistic. You remember for instance the World EXPO in the thirties: one in Paris in 1936 in particular where you had the USSR pavilion facing the Third Reich Pavilion, each one having a gigantic statue topping it which was a kind of metaphorical confrontation.
P.Honisch: Yeah I know. It was similar to the one ’58 in Brussels, where the US and the USSR faced off.
T.Denigot: Indeed, but the context was different. After the war it was time for a change and a new idea emerged – which is to my view a very good one – which is that it was not that much of a case anymore to give the possibility to countries to showcase what they wanted but participants were invited to focus for six months on one specific theme. So as to bring all forces on board around that theme/challenge and try to build up some solutions all together. This new approach is precisely what we believe in at the European Commission: a World EXPO is not just an event, it is a process: there is something before, during and after. It gives the possibility to focus deeply at international level on a theme, and we should be able at the end of every Expo to give the world some orientations to take. With this very Expo for instance, we should be able to underline the crucial importance of food security and come up with some kind of concrete proposals or decisions to be taken at international level.
P.Honisch: So I guess the EU takes measures to also promote a diplomatic exchange within the course of the EXPO and afterwards. Am I right?
T.Denigot: Yes. It was clear from the very beginning that science was something really important for us. So what has been done in the frame of the participation has been – together with the European Parliament – to set up a scientific committee that had a few objectives: to monitor the scientific program for the six months of EXPO and – most importantly – to come up with a discussion paper that should be in a way the intellectual contribution of the European Union to the debates that took place at EXPO about food security – in the broad sense of term. That scientific committee is chaired by Franz Fischler, who you know certainly well because he is a former European Commissioner for agriculture and Fisheries. He’s an important actor in the world of agriculture. Furthermore, the group is composed of thirteen experts that have been carefully chosen for their competencies of course and national origin as well, plus representatives from industry, NGOs and the UN. After a year of their work, they produced a discussion paper, where they identified seven key-areas for scientific research related to food. On 15th of October there will be a major final scientific conference that will take place in the presence of four commissioners and there will be also a video message by Ban Ki Moon. It will be the closing event of our participation for what regards the scientific program and key recommendations will emerge from this event. This will be part of the legacy of this Expo and give the possibility to move forward.
P.Honisch: Why did the EU chose to have “just a movie” to represent itself to the EXPO visitors, since you’ve got the diplomatic and scientific platform as well?
T.Denigot: You’ve got to make a choice and that’s the tricky thing, really. You have to find a way to deliver the right message in the limits of your presence. First of all you get a “box”, a pavilion, which has physical constraints. In our case we did not build it since we have been invited to be part of the Italian “Cardo”. It’s not that big. Then you have to find a way to deliver and convey the messages to the visitors based on the space you have. And here you can do things a very different way. You have been visiting pavilions, and I am sure you have noticed how it’s interesting to see how participants came up with different solutions. I will take two examples that are quite representative: the German pavilion and the Japanese pavilion. The first one is a very interesting pavilion, one of the biggest, and it’s providing a lot of knowledge/information linked to the theme of Expo. It’s really based on information: you can see experiments, there is a lot of text to read and you can learn a lot about different topics related to food. I might be wrong, but I did not really felt a very strong message about Germany, it’s much more about the topic really. It’s very interesting. Then you have Japan, where you really feel like going to Japan. There is also a lot of information but it’s also very much based on emotion and feelings. The two pavilion are very interesting and they are complementary in a way, but the approaches are different, you can see that the way they explore the theme was done in a very different way. For us, we could also have done something focusing first on knowledge and showcasing the various European policies linked to food and that’s it. But we have decided to try to do something different, something which has never been done before.
The first idea was that we should target in the very first place the young people. I think it’s a good idea since Expo Milano is about sustainability, and sustainability is about the future and the future are of course the kids.
The second idea was that we wanted to convey messages in a very emotional way. We wanted to touch the heart of the people before their mind. Once you have triggered the emotion in a way, then you can come to learn more about what the European Union is doing concretely. This is why we came up with the idea of telling a story to visitors and the power of telling a story sometimes is much bigger than only giving facts and data to people. We wanted to find the appropriate way to communicate adapted to the reality of this event where you have families coming, spending one day on site, visiting as many pavilions as they can, receiving a lot of information everywhere, and willing to spend a good time. First of all it’s not given that they want to visit the European Union pavilion. But even if they do, we want to be sure that they will get out of the European Union Pavilion having in mind some kind of positive feeling about the EU more than pure facts. And this matters especially in a period, as you know, when Europe is suffering from a lot of problems. Many young kids take Europe for granted, but in fact there is nothing granted. And it is good to go back to the very roots of what Europe is.
P.Honisch: Yeah, in the last few weeks it doesn’t seem for granted, actually.
T.Denigot: Absolutely and as an Anthropologist, I’m sure you can easily understand that. We have to go back to the roots of basic values of Europe and – as you’ve seen – the story is about two main messages. The first one – which is really simple (but not simplistic) – is that Europe is all about cooperation. If we do things together, if we are united, then we are stronger to face our challenges. There is strength in unity.
The second one is much more focused on the theme: it is the idea that by combining what we know and we already do well, which is tradition, and what we have to learn, which is innovation and scientific research, we can more easily find a solution to our challenges such as the global food challenge.
P.Honisch: I also had the impression that when you get out, you got a positive emotion of the EU and then the first thing you get to see is the Noble Peace Prize it received. I mean, it leaves the visitor intentionally with a message, who actually hasn’t any chance to do an own route in this pavilion, the way you structured it.
T.Denigot: It’s not just the movie, because in the queue you’re introduced to the storyline, with the main steps of the historical construction of Europe displayed in parallel with the story of our two characters, Alex and Sylvia, the farmer and the scientist. After this first space you are invited to get into movie theaters and watch the movie where the emotion plays its role, and then you get out of the movie shows and are invited to what we call “the content center”, where it’s time to go back to more factual information, always through the story of Alex and Sylvia. There you can play with big touch screens where you can learn more about the European Union policies related to food. First emotion, then information.
Now, why the Noble Prize? Because Europe is about peace, something you should appreciate, and something that has to be reminded to young persons.
P.Honisch: Of course. I was just implying that the EU always depicts itself as “the ideal”, not leaving any doubt that there could be any other form of community.
T.Denigot: I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s the message, which is delivered and that’s not my conviction for instance. The EU is a process, it’s a work in process, and it’s not over yet and far to be perfect. But we are Europe, and every citizen is invited to contribute to the construction of the Union. The first thing is to understand the value and efficiency of doing things together. It is all about cooperating, at international level, so as to be stronger and to avoid conflicts. To tell the truth, it has worked pretty well over the last sixty years.
P.Honisch: Are there any considerations, what at EXPO you could do to kind of help the ongoing process of depicting a “good EU” or a EU who cares about what is going on right now.
T.Denigot: That’s precisely the reason why we decided to tell a story, there’s a quite efficient sentence summing up our intention that has been said by our contractor from MCI, which is the company who helped doing the pavilion: “People don’t care about what you know, but they know when you care”. Visitors should get out of our pavilion feeling that the EU is caring. This pavilion is about this, this is why we had first to work on emotions before thinking about giving loads of information to people . Europe is not a rigid, cold process, it’s not just about rules and policies, it’s also very much about – and remember our story is about love –meeting people, sharing with people. This is what Europe is about. Take Erasmus for example. Why is this program such a successful and emblematic program? Because it’s about giving the possibility to young people to get out of their country, go abroad, and meet other young people and share views, confront their experiences, and learn one from another. This is the way to build Europe. And this also explain why we wanted to have volunteers from the Erasmus program helping visitors in our pavilion.
But obviously it is not just about emotion and Europe as a whole. During that Expo we had to focus on food security. And when you face such a difficult and complex issue as the one of feeding the planet – as you know in 2050 there will be more than nine billion people on earth, and we don’t know how to feed them as of now – you better have a complex answer… For instance food in our world is not fairly distributed, so we got to find a way to distribute it so that everyone has food”. This is true, and it will require international cooperation. But it’s not enough.
P.Honisch: And it’s not easy.
T.Denigot: Certainly. You need a variety of solutions that are of political, cultural, and scientific nature. We definitely have to invest more on research and development so as to find new solutions to our problem. For instance the sea is of major interest for giving us the possibility to generate the proteins we need. And a lot has to be done here. We have to invent new ways of doing things with the help of science and that’s an important message of our pavilion.
P.Honisch: If you could tell me, what makes the EU so special for you, as kind of the last question.
T.Denigot: I personally have a very strong conviction that I can explain by the fact that I had the chance early in my life to live in various countries and meet and frequent many friends from different places and learn a lot with them. I guess the idea is a very simple one, far from being simplistic, which is the one I have exposed when talking about our pavilion. Europeans have to share, not only goods, but also ideas, values, emotions and get rid of all the barriers that have been built to divide them during the last centuries: not only physical frontiers, but also virtual frontiers present in our minds that are sometimes even more complicated to eradicate. Europe is about that and I’m convinced that it is the only solution to our common challenges, because there is strength in unity, because this is the way to maintain peace, and also the way to promote the collective intelligence we desperately need for a better tomorrow. It’s not an easy process, it is quite complicated and requires patience and courage, but this is the only valid path to follow.
P.Honisch: Alright, then thank you.