How structural issues are the root of Europa’s disarray
Europa, the European Union’s website, mirrors its owner’s offline problems: the lack of a workable structure and unifying ‘voice’ create a sense of alienation and obscure the good things it has to offer.
The last time I looked at the European Union website for this column I decided it was “deeply flawed as a useful resource for citizens, or anyone else”, and received a good few messages agreeing with me. Little has changed, I’m afraid – Europe’s web presence is hopelessly unco-ordinated and just a bit alien. I won’t bother to labour my theory that websites are invariably a reflection of their owners.
The Europa site has not changed much in the past 18 months, though much of it looks different thanks to a swirly new logo. The home page announces in 20 languages that it is the Gateway to the European Union, and links through to 20 different versions. This is its great strength: even the Maltese and Latvian sites have a great deal of local language content.
If Europa were no more than a gateway, or portal, it might work well. It could provide brief introductions, lots of links and send visitors off to other sites; it would remain in the background as an easily accessible hub. But that is not how it is. Europa is a bewildering mix of portal and self-contained site.
A kaleidoscope of templates
I started by trying to see what the EU was saying about June’s budget fiasco. While the home page is a mess, there was a prominent link to ‘Questions & Answers: Financial framework 2007-2013’. I found myself on a page in the European Commission section; it had the same logo as the home page, but there the similarities ended – the template and links were quite different. According to the breadcrumb navigation trail, I was within the Investing in our Future section. But when I looked at the European Commission home page, there was no such section – the only link was from a promotional banner. This is unconventional to the point of being baffling, and who would think to click on ‘Investing in our future’ to find out about the budget?
This is one of the clearer sections. At least the breadcrumbs means you can see vaguely where you are. Back on the home page, I clicked on the first link in the left-hand navigation bar, ‘The EU at a Glance’. The template changed again, and there were no breadcrumbs. As I wandered around this area I discovered many pages use the same pattern, which is at least consistent within itself and has, I suspect, been around for longer than the home page template. Another link – ‘Europe is fun!’ – took me to Europa Go, a Flash-powered set of games and quizzes. This has its own look, as it should, but is impossible to get out of even by backspacing – if you want to return to Europa, you have to type the address in again.
So here are four completely different templates within Europa itself – they all have web addresses beginning www.europa.eu.int. There are many more. Then there are external sites, including those of linked institutions such as the European Parliament and Central Bank, and also third-party sites such as Live8 and the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s presidency site. These naturally have different templates, but Europa insists on generating them in the same window. As soon as the link is clicked, the only way back to Europa is by backspacing. Silly and unnecessary.
Better at content
I could list many other structural failings (the search engines are worth a column on their own), but I will move on to the content instead. Much of it is strong. The EU at a Glance section is accessibly written, including even a slightly self-mocking dictionary of Eurojargon. Much of the children’s material is engaging too: I wasted happy minutes trying to position the countries correctly on a map in the Europe Go site. And if you need the full text of anything official, it’s all here if you can find it (tip: use Google).
But there are oddities here too. The Turkey area in the Commission’s otherwise good Enlargement section has a “new of May 2003” note, not inspiring much confidence about its timeliness. The forum in the European Youth Portal (linked from the home page) had 31 comments when I looked – one of them was asking where there was a better discussion area.
Multiple voices and strange tongues
Then there is the strange mix of voices across the site. Most of the time it is either bland or bureaucratic, but in places a more strident tone breaks out. While the Q&A on the financial framework is lucid, the last four responses are in effect desperate pleas to get the budget sorted. ‘What happens if there is no agreement?’ It “would make multi-annual programming virtually impossible with severe drawbacks for those who benefit from EU funds”. A press release from the European Economic and Social Committee praises the recent adoption of new principles for sustainable development. The heads of state are “capable of giving Europe the kind of leadership they have so far signally failed to muster on the EU’s 2007-2013 financial perspectives”, the committee’s president is quoted as saying.
Perhaps the most unsettling element is that the language is often not wrong but quite right either (I can only speak for English, but it is presumably true for others, too). I have already quoted two examples in previous paragraphs: “new of May 2003” and “severe drawbacks”. A sub-section of Europe at a Glance is headlined “Welcome to the pages of the Activities of the European Union!”. It all sounds, dare I say it, a little foreign. Assuming speakers of other languages have the same experience, Europa is not helping us feel comfortable with the great project.
First published on ft.com 23.6.2005
First published on 29 June, 2005