Sweden's Ikea has useful lessons for EU politicians in managing diversity, the BBC's Jonny Dymond reports, as he tours the continent ahead of next month's European elections.
Sweden is such a delightful place, it seems desperately unfair to focus on just one of its many gifts to the world.
I'm Jonny Dymond and I've said goodbye to the BBC Brussels bureau for the next few weeks. I'll be taking the temperature in nine EU member states before the European Parliament elections on 4-7 June. I'm going to ask voters what they think of the EU and what their priorities are. Join me on the trip!
But the question must be asked: has Ikea, the Swedish home furnishings-to-meatballs retail behemoth, done more to unify Europe than the European Parliament?
Perhaps that's the wrong way to phrase the question. Perhaps it should be: how does Ikea manage to unify Europeans around its brand and its products, where the parliament so often fails to do so?
The journey begins in a bedroom display unit on the first floor of an Ikea in Warrington, north-west England. It is situated aptly enough on Europa Boulevard and was the start of Britain's affair with the chain.
Perched on one of the beds are two Ikea "superfans", mother and daughter Annamaria and Nina Roberts.
Happy shoppers: These British Ikea fans feel empowered by the store
They liked the display rooms so much that they bought them in their entirety, beds, bookcases, bedspreads, the lot - one for Nina and a different one for her sister. They chatter enthusiastically about how much they like the way the store gives them ideas for how to do up their house.
I ask them about the European Parliament elections. Neither of them plans to vote.
"I have to say that the European Parliament is something that I have no great knowledge of," says Annamaria. "I know of its existence, but I don't think that they have an impact on me personally."
"Like my Mum," echoes Nina, "I don't know who my MEP is, and how it affects me I don't really know".
Round One to Ikea.
Ikea gets involved with all the sort of corporate social responsibility projects that every major company appears to do these days. But it is also engaged with on-the-ground projects, like organising car-sharing in France, that have an immediacy and an impact that the environmentally-minded European Parliament would die for.
After I'd seen the scheme in action in Rennes, in western France, I wandered into the store. With its display rooms on the first floor, its baskets of bright yellow bags and of course its plates of meatballs, it's pretty much a replica of the Warrington store.
That is no coincidence. Ikea has made its money - lots and lots of it - by ruthlessly standardising its products and the way it displays them.
How does that work, I asked Isabelle Cremoux, the spokeswoman for Ikea in France, when they are selling to such a wildly diverse European market?
Jonny Dymond stumbles upon an attempt to break the ukulele world record
"From store to store, we can sometimes adapt," she says, and anyway "everybody has a mix of things, coming from Ikea, coming from elsewhere, coming from their travels".
"People who have bought Ikea stuff, it does not look the same, because apartments are not the same. I have a lot of Ikea stuff, I don't feel I am living in an Ikea house."
This is not a point about interior design. Ikea manages to do something that the European Parliament gets it in the neck for. The chain sells uniform products across Europe. The parliament is often criticised for squeezing national identity by enforcing uniform standards across Europe. So how does the chain get away with it?
"In modern marketing," says Per Olof Berg, professor of brand marketing at the University of Stockholm, "we are talking about the interplay between the customers and the company. And sometimes customers pick companies for their own purposes. Customers are picking Ikea because it provides certain values."
Ikea's senior staff travel to Almhult, in southern Sweden, to have those values inculcated into them. It is as close to a company town as you get these days - there's an Ikea hotel, a private Ikea museum, and a host of Ikea laboratories, communications and personnel units. You are never far from a self-assembled bookcase or nice-looking but really very cheap mug.
Frugality and hard work are the guiding lights of the company springing, staff say, from the hardscrabble land around the town. Those values seep out into the way that customers interact with the company - appreciating the value for money, and participating in everything, from collecting and assembling goods.
Almhult is the nerve centre of Ikea's global empire
So is the future shopping rather than voting? It's not that simple.
Former Swedish MEP Annelie Hulten, now a senior member of Gothenburg town council, on Sweden's west coast, acknowledges that the European Parliament has an image problem. Too remote from voters, she says, too difficult to communicate with. But she thinks that new opportunities may be opening up.
"I think the political parties have been too afraid of talking or discussing values. I think there is an opening now when we are talking [about the] environment, to connect shopping, environment, consuming, how we live.
"There are other things in life than just shopping."
Ikea and the European Parliament are, of course, chalk and cheese. In the end Ikea is just a shop - albeit a very big one - that has to do one thing: sell stuff to people, like beds and candles and jars of lingonberry jam. But Ikea pulls off some pretty neat tricks along the way - inspiring people who feel lost when it comes to their most important space, their home; involving people with their purchases, from catalogue to assembly.
Ikea gives people a degree of control, or at least the illusion of it. The parliament gives them a vote once every five years and then hands down laws. In amongst the bookcases, the tea lights and the table lamps, there may be lessons for legislatures everywhere.
Ok, ok there was a touch of whimsy and of course, David Grills and Dan from the UK, Don Piliarz in Genova and Johanes in Berlin, there's a huge difference between a shopping option and a parliament you cannot ignore.
But the drift away from democratic participation and towards consumerism is pretty long documented and much discussed. Given the packed car parks of Ikea and the empty voting booths come EP election day, I think it is worth the pondering.
Is one vote every five years the best way to gain a democratic input into an institution that to many lacks legitimacy? Is it the right way for democracies to work, in an age that, in the provision of public services, treats many citizens as consumers - a world way from service delivery of forty years ago - but in decision-making still hold to formats devised centuries ago?
A few years ago there was a lot of talk in the UK about "citizens' juries". More recently there has been a flurry of chat about "localism". But in the supranational EU, which many people clearly feel uncomfortable with, the only response to the so-called democratic deficit is to hand yet more power to a parliament that attracts fewer and fewer voters. Are there no tricks to be learnt from Ikea?
RoyBear from Hamburg, you are wrong when you say the European Parliament is a talking shop with no teeth that cannot make decisions. The decisions it makes affects the air you breathe, the food you eat, the holidays you take and the cars you drive. It is party to nearly every big piece of legislation in the EU. If you don't want to believe me, take a look at the excellent report drawn up by Eurosceptic research group Open Europe.
Heather from Chatham in the UK - I think you are being a bit rough on the BBC. How many other broadcasters carry a half hour weekly review of what's going on in the European Parliament? Commissioned by BBC Parliament and broadcast not just there but also on BBC World News and the BBC News Channel, The Record Europe is essential viewing for democrats everywhere. I do my best not to miss a show. Broadcast details are at the bottom of the webpage:
Thanks as always for your comments and your time. Onwards to the elections!
Here are some of your comments on Jonny's feature:
I actually have a lot of admiration for both institutions. Ikea has a knack of designing stylish and often inexpensive objects. The EP is the most accountable of the EU institutions in that we vote for its members, so if you think it's unaccountable, vote! Some think it imposes laws on us, others that is has no teeth. The truth of course is that it is one of the three main EU institutions.
Most of the power lies with the Council, where European ministers actually adopt EU laws. This does of course include British ministers, though they seem to be very shy about admitting it. Like any bureaucratic administration, the EU has its share of scandal, inefficiencies and failures, but it is an ambitious project. It has succeeded in its original aims of prevent war among its members and becoming self-sufficient in food. It's up to us to decide where it goes next. Charly Lucas, Certaldo, Italy
A whimsical bit of comparison. IKEA offers huge choice, great communication and the impression of value. With the people, the European Parliament communicates pathetically and so the peoples' impressions are one of puzzlement compounded by outrage at cost and admin. By the way, I see Jonny is not coming to Scotland, despite this country having a pivotal role in industries like fishing and green energy, EU hot topics. IKEA doesn't neglect us like that! Gary McLean, Edinburgh, Scotland
Reply to Richard Gosling, Aberdeenshire:
Yours is the typical comment I have heard from many Britons, those against the EU, since I moved to UK a few years back. A common market needs common rules and common standards. You can't just have the bits and pieces you like. It is still surprising to me how many people don't get this, especially in a country where standards are so appreciated and small, independent firms have almost disappeared. Just get real. Fabio, Sheffield
Ikea have been present in Poland for well over 40 years, manufacturing a lot of their furniture here. Retail operations started in the early 1990s and were an immediate hit. Their stores always seem to be full of shoppers and the ubiquitous meat-balls and salmon provide cheap meals. They provide very good value-for-money with a standardised product range. It's a long walk round and the queues at the tills are always long! But one has the option of not shopping there!
So how does the EU Parliament differ? Consumer choice can only be exercised once every 5 years. That is when democracy works (or does not). But then is the British Parliament any better? Look at the behaviour of MPs in the present one. It's the same old sleaze story. Everywhere power corrupts and the general voting population has little influence other than throwing the current lot in power out at the next election.
The role of an independent media is therefore key: it is the only viable way of keeping a close eye on politicians, be they in London or Brussels or Strasbourg or for that matter in any other Parliament. mike, warsaw, poland
Ikea has developed an international brand mixing the efficiencies of mass production with stylised and aspirational design. Perhaps in the same way car manufacturers now set global standards compared with their pre-Henry Ford origins, household goods are finding these efficiencies of scale.
I am English and run a holiday business in Spain. Ikea gives me contemporary styling and quality at a competitive price that otherwise I would not have access to in my area. This enables me to more easily develop my business and offer the standards my internationalised market expects.
The EU provides a common market, free movement of people and a legal framework beyond each national state. This is the foundation that gave me the confidence to invest in another EU state as I wanted to know my investment was protected.
This is the positive side of the equation, but unfortunately publicity about straight bananas and content of sausages highlights a most negative sense of petty meddling in our national life by detached EU bureaucrats.
I want to see EU politicians focus on improving the positive and avoid falling prey to national chauvinism. villajalon, Alicante, Spain
Maybe the politicians should follow your tour and talk to the voters as well. It's about time they listened to the people and stopped furthering their own ambitions. Dave, Perth, UK
IKEA just opened a store in Charlotte, NC. For a country that has the ability to build a jet fighter, their lack of inventory control and extremely poor website and telephone communications baffles me. I will not go into that store again. Frank Luciano, Tega Cay, South Carolina, USA
People buy IKEA furniture because they choose to. Standardisation by the European Beaurocracy is imposed, not chosen. And while our British government feels like it is chosen by us, and when we are not happy we can make them squirm, the European parliament may be elected but is almost totally un-answerable to its electorate.
There are many things, from many parts of Europe, that many Britons like. But only when we choose them for ourselves, not when they are imposed. I imagine the citizens of many other European countries must feel the same way. Richard Gosling, Aberdeenshire
Although you affirm that they are like chalk and cheese you continue to draw analogies between them as if they were meaningful. The essential difference between a shop and government is that shopping is based on very simple, direct human needs. A rapport is established by the shop to satisfy that need.
In Ikea's case they have wonderfully simplified the process to make it as deterministic as possible. You need something for your home, you see a variety of choices in a pleasant environment, you choose, you buy. Alas if in life government and politics were so simple! In life and politics, people don't even have any clear motivation and sightline into the best way to proceed to the future. No one does.
Governments must not only offer security, prosperity, sustainability but do so for a range of people, from the criminally disturbed through normal middle-class families, intellectuals, the young, the old, to irresponsible but powerful members of the business community, the pompous wealthy and on and on.
It's a wonder the European Parliament has been able to weld some cohesion from the delightfully disparate states of Europe. I don't think one need search very far to find Europe. It's around us and in us, in the values we have inherited from the past. Our involvement in the European Parliament depends on how much we all perceive and articulate our human needs and wants. Don Pilarz, Genova, Italy
An interesting piece Jonny. The difference between the EU and Ikea is that no-one at Ikea is forcing people to buy it's products against their will. Johanes, Berlin,Germany
I have been shopping at the IKEA in Vienna some years ago, and outside they had Swedish wooden houses which you could buy there. Now the interesting thing was they were definitely Scandinavian designs but selling in Austria. I can tell you one thing, it was in the middle of winter, and these houses had no heating turned on, but they were so well insulated etc, that they were very warm inside. This was over 20 years ago. So they were saving heating bills then and would go down very well in any of the European nations now. Ian Quanstrom, Crowthorne, UK
IKEA is irrelevant to my life. I have shopped there a couple of times, but I don't like their products or their supermarket-type shops. The European Parliament is even more irrelevant, I am afraid. It is a talking shop with no teeth, cannot make decisions, but costs us a fortune. It is overdue for reform, because as it stands it is worse than useless. RoyBear, Hamburg, Germany
Perhaps the reason why Annamaria and Nina know next to nothing of the European Parliament is the pitiful lack of coverage it gets in the UK media.
Yes, I'm looking at you, BBC. Let's have a bit of EU parliamentary coverage on the Parliament channel, eh? Then, perhaps, we'd understand - as a country - where we fit into the bigger picture of Europe, instead of feeling like we're outsiders all the time. Heather, Chatham, UK
This article misses the fundamental difference between Ikea and the EU Parliament. I can choose whether to shop at Ikea, if I don't like one particular product I can pass by and look at the next display. The EU tries to enforce regulations which impact directly on people.
A better comparison would be if Ikea became the only home store where everyone in europe had to shop; if they only offered a single style of bedroom furniture, one type of dinner ware and only no alternative to meatballs.
Take away the customer choice and it might not be as attractive. David Grills, Belfast
I hope Jonny's going to be asking the Latvians why they have police-escorted Nazi Third Reich demonstrations? Including laying wreaths on the graves of notorious Nazi war criminals of WW2? A very surprising thing to find in an EU country, really? They claim these were "Latvian patriots", but in fact they were all members of the Waffen-SS. Neil McGowan, Moscow, Russia
Shopping at IKEA is optional, the EU not so much so. I'm pro-European, but that's how IKEA get away with uniformity in a way that the EU parliament can't: their uniform products are only one option available to a consumer. Dan, UK
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