- As the European Parliament elections approach many cite the lack of a European public sphere as the reason for the disinterest in European politics and the inevitable low voters’ turnout. But is this really so? Or is the pretence of a non-existent European democracy just an excuse for national politicians to keep the nationally focused political system alive?
- Parlementair Documentatie Centrum
A certain European public sphere already exists. It exists in the networks of culture, art, sports, movies, pop music, fashion and, of course, the economy – often already as part of a global public sphere. Just think of the Champions League, the Eurovision Song Contest, the Venice Biennale, the Berlin International Film Festival, the Milan fashion show, all the everyday economic and trade relations, European company mergers, European civil society networks and millions of people travelling to and living in other European countries.
But beyond all this, we are currently living through a golden age in the development of a European public sphere. The main reason for this is the euro crisis, accompanied by fundamental doubts about the European idea. Europe is suffering from a severe identity crisis.
But no matter how difficult and messy the crisis management has been (and the crisis is far from over) it has also had a positive side-effect. The crisis was a catalyst for the development of a European public sphere in the sense meant by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas – communication flows that are filtered, synthesised and condensed into specifically-themed public opinion. The crisis has affected most of Europe at about the same time and, by sharing one currency union, the eurozone member states have been forced to find common, often painful, solutions.
This also means that the same issues are being discussed across Europe at the same time, and so communication flows are synthesised and public opinion formed on topics such as austerity, youth unemployment, tax avoidance, savings banks and data surveillance. This is not a cosy public sphere. But these are real debates in which the controversial and strong views of real people are expressed, rather than merely propaganda for or against Europe.
Media and technology
Granted, these issues are still mainly discussed in national media and languages, but the agenda-setting and the reasoning run in parallel and, depending on the political orientation, are also similar and coordinated. We should welcome these national debates about European politics as an intermediate step to the development of a supranational European public sphere.
In addition to the euro crisis, there are two other catalysts that promote a European public sphere: the revolution of the media industry, and new technologies.
Old and new media companies are looking for and testing new business models to earn money with media content in the digital age. This includes pay walls, new forms of online and mobile advertising, data harvesting and the curation of user-generated content.
And, in turn, the extension of geographical markets is considered a serious economic option to increase revenues by expanding readership, not least because printing and distribution costs are marginal in the digital age. This is reinforced by social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Reddit, which already now function as supra national platforms, and thus are a natural breeding ground for a European, and even global, public sphere.
The quest to exploit the European media market can thus become another catalyst for the development of a European demos. So far, attempts to establish European media products have been hampered in the first place because there are obvious language barriers. English works as a media language only for a small group of media consumers. The language problem could, however, become increasingly irrelevant in just a few years as new technologies make instant quality translation of media content possible.
With the rapid further improvement of translation technologies, it may soon be possible to read the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” directly in Spanish, or the “Guardian” in French. Or new European media could be established, designed as pan-European, and curated and marketed online as well as in the language of the reader. The upheaval in the media landscape and new technologies could bring about the establishment of European media formats that synthesise topic-specific bundled European public opinions.
For media and technology, one can be optimistic that the market, and technological creativity, will prevail. But we also need genuine European politics which both requires and produces a European demos. The writer is Director of the Mercator Centre Berlin and Director of Strategy of Stiftung Mercator. He is also a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations