As the European Coal and Steel Union was signed into existence in 1952, most of its member states had just closed — or transformed — their propaganda ministries. The United Kingdom’s „Ministry of Information“ closed down in 1946, just as it had in 1919. With the final demise of the Third Reich, Nazi Germany’s „Ministry of Propaganda and Enlightenment“ equally ceased existence. For Europe’s founding mothers and fathers, the lesson was clear: Information had been a currency of war. They knew, however, that it could be converted into a currency of peace.
This insight culminated in the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), founded in 1950 in the UK under Swiss law. It united Europe’s public service media corporations to safeguard against any attempts to bring media under political control. From its initial membership of 23, it grew to 117 members. They share material for the coverage of political events, exchange ideas and set standards on how to cover elections, for example. In what its made it to do, the EBU excels. But its limitations are obvious: It does not create a forum for European citizens to debate European issues. It connects broadcasters, not citizens; it debates all issues, not specific European questions.
A day before German unification on August 3rd, 1990, the French and West German government signed an agreement to create a broadcaster. In 1991, the Association Relative à la Télévision Européenne (arte) went live. Ever since, its program streams in both German and English. Every movie, news segment and its online presence is bilingual. Undoubtedly, it brought together German and French citizens and fostered a mutual understanding. Our narratives, once again, intertwined. The language barrier was lifted. Arte is a solid backbone of the Franco-German relationship ever since its inception, but no one would claim that it created a pan-European public sphere.
The advent of the internet in the 1990s opened new avenues. News transmission was democratized. Transmitting content across the continent was no longer the reserve of powerful broadcasters. In 1999, Euractiv began to provide articles beyond their national echo chambers. In 2000, EUobserver joined in. Euractiv now offers its readership articles on European politics in twelve languages. For everyone working in Brussels, it’s essential morning reading. For those Europeans who want to discuss these issues, it offers no forum.
„In short, the public sphere in which European political life happens remains a national sphere“, the paper recognized and continued, „a partial reason for the feeling of alienation towards Brussels and politics in general is the lack of a European public sphere.“
A Forum before Forum.eu?
Brussels recognized its flaw and the growing democratic deficit that had only grown over the years. In 2006, it presented a white book on a new communication strategy. „In short, the public sphere in which European political life happens remains a national sphere“, the paper recognized and continued, „a partial reason for the feeling of alienation towards Brussels and politics in general is the lack of a European public sphere.“ The paper formalized „Plan D“, the European Commission’s plan for democracy, dialogue and discussion. The analysis in both cases was clear. A concrete strategy was lacking.
The 2007 Treaty of Lisbon created the European Citizens’ Initiative to increase participation and create a first forum for European citizens to engage across linguistic borders on common concerns. It’s not a media forum, granted. But it offered a form of citizen participation and exchange on European questions that had not existed. In the same move, the Commission introduced EuroParl. In 23 languages, it broadcasts on current developments in Europe. It’s a useful platform that speaks directly to Europeans. But it doesn’t expect a response. Like many of its predecessors, it’s a one-way street into the bureaucratic and often exhausting world of Brussels and Strasbourg.
What unites all the existing attempts is that they stop at the EU’s borders. Few attempts have thought of Europe as the larger unit that it is.
A common forum is not a common voice, quite the opposite. The public sphere is a market place of ideas. Understanding what moves our neighbours and discussing with them, across linguistic and cultural boundaries, is the best safeguard of peace in Europe
Unravelling Europe’s Paradox
Paradoxically, Europe’s inherent strengths are also the key hurdles to the creation of a pan-European public sphere. The European Union alone covers 28 states. Beyond the EU, citizens from Russia, Norway, Turkey and other states consider themselves European. French and Germans might share a lot of historical reference points; the république de lettres and the Enlightenment projects of the 18th century, protestantism and the wars culminating in 1871. But Portugal and Estonia? Relatively little. Our linguistic and cultural diversity implies that we lack not only a common language but also a historical frame of reference: our countries have such diverging narratives and political cultures that we’re more often than not lost beyond translation.
A public sphere isn’t just a translation tool. It doesn’t just reduce language barriers. It offers a space for deliberation. It generates a space where common narratives can emerge and be challenged. By exposing corruption, uncovering attempts to monopolize influence and by challenging abuses of power, it becomes a potent Fourth Estate.
Differences persist. A common forum is not a common voice, quite the opposite. The public sphere is a market place of ideas. Understanding what moves our neighbours and discussing with them, across linguistic and cultural boundaries, is the best safeguard of peace in Europe.