How to strengthen democracy on the continent with a strong European public sphere

An interview with Johannes Hillje on the European Public and why a European Platform is needed.

Forum.eu
Forum.eu
Jun 7 · 19 min read

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On this second episode of the Forum.eu podcast, we interviewed politics and communications Consultant, Johannes Hillje, author of ‘Platform Europa’. He was the campaign manager for the European Green party for the 2014 European elections. In this episode, he shares with us his views on building a strong European Public, why a European platform is the way to go to achieve this goal, and how European institutions need to change.

You can find the full episode on Apple Podcast or Spotify, click the link below. Find us also on Google Podcasts, Audioboom, on Soundcloud, on Stitcher and on Podcasts.com.

You will find below a full transcript of the interview.


Forum: Thank you for joining us. Johannes Hillje. You have become a strong voice in Europe for the empowerment of the European public and also for the creation of a European space for communications. Before we dive in, would you have an experience, a book, or a moment to share with us that has shaped your mind on Europe when you were younger?

Johannes Hillje: Certainly my studies in London were an important moment for me to become truly European. I studied in London at the London School of Economics in the very European environment. At the time we also discussed many authors and theories and books on the public sphere, on communications, on European integration, European democracy… Authors like Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Antonio Gramsci or Manuel Castells. They were important authors at the time. I think what connects at least some of the work of these authors, is the idea that communications is not only a way of conveying a political message but that communications is politics in itself. Especially Manuel Castells has contributed to the notion that power is deeply connected to the control over communication and over the infrastructure of communication actually. I found that very fascinating and interesting, and that was probably the starting point to make me more interested in the interconnection of politics, power and communication.

Yes, and how communication carries a very important weight and impact on to the populations, to the politicians and to journalists. And how everyone uses it one way or another.

Yes exactly. When I especially when I talk to politicians and institutions nowadays I realize that many still see communication basically as a tool to convey a message but not as I said before as politics itself. And I think in other parts of the world, for example in Russia or China, they have already found other ways to use communication in favor of actually ‘making politics’ and not only in a good way. For instance if you think about misinformation coming from Russia, propaganda spread by China throughout the world. I think this idea is somehow missing in Europe at least I can see it and Germany and the German government when I speak to officials that with communication you do much more than only conveying political messages. And I don’t mean necessarily propaganda in a good way. But rather communication and the means also to allow an exchange between people, to allow a democratic discourse. And this is what I’m mainly interested in.

Well actually with the European elections just a few days away, what are your thoughts on how campaigns are conducted throughout the continent. What are the good things and about things about the communications around those elections, around the candidate and the parties. How could they be improved? And how could that come about?

I think European elections are still quite a paradox thing. It’s actually not a European election to the European Parliament, but it’s 28 national elections to the transnational European Parliament. And we have 28 national elections systems, 28 national lists of candidates and so on. And the result of that is that we have national campaigns naturally, and they’re mainly driven by national issues. And we don’t really have a common European campaign and public debate which we should have I think if we elect a European a transnational Parliament. Because the problem for the voters is that it’s actually tough for them to judge if let’s say what the Conservative Party of their country promises is also supported by other conservatives in Europe so that they can act together on a certain issue in the European Parliament. Because in the European Parliament the National Party can only be influential through being part of a transnational group like the European Conservatives,the Social Democrats and so on. So there is still this kind of gap between the transnational reality of European politics and the electoral systems that we have for European elections. And I think one important way to change this is actually the electoral system. We need transnational lists for European elections. It was on the table again in the last year at the European Parliament. It was voted down. But if we don’t have transnational lists, if we don’t have candidates who can be elected all over Europe, we will probably never have a real European election with real European campaigns and this is something that I find really important to make European elections more European in the future.

Why do you think this motion [reforming the electoral system in Europe to allow for transnational lists] was voted down last year in the Parliament?

It’s hard to say. It’s a struggle for power in the end. If you shift power from the national level to the European level, and if we would vote with transnational lists for example, then the national parties and national governments would lose some power in the kind of institutional composition of European democracy. I think this is always in the end the answer to this voting behavior in the European Parliament, it’s a power struggle. Clearly it’s not in the interest of the governing or the ruling parties of the national states to give more power to the transnational institutions, like transnational parties, or the European institutions like the European Commission or the European Parliament, because they would understand this as losing power on the national level for national governments and national parties. So that’s probably one answer and one reason for that.

You know your way around campaigns in many more ways than one because you were a campaign manager for the European Green Party campaign for the 2014 elections to the European Parliament. And would you share with us what you tried to implement or accomplish to bring some change to the usual campaign model or if you tried to do something to maximize impact. What would you have to say on these points.

In 2014 we tried really to create something like a pan-European campaign for the European Greens. In one way it was a success because the campaign was used in the majority of EU member states by the Green Party. They used the campaign materials that we produced for them, so there was a similarity in the different campaigns of Green parties all over Europe. Many of them even used the same posters, that we developed on the European level. There was a common element at least in the campaigns of the Green parties in 2014.

We also tried something very new in 2014. We organized an online primary to select our leading candidates for the European elections. Five years ago, for the first time we had pan-European leading candidates from the different European parties. These were the candidates for the Commission President. [Jean-Claude] Juncker was the leading candidate for the Conservatives, Martin Schulz for the Social Democrats, and Ska Keller and José Bové for the Greens. We selected our leading candidates through this online primary. So we asked the Green sympathisers to elect their leading candidate. This was a digital election, a digital poll. The number of participants was not very satisfying for us in the end. We reached just above 20,000 participants which is not a high number for Europe of course. And at that time I also realized how difficult it actually is to organize something pan-European if you cannot rely on pan-European media. So we had basically no real European media where we could promote this primary, where we could ask people to participate and mobilize people through this European public sphere. We relied on the national parties again, that they promote this primary in their countries, which worked for some countries but certainly not for all of them. So it was difficult to organize something pan-European in a reality where you have mostly national public spheres. This was also something of this experience that motivated me to see much more and go deeper about the possibilities of a European public sphere later on.

Not only to counter populist propaganda, but also to really complete a European democracy, we need to create something like a European public sphere

This is actually an idea you exploit in your book ‘Platform Europa’, where you advocate for the creation of an impactful space for communication on the European level, but also supporting debates. Which is actually the driving force behind Forum as well. You explained a little bit why it’s vital to establish a pan-European, transnational debate/communication/information arena for citizens. So that they can be mobilized, so there is one centralized space, for everything that I just detailed. For you, why is it so vital to establish it?

So today in Europe we have an economic and we have a political European Union. Which can be also called something like the European democracy, because we have different institutions that you need for a European democracy. But we don’t really have a European public sphere which is also a vital element for democracy because the public sphere is basically the arena where the public opinion is formed, where policies can be legitimized, where institutions can be also criticized and where decision-makers can be addressed and criticized by the public. This crucial element of democracy is missing on the European level. And I think it’s one of the reasons why there is also so much discontent and dissatisfaction towards the European institutions. Because if you’re not happy with, for example what the European Commission is doing, how would you address the European Commission as a European citizen? That’s very, very difficult. And on the other side, you don’t see the representatives of the European Commission in the public arena. So they’re not very often seen in the media they’re harping on. So there’s a problem. A lot of people don’t really have a good idea of who these people are in Brussels, for example in the European Commission, how to address them, how they can understand what policies that they are doing. And this not knowing about what’s going on there, and who is doing what, can be easily I think exploited by populists and also by nationalists. And I think this is what we have seen in the past years. This is why I think that not only to counter populist propaganda, but also to really complete a European democracy, we need to create something like a European public sphere.

Yes. So as a means to reach a consensus. I think this is what you are saying just now.

Yes. But not only to reach a consensus, I mean of course democracy is always about conflict I would say. So it’s about the competing ideas, conflicting interests and so on. But to reach agreements and democratic decisions you need an arena where all these interests and different actors with different ideas and opinions can come together and something like a public opinion formation can take place. And I think only if this takes place, then people are also willing to accept the decisions that have been taken by public or democratic institutions. But without this process, without all this discourse, all these conversations that we know from the national public sphere, without that it’s very easy to lose trust in institutions and to lose acceptance for institutions. If we don’t create this arena on the European level, it would be very difficult for European institutions to restore that trust and acceptance by European citizens.

Yes absolutely. Going further, and to pick up something you said earlier on talking about the lack of a European media for you to go to when you were working at the Green Party and you’re trying to organize a primary. You put forward in your book the need for a consortium of a fee-financed European media institutions to create their own digital platform. So that’s a European Fourth Estate basically. Is this in your opinion dissolution to supersede the crises in the news industry between the public sector, the private sector, the filter bubbles, etc? But also to bypass the influence of American and other foreign platforms that have greatly impoverished many news outlets?

I think the situation that we face in the digital era is the following: We have a public sphere that is completely privatized by big private platforms such as Google, Facebook, Apple and so on. So the whole infrastructure that is used for public discourse, also for any kind of interaction between people in the digital world be it that people sell something, that people lend something to each other, that people date each other, that people game or whatever, the whole infrastructure for that is in private hands. This is especially something that worries me when it comes to the media and when it comes to public information, because what we actually have in the traditional media, we had a dichotomy basically of public media and private media. This is at least how we know it. in most European countries, and in most Western democracies actually, that we have private media next to public media. With this duality we could actually create a good balance. A balance for example between information and entertainment. But I think in the countries where we had a strong, where we still have a strong public media also, we had a more or less healthy public information environment. What we now have in the digital media is a completely privatized environment. So all the platforms that we that we already named, they are private platforms and we don’t have public platforms to balance them. And this is what I’m proposing in my book, to create a public platform. Because I think what we see on the private platforms is that they are not necessarily ready to create or offer the arena for a democratic discourse. They are basically following their business model, and their business model is to collect data about their users. This data is created by the interactions of users, and every content that provokes some interactions from the users: so reactions to content, or comments or sharing, etc. This is in principle good for the business model because it creates data about the user, which can be then transferred, used or exploited for advertising. But it does not really follow the rules of the democratic discourse, or at least creating a democratic discourse is not a priority for this platform. First of all it’s about creating interactions. This is not enough to create a democratic discourse, creating a democratic public sphere. This is why I propose to create this publicly financed alternative to the private platforms. I think we should do it in a European way, because this could be then not only an answer to the problems that come with the private platforms, but also as an answer to the lack of the European public sphere which we have discussed before.

There have been attempts like the initiative led by Jacques Chirac many years ago to create a European search engine, on par with Google or actually to be a competitor for Google. But despite a lot of capital put behind the project it failed. Why do you think it did? And what is the way for the upcoming European centralized platform for debate, information etc. How can we make this successful?

So I think some of the reasons why projects that had the aim to create something like a European public sphere failed are that, first of all, most of them were conceptualized not so much from the perspective of the user, but more from the perspective of the institutions or the companies that created this offer. But it was not really created from a demand perspective, from the needs of the potential users. Also there was a lack of funding. So the products that we saw, they were not really attractive. Also if we look more into media projects, there is still Euronews around. They never really became what they meant to become, they wanted to become the European CNN, but they never managed to do that. Also because I think they did not really check if there is really a demand for the program that they offer. And secondly, they also lack funding to create a pan-European program, it is only produced in 10 languages. So I think these are two important reasons: lack of funding first, second the lack of understanding of what the users really want. I tried to give answers to these challenges in my book. First of all, the finance question. I think first of all it’s clear that you need a lot of money in your hands to make a project like this a successful project, and I think a good idea or good way to actually create the funding for this is to use the EU Digital Tax that is already debated. So the idea behind the Digital Tax is that it’s a tax for platforms and digital companies or corporations like Facebook, Google, Amazon and so on which basically do not pay a fair amount of taxes right now in Europe. There are statistics that show that the big digital companies do not pay more than 10 percent of taxes on their revenues in Europe, and this is compared to other companies of the same size. This is like 20 percent less than other companies currently pay. So this is not fair. They manage to avoid taxes. One has to say that this happens in a legal way sometimes, not always but sometimes, the laws need to be adjusted as well. But one idea to counter this tax injustice is to establish this Digital Tax, which I think is a good idea. It could create between four and five billions euros a year. This would be already a good starting point for a European digital platform, which I’m proposing. On the second point, how to make users really interested in such a platform, I think a good way to approach this is actually to do this not in the way it has been done in the past, also with the architecture of the whole European Union. That was basically created top down, so the European Union has always been a project of elites. This is the same with projects for the European public sphere like Euronews, like the newspaper ‘The European’, or the search engine that you mentioned, it was the idea of elites and were not tested well enough with citizens. And citizens have not been really consulted and involved in the whole process of planning and conceptualizing such a project. I would turn this around, and start with a public consultation and ask European citizens what they would like to see on such a digital platform, to make it attractive for them, to use it later on. This is also the way most of the digital economy works, or how companies work: before they launch an app, before they develop a new product, they do actually involve their potential consumers in the process of developing this product. For example, you might know this Google design sprint, which is a way to develop something new, a product, for example an app. In this design sprint, the interaction with the potential user is a crucial element. I think this is something that European institutions should also do, in particular for such a platform: the public needs to be involved, right from the beginning. This is why i think the public consultation should be the starting point of the project.

Yes, any conversation around Europe and wanting to have a stronger Europe, stronger democracies, any stronger democracy, go back to consolidation. Also, one other thing that you mentioned is accountability for the giant platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Google), but also numerous other platforms and apps that are not really held to a high standard when it comes to fairness perhaps, in the way that they do business. That goes through taxes, that goes through exploiting some data, that goes through perhaps doing things that we are not aware of and that are less than desirable, or even legal. For a centralised European platform, it would be a great start for anyone in Europe to be able to have access to, it would surely be a perfect answer to the needs of people throughout the continent. Is there any other way that you feel that the EU could benefit and could go towards being more consolidated, more unified and more vibrant as a democracy, without having so much polarisation?

Certainly the creation of a European public sphere is only one element of making Europe better, and creating a stronger European democracy. I also think that we need a reform of the European institutions, for example of the decision-making processes. Right now, we have a lot of power in the European Council where the national governments sit together. The European Council is more powerful than the European Parliament. The European Council is still something like a black box: we don’t really know how the national governments act in the Council, the meetings are not public, are not transparent. In many cases, we don’t know how national governments have voted on a specific issue. This is something to improve, first of all, the transparency in the European Council. But also the power balance between the European institutions should be improved. The European Parliament needs to be strengthened compared to the European Council. What we have today, which is also really a big hurdle for creating something like a European debate sometimes, is that in the European Parliament, the parties try to find a consensus on almost everything. Because in the end they can make a decision in the European Parliament, but to make a law on the European level they also need the European Council on their side. The European Parliament is stronger in the negotiations with the European Council and the European Commission if they act together and if they have a common position. But this, I think, really undermines a strong conflict and a strong debate in the European Parliament sometimes, because it is so consensus-oriented, and we don’t have many fights between political camps. This is certainly something that is an important element, this political debate in the Parliament. If we were to give more powers to the European Parliament, I think this is something that could happen, that there would be more politicization actually, and this would also create more interest in the debate. And also in the elections to the European Parliament, if this institution would have more power. There are certainly some institutional reforms to implement, and I think we have to look at both things: the European public sphere, that we’ve discussed at length, and also the institutional reforms which could also deliver the content for the debates that we want to see in the public sphere.

What do you think we can expect for the second half of the year from European institutions?

After the European elections, we will have a few weeks, maybe even months, between the European Council and the European Parliament on finding a European Commission President. Once a President has been elected, he or she will set up the whole European Commission with different Commissioners. He/she will be the face of creating the new European Commission after the European elections. I think that what could be interesting and what also could be a role for organisations like yours, like Forum, but also for civil society organisations, is to get involved in this process of forming and shaping the new European Commission and their programme for the coming five years. Because this is what we always see after a national election, depending on the political system, but for example in Germany after an election we would have talks about the coalition between different parties, once we have a coalition of different parties for the government they would negotiate on a programme for the government. The different actors from civil societies but also from the economy and from other parts of the public, try to influence this process, and try to get their interests served, their voice heard in this process of creating the government and their programme. I think there should be a bigger involvement of civil societies in this process after the European elections. Civil societies should make their voice heard, should raise their interests for what they want to see in the new programme for the European Commission. I think this could be an interesting moment after the European elections, as a second moment of involvement of citizens and civil societies on trying to influence the direction of European politics. It is something we did not see that much in the past, but I think it could be an interesting way forward for European democracy if we would make this whole process a more public debate of setting up the European Commission. Certainly civil societies should raise their voice in this process as well.

Yes, more transparency and more accountability would be great for us all in Europe. Final question: would you tell us, and everyone who cares about Europe, if you have a book, a website, or a resource about Europe that you would recommend for us to read at the moment?

Yes. I think that one of the major problems for us Europeans is that our view, our perspective on Europe is mainly biased by our national perspective. As a German, I probably have a German view on Europe. Someone from Poland probably has a Polish view on Europe. I think this makes it sometimes difficult both to understand why other countries act like they do on the European level, and why it is so difficult sometimes to make a decision on certain issues. I always find it very enriching and helpful if I read the perspectives from a part of the European Union that is more distant to me. I have found Ivan Krastev’s books very helpful in that sense in the past. Because he’s a Eastern European author; the Eastern European perspective on Europe is a bit neglected sometimes I think, at least in my country, in Germany. There were many there conflicts in the past, especially on the question of migration recently, between Eastern European and more Western countries, on the level of values, and specific histories of countries. I find the perspective of Ivan Krastev very interesting and helpful. I think that if we care about Europe, then we also have to care about the perspective of our fellow Europeans. We should try to put ourselves in the shoes of other Europeans.

That’s a great recommendation. Johannes Hillje, thank you.

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Forum is a new initiative aiming to create the European public, by providing every day on its platform the most relevant articles on Europe contributed by leading publications on the continent. Forum makes all these articles accessible to all Europeans by translating them into all European languages. Forum also aims to promote debate by offering invested citizens a place to discuss the topics shaping their lives. To help build a potent Fourth Estate for Europe and support great European journalism to reach beyond borders, visit Forum.eu and sign up to join the waitlist to receive 3 months for free.

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