Timothy Garton Ash on the European public sphere, Brexit, journalism and what the best Europe would look like

We got lucky enough to sit with Timothy Garton Ash at the European Studies Centre, St. Antony’s College in Oxford to discuss key topics about Europe, the aftermath of the European elections, Brexit, and journalism.

Jul 5 · 20 min read

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Timothy Garton Ash, courtesy of timothygartonash.com

In this episode of the podcast, Paul Ostwald and the Forum team got to interview a very special guest, Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St Antony’s College at Oxford University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, also historian, author and commentator. At the European Studies Centre in Oxford, Forum’s Paul Ostwald got to ask Professor Garton Ash a few questions about the idea of a public sphere, key topics for Europe, Brexit, what would the best Europe look like, the particular resonance his 2009 book ‘Facts are Subversive’ has today, the somewhat uncertain future for newspapers, and more. We hope you enjoy.

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

You will find below a full transcript of the interview.

Your last book “Free Speech„ touches on the issue of the public sphere, it talks about the pynx, this problem of not having a public sphere in Europe. You say that language is the biggest problem. How do we get around that? What is your perspective on this?

I have been wrestling with this question for almost as long as Jürgen Habermas. My own answer has been to go out and publish in as many different languages as possible. That’s been my answer to it. I’m unusual in publishing regularly in La Repubblica, in El País, in various German papers, in Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland and many other places. Because otherwise whether it’s PoliticoEU, or the Economist, or the FT, or indeed the New York Times, or the New York Review of Books, you’re only reaching a tiny sliver of the population. I think it is absolutely right to identify language as a key constraint, not just for understanding, but also for feeling. It is no accident that the phrase ‘lost in translation’ that is applied to poetry. Because poetry affects the heart, and it gets lost in translation. So that is definitely the challenge, to creating the European public sphere, which is first of all to overcome the language barrier as such. And then secondly to jump over the much higher high jump bar, which is the language which is so good, so eloquent that it speaks to the heart as well as the head.

We’re here in the European Studies Centre, which is a space for intellectuals working on Europe, coming from across Europe. Do you think you have created a certain space here for a forum, meaning a space for a debate on Europe with people coming from different European backgrounds? And what has it taught you about Europe?

Undoubtedly, and we’re very proud of it. I’ve always self-identified as en English European. We’re definitely sitting in Europe here in this room, and in Oxford. But it has of course been, let’s be honest, an elite discourse between academics and students, policy makers and journalists at a very high level of sophistication. The challenges about, and this goes to Habermas, politics — and politics is also theatre, it’s also representation, feeling that those people up there represent me, not just in the technical sense that I cast my vote for them in a European election, but in some more personal sense. And that’s a big challenge for Europe.

Do you think freespeechdebate.com, the website you started is an attempt to overcome this elite-base discourse?

Absolutely. That was of course done in 13 languages, which I can tell you was unbelievably demanding to do, starting with the fact that some languages go left to right, some go right to left. That was on a global scale. The problem you will come up against, also in your own project, is still getting beyond the elite, reaching out to your ordinary reader, of even the Süddeutsche Zeitung, La Repubblica, El País, letting alone even more elite publications.

Forum’s Jonas Bedford-Strohm pitching Forum.eu to Timothy Garton Ash

Going back a few books before that, in “Facts are subversive„ you say that facts are subversive of power, facts are what leads to the fall of dictators, etc. you praise journalism, defending the facts and bringing them out to the light. That was in 2009, ten years ago. Do you still think that applies today?

I do, absolutely I do. I don’t buy the view that in an age of popularism and because of echo chambers on the internet, people have failed to distinguish between fact and fiction, and fake news prevails. I don’t think it’s true. Of course the Internet has given us fantastic tools, for example, for very rapid fact checking. And if you look at Twitter, a platform I love, if you put something out there which is false. It’s incredibly quickly corrected by other Twitter users. I myself, I must confess, tweeted a piece of fake news. I didn’t know it was fake news. It was a picture of the House of Commons chamber absolutely packed when they were allegedly discussing MPs pay, and then completely empty when they were discussing welfare benefits something. But actually the packed chamber was something else. Within minutes it had been corrected on Twitter and I put out a correction. So that I don’t believe that intrinsically the Internet age of itself is sort of undermining the proposition that facts are subversive. What is a clear effect of the Internet is powerful echo chamber effects with people who are already highly partisan. Or really extreme. For people like us in the middle with open minds, the internet gives you a great diversity of sources and therefore ways of checking and counter checking in fact an argument. But for the people at the extremes, the echo chamber effect is very strong.

Do you think that is something that is new to the Internet age or is it something that we’ve always had?

So you know, the people who believed that Freemasons were running Europe, got together in smoke filled rooms with people who believed Freemasons were running Europe that’s as old as the hills. What’s new is that you can sit in your bedroom and connect with a thousand other people who share your particular perverse conspiracy theory. So yes I do think that’s a new quality of the Internet and one which the algorithms of Facebook and Google objectively favor. Because since they optimize for engagement and people engage with content which is surprising, sensational, or sexy, it will actually strengthen that effect. So I think that’s a real problem with the Internet age.

But then on the other hand, it’s not just the Freemasons that people believe Freemasons run Europe, they can connect across the globe. It’s also the ones who believe Europe is a solution to a problem and it’s the ones who are we might say on the more constructive sides of these debates. But why are they not gaining the momentum that they could? Why is there not enough momentum or engagement on that side of the debate? Why is there that kind of falling off the algorithm?

So I don’t think it is. As you rightly say and as I argue in my book on free speech. The Internet of itself doesn’t set everyone free. The Internet of itself doesn’t imprison anyone. It has a positive and a negative potential and we have to maximize the positive and minimize the negative potential. Now actually if you look at the last ten years, there is a more elite discourse about Europe because of the Internet and on the Internet. So that as many radicals and terrorists and extremists are communicating with each other so many more pro-European, educated people are communicating. The problem is to get beyond that smaller group to these wider publics who are being competed for by Nigel Farage on the one hand, and Marine Le Pen and all the populists. And by Emmanuel Macron on the other.

the paradoxical effect of Brexit has been a massive Europeanization and a massive pro-European mobilisation

Do you think, going to Britain, the Brexit scenario changed that to an extent? You suddenly had people who never engaged with the European Union on any level really suddenly were faced with this question ‘What is Europe for me?’

So first of all, I want to insist that it’s not funny peculiar Britain and 40 normal European countries, right? Every country is peculiar in its own way. Many European countries outside the original six, outside Carolingian Europe, successors to Charlemagne empire, have a complex relationship to Europe. If it’s Poland or Sweden or if it’s Greece, they have a complex relationship to Europe. We’re peculiar but not that peculiar. What I do think is that there was a peculiar British debate which was ostensibly about Europe, but in fact was entirely about ourselves. It wasn’t about the real existing Europe at all. And to that extent it was different from say a French or German or Italian debate, which is both national and European. Now what you’ve had, the paradoxical effect of Brexit has been a massive Europeanization and a massive pro-European mobilisation. So the largest pro-European demonstration in recent history anywhere in Europe was the demonstration in London on the 26 of October last year. It was an amazing pro-European. You’ve also had a growing interest in Europe. So to take the paper in which I write, The Guardian. I have for years regretted that The Guardian has a brilliant front page for the US, it has one for Australia but it doesn’t have one for Europe. Europe is subsumed under the world. Ironically, the Guardian is getting more European after the Brexit vote. So we now have a really good Europe section, The Europe Now section and the Comment pages which is fantastic. Ran by my friend Nathalie Nougayrède. So yes there has been a paradoxical Europeanization effect.

And beyond the Guardian, which I don’t doubt is read beyond an elite circle but it doesn’t reach everyone, do you think this is again a debate that is within Britain in this very peculiar sort of orbits of intellectuals?

I think it’s much wider than it used to be because Brexit has forced people to confront the reality of the EU. In the way oddly enough a member state isn’t so often confronted with the reality and also with the kind of passion, we talked about passion. Europe is like health: you value it when you’re about to lose it. But it’s only gone so far. And if you look at the media landscape, if you went to the level of the Daily Mail, or The Telegraph, which is sort of closer to the Daily Mail to any other quality dailies, or the Sun, no I don’t think European debate has got much more differentiated. Moreover, and this is an important point, we have probably the greatest public service broadcaster in the world, the BBC, but it hasn’t done a great job on Europe.

Europe is like health: you value it when you’re about to lose it.

How did it fail?

Most of my Remainer pro-European friends think it fails by being biased. I do not think that’s it’s failure. I think it fails by having so to speak a bias against knowledge, rather than a bias against one side or the other. That is to say it reports the dingdong debate of Brexiter and Remainer, pro and anti. To exhaustion. What it doesn’t do is enable you really to understand the deeper issues in Europe and the forces at play in Europe.

Do you think that’s also a sort of a false balance that’s been created in the sense the people that the BBC is trying to represent all sides?

I think it’s a combination of two things: Timidity because the BBC is really frightened of being seen as biased. So whereas on almost any other issue in the world, Africa, China, climate change, you name it, it gives you not just the facts and the different opinions, but an area in between which I would call the balance of expert opinion. It will tell you this is what most experts believe about the human cause, climate change; this is what most experts think about Syria or the causes of this or that conflict. It doesn’t have the guts to do that on the EU because it would actually mean telling you that one side had more of the evidence on their side than the other. That’s point number one.

Point number two. Like so many national media it has a very strong bias towards believing that your national politics are the most important thing in the world. So the Brahmins of British broadcasting and other political correspondents, for them the world is Westminster, it’s like the new famous New Yorker map with New York and then the rest of the world. There’s Westminster and then the rest of the world. So that for them. The real question is who is going to be leader of the Conservative Party. And more almost than whether Britain is going to stay in the EU or leave it. And I think the combination of those two things.

It sounds a bit like the TV show Yes Minister, in which everything happens within one mile of Westminster and that’s the world.

Yes except that now of course if you remember the spin doctor in Yes Minister was called Mr Weasel, somebody called him Mr. Weasel he was called something else, he wasn’t actually Mr. Weasel, it was a figure of fun. Whereas now it’s not Sir Humphrey, it’s a media adviser.

Do you think that was due to the 1997 election and Tony Blair and the link with the Sun?

Look, I think it’s been in process, it’s happened in all our politics. But the same with a German politician, or a French politician, the media adviser is the most important person.

Going back to the book you say, as you are working in a university, in ten years there will still be a University, you said then you weren’t quite sure whether in ten years there would still be newspapers. They seem to be around though.

I’m pretty sure there won’t be daily newspapers in print. Maybe the timescale, maybe it takes another 10 years. But I think there’ll be very few daily newspapers in print, there’ll be weekend papers and magazines. It’s already going that way. I mean the Guardian Weekly is a good example. The FT weekend is absolutely fantastic. I can imagine they have an amazing number of digital subscribers. The New York Times and even the top papers, the most successful papers are getting the same way.

And do you think that is partly because the media is seen increasingly as part of the political establishment?

I think it’s because people aren’t prepared to pay for news.

If facts are so important then why people are not willing to pay for it? Have we missed out on informing people?

Well, stopping climate change is very important but people aren’t prepared to pay the price for that. It would be naive to think that people are always prepared to pay the price for good things. And unfortunately they’re not prepared to pay, on the whole, — I have to caveat this slightly because some metered paywall models are actually working — but on the whole they’re not prepared to pay much for general news.

What if you look at the New York Times for example?

Yes but look what happened to the New York Times and The Washington Post which is they get this massive uptick in digital subscriptions thanks to Donald Trump.

Why is that not happening that much in the UK? Or is it happening in the UK?

It is happening in the UK. I never believed the Guardian would get so much money from this membership model. I thought that was just an illusion. But it’s beginning to work.

So glory days for journalism, but not for print journalism.


And you’re in the midst of it, writing for The Guardian.

When I wrote a column for The Guardian, there’s a print version with a short headline cut to length. Then I can write pretty much whatever I’d like, with a longer headline online and I know that I’m writing for up to 40 million people. Worldwide. And the readership is amazing. When the column is a hit, it’s 200,000–250,000. It’s astonishing.Absolutely amazing reach. It is primarily online. It’s an online paper with a nice paper version for the old.

Or the nostalgic.

Old and nostalgic.

Or also for libraries which need the proof, the printed proof. You have been covering European affairs for a long while. You started in Eastern Europe in the late 1970s, 73 was just shortly after Britain joined the European Union. You said, it’s the worst Europe we could have except for the other Europes we’ve tried in the past. If now is a time of upheaval and change, and we have the option to change things, what are the key changes you would make to this Europe, to the European Union?

Well first of all, I think people are beginning to mobilize because they feel it’s under threat. So that’s the good news, that people are beginning to get involved. And we’ll see what comes out in these European elections. But I’m not persuaded that it’s going to be a triumph for the nationalists and the populists. We shall see.

So what do we want more from Europe?

First of all, when it started out 60 plus years ago, it had to be a vision of the future. It had to be teleological about something that we hadn’t yet created. Now, it’s a mature political community. It’s lasted as long as many of the states of Europe. In fact many of the states of Europe are younger political communities than the European Union. So that’s a really important point that there are lots of things people value about it the freedom to travel study and work. And we need to preserve that. So that’s number one, to make that argument for what people risk losing. Number two, there was a great remark made by Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi the founder of Pan-Europa in the Congress of The Hague. The first pan-European meeting in the late 1940s. He was up there with Churchill and Monnet on the stage. And he said ‘Let us never forget my friends, that European Union is a means and not an end’. Fascinating statement at a time when European Union which was capitalized in the transcript did not exist. It was just an idea. Of course what’s happened since is that we forgot about that. As so often happens means become ends and people often in Brussels treat the EU as an end in itself. So this is you may say in slight tension with what I just said but I think it’s entirely compatible. We have constantly asked what do we want the EU to do. So the project which I have here, the group who are sitting around this table is going to your generation. And saying ‘What do you want Europe to do? What do you want the EU to do?’ And then seeing how the EU does it. So if climate change, environmental destruction, species extinction is a big problem, what’s the EU going to do about that? If inequality and poverty are big problems, what is the EU going to do about that? If how we manage diversity is a big problem, what’s the EU going to do about that? So getting answers as to how Europe actually helps to address the things that really matter to people, seems to me pretty important. And much more important than a directly elected President of the European Commission by the way. Or Spitzenkandidat. I absolutely do not believe that the key to moving hearts and minds is more institutional changes. I mean, has Spitzenkandidate been making setting hearts aflutter all across the EU?

Not our hearts. Some people’s hearts maybe, I don’t know.

Well, Manfred Weber’s heart.

So it’s this alliance right it’s again the alliance that we’ve seen in the US to an extent. It’s the young people like my generation, our generation and the generation of the people who’ve seen the European Union in its early days who are allying across the generations, isn’t it?

That’s optimistic. The pessimistic view would be that actually three generations from Adenauer’s generation, De Gaulle’s generation, through that of Kohl or Mitterand’s, to my generation were highly motivated in favour of Europe because we knew a much worse Europe. Dictatorships in one half of the continent or the other. And now your generation, what I call the Eighty Niners, enjoying the benefits of the EU is actually less mobilised for it. Now I would want to I would want to take that a part of it because of course younger voters when they vote tend to be more pro-European. But when they vote is a big caveat, right? In the UK, a month ago the electoral commission said that one third of voters between 18 and 34 are not registered to vote. An astonishing figure.

But is that because they don’t care? Do you think that is why they don’t register to vote or is it because they don’t understand these very complicated processes? Is it the process or is it the thing itself that’s stopping people?

I’m not sure. I think it’s a bunch of things. First of all, the process for citizens of other EU countries registering to vote in the UK in the European elections is scandalous. Because you not only have to register, you then have to fill in a form and physically send it back. That’s absurd in the age of online banking indeed. And so that’s an obstacle. Then I think there is a sense that these achievements are not existential threatened. I don’t think people quite believe that the whole thing could just fall apart. Someone wrote a book under the title ‘If you if voting changed anything they would abolish it’. And what I find with my students is quite a strong conviction that the world isn’t really run by democratically elected governments. It’s run by somebody else. Maybe corporations, maybe multinationals.

But when you say people don’t feel these achievements are really threatened. Is that the people here at Oxford, your students you talked about or do you think that goes further than that?

So that’s what we need to find out. And that’s what we’re looking to try and understand. But what I would say is if our incredibly well educated and informed students haven’t woken up to that, then we have a problem.

But they’re also the ones who can most easily fly away from it all.

Yes. So their advantages are most under threat if the thing collapses. Whereas if I’m an unemployed plumber in poorer part of Britain, France, Germany or Poland, I haven’t had so many advantages from Europe in the first place.

But you might be more aware of them because they made more of a difference to your daily life. If you’re from a wealthy, happy family background and you’re studying in Oxford, you know might be less aware of all of the opportunities that you’ve actually had because they’ve come so naturally.

I think it’s really interesting. I think neither you nor I know the actual answer but I think it’s a really important question to get at because what I do think is without the mobilization of your generation, and you know your project is a great example of that. Without the mobilization of your generation, we’re going to see a progressive weakening of the European Union. That I absolutely do believe. Not a collapse all of a sudden. But a progressive weakening.

Is that why you are so in favor of having the UK vote in this European election?

Funnily enough, I actually spent quite a lot of time talking to people in the rest of the EU saying that the European Parliament lawyers have said there is a way of Britain not holding a European election, and just extending the MEPs for another six months or whatever it takes. Wouldn’t that be more sensible? Because there is something intrinsically odd about it. It was the EU 27 who, for understandable reasons, said if this is to be a democratic organization then everybody has to have elections. Once we’re in that position, then I take this as a great chance to have a kind of ersatz second referendum on Brexit.

Would you want a non-ersatz, a real second referendum on Brexit?

Of course I would. Absolutely, 100 percent. There is no good way out of the Brexit mess. None at all. But that is definitely the least worst way out: a second referendum in which we vote to remain in the EU. I know many people on the continent have started to doubt this, or even actually disagree and think you have to get rid of the poison, the contamination that is Brexit Britain but I think they’re wrong. One hears this quite often. I think they’re wrong. I think that’s a short term view.

And with a second referendum, would that be a yes or no option?

It depends how we get there. In my view the best way to get there would be a deal negotiated by the British government versus staying in the EU. Because that’s absolutely crisp and clear, this is a real Brexit. Because the EU 27 have agreed to it. It’s not a unicorn Brexit. And this is something real too. And it would be a confirmatory referendum which would be binding. So whatever happens we do that or we do that.

Do you think one of the reasons we don’t really get to that point is because Labour is so unsure of where they actually stand on this?

That’s evident. Yes. Ironically my hope of this European election is that the Brexit party does better than the Conservatives and the pro-Remain parties do better than Labour. Why? Because Labour getting a trouncing on the Europe issue pushes them towards the Pro people’s vote pro-Remain position, which 80 percent of their members want. So that’s a good thing. Brexit beating Tories may sound a bit more peculiar but it isn’t. Because what that means is that the Tories will go for a hard Brexiteer as our next leader. That hard Brexiteer will try to renegotiate the Brexit deal in Brussels, fail spectacularly, come back. And then there will be the mother of all crises probably in October. And out of that crisis, there is a better chance that we get 20 to 40 Tory MPs voting for a second referendum. The more moderate One Nation Tories. So in a peculiar way, out of these European elections in the UK, which I never wanted particularly, we see the possibility of a process opening up on left and right, that brings us to a second referendum.

You’re also a historian. If you look back on this and you write a book in 15–20 years on this topic, what’s the judgment going to be of history, of this episode in British and European history of Brexit? If it’s reversed.

Judgment is going to be the judgment of most people around the world today. How could a widely respected, pragmatic, well governed country do this to itself, get itself into this mess? And the answer is this weird mixture of referendums that haven’t really been thought through, the Swiss have thought them through, being reverse engineered onto a system of representative government. So that you get the clash between the two logics, logic of direct and a representative democracy. Plus the unbelievable superficial stupidity of David Cameron.

Well he’s coming back. Didn’t you say he wanted to come back into politics?

Well he wouldn’t be welcome here.

One final thing: you talked about the 2000s as an odd decade. And we’re not quite sure what the 2010s would be. Do you think Brexit will be a key characteristics, a key moment in the 2010s?

It’s a very good question: what will be the label for the 2010s? Maybe counter-revolution. If from 1989, for roughly 20 years through to the financial crisis of 2008–2009, we had what might loosely be described as a liberal revolution, not just in Europe and more widely, between Putin, Xi Jinping,Erdogan, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farrage, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Viktor Orban and many more. What we’re experiencing is actually a period of anti liberal counterrevolution. Maybe it’s a decade of counter-revolution.

And then the next one will be the counter-revolution to the counter-revolution.

Thank you

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