The European Commission and Parliament probably spend hundreds of millions of euros on comms projects every year, but almost nothing on stimulating the emergence of the European Online Public Sphere, without which the EU project cannot survive.
Democracies need media to survive in much the same way that fish need the medium of water to survive — they don’t eat it, they don’t drink it, it’s just the only medium they can actually exist in.
Our media — from traditional newspapers through to blogs and social media platforms — carry our political debates. Without it, no democracy — just press releases.
And yet, across Europe, media remains national. Political debates are therefore framed through national lenses. We don’t have a European policy debate — we have 28 national debates about Europe, plus a 29th in the Brussels Bubble, an echo chamber where Eurocognescenti debate amongst themselves in their own impenetrable jargon.
Until we have a EU Public Sphere, the EU democratic deficit will endure.
Until we have an EU Public Sphere, the EU democratic deficit will endure, and so will EU crises.
The lack of an EU Public Sphere used to be a rather academic topic, discussed with much handwringing by political scientist PhDs preparing their European Commission entrance exams. Today, however, there is no doubt that the hapless flailing of Europe’s leaders wrestling with today’s Greek tragedy was caused partly by the fact that most of those leaders answer to national populations who see the EU from national perspectives.
I simplify, of course — but the fact remains that we cannot expect better EU-level decisionmaking from national politicians beholden to populations who see Europe only from a national perspective.
Now for the hard part
The bad news is that creating an EU Online Public Sphere isn’t easy.
The EU Institutions have tried to create EU-oriented media top-down a few times, without success, as public funding tends to encode future failure into the nascent media’s DNA at birth.
That’s not an ironclad rule, but in any case creating a new media would only really make sense if Europe didn’t have enough media. But we do — we’re all drowning in journalism. The problem is that the media we have only take a national perspective on European issues.
Not that it’s their fault — consider:
- even when times were good Europe’s media could not interest their audience in European issues;
- today’s media is being massively disrupted, so it’s hardly a good time to ask them to take risks.
Hence the only EU coverage we get are the only international narrative guaranteed to sell newspapers — crises.
the only EU coverage we get are the only international narrative guaranteed to sell newspapers — crises.
The European public sphere, in other words, has a chicken-and-egg problem: noone covers non-crises EU stories because there’s no audience for them; there’s no audience because noone’s covering the stories.
Improve content discovery with advanced technologies
A better approach would be to invest in technology to help media find their audiences across Europe.
A range of new language technologies (semantic analysis, machine translation, sentiment mining, auto-summary, etc.) are appearing. Combined intelligently together with social media and online communities, they could help readers discover quality content across Europe’s internal barriers of language and culture (here’s how that could look).
And once content producers see that finding their content has become easier for audiences across Europe, they will start creating more content for them. Increasing quality and quantity will further stimulate interest and demand, triggering a virtuous circle that will support European media and the emergence of the EU public sphere.
These technologies are only part of the solution, but they are essential.
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