The Need for a European Public Sphere

Europeans do not communicate enough for Europe to work. PDU argues that the reasons for creating a European public sphere are manifold and to do so is vital. By Liam Fitzgerald

Protester against the Iraq War, 15th February 2003, in Rome. This protest was part of a worldwide demonstrations taking place on the same day and involving millions.

Protesters against the Iraq War, 15th February 2003, in Rome. This protest was part of worldwide demonstrations taking place on the same day and involving millions of citizens.

The past few years have seen an increased amount of criticism of the European Union not just due to its lacking democratic legitimation but also, and closely correlated to this, the lack of a large-scale European public sphere. Especially Jürgen Habermas has repeatedly reminded us of this fundamental problem. True, even Habermas detected glimpses of a European public sphere in the massive demonstrations against the war in Iraq in 2003 and consequently welcomed these outbursts of public opinion throughout Europe warmly.1 This is indeed a sign that there is something out there resembling a common public sphere, but it also highlights the limitations of what this sphere currently is: it only surfaces intermittently and is normally only to be seen when something bad happens. This we have been able to follow since the outbreak of the current crisis in 2008, mostly in connection with economic problems. The resulting association of Europe with economic topics, predominantly economic problems, and before 2008 to some extent chances, has robbed the term ‘Europe’ of much of its old contents, such as freedom, peace, personal liberty, and human rights. Europe’s institutions as they are now have, even if not actively, taken on this definition of Europe and are associated with it in the minds of those living in its boundaries. This European Union, which is seen in the first place to be an institutional failure and an economic liability by many, is increasingly perceived as being the Europe. What results from this is that a redefinition of Europe is of the utmost importance. How to achieve this redefinition? The public and through it the people of Europe, not only the ‘elites’ but ideally everyone, must be sufficiently informed and must be given the chance to partake in Europe. How should we go about doing this? In answering these questions we must return to the European public sphere, that has occasionally shown itself but mostly remains unseen and unheeded.

We believe that Europe’s peoples, not only those born early enough to have lived through Europe’s catastrophies of the 20th century or have been given first-hand knowledge by their parents or grand parents; not only those who lived during the Cold War; not only those who still remember a Europe in which it was not possible to move freely from the Atlantic to the Black Sea and from Malta to Sweden; but also those born today are aware of Europe’s common cause – of securing lasting peace, defending democracy, and ensuring economic prosperity just as much as enabling cultural exchanges. They may be disillusioned by Europe’s current structure, by a nomenclature forced onto them by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels (though they no doubt are good Europeans and mostly do their job with enthusiasm and skill), and by Europe’s fractioned and ineffective attempts at solving the financial, political, and structural crisis facing us all since 2008. Nonetheless, and perhaps especially in dire times as these, these people recognise what is at stake – a process worth more than sixty years is in danger of imploding suddenly, if it is not rescued in a determined, thorough, and durable reformation. The situation in the Old Continent’s countries is probably not that far away from what Der Spiegel predicted in 2005: A Revolution against “The Dictatorship of Bureaucrats”.2

The Public Sphere: Necessary for Europe’s reformation

In fact, a certain revolutionary change is probably close at hand, consisting of a number of different components. There are at least two large-scale tasks, each comprised of a number of smaller elements, for those willing to change Europe and to make it strong through direct democratic legitimization and federalization. The one is to actually undertake the necessary fundamental restructuring of the Union. The other, which has to precede and then also accompany this reformation, is to create a European public sphere. This sphere needs to encompass all the national public spheres and the many small pan-European media projects to actually achieve a universal public sphere. This is one of the main characteristics that accompany the Project for Democratic Union, seeing itself as first and foremost a pan-European movement dedicated to reforming the Union bottom-up by pooling the resources and ideas of millions of enthusiastic, learned, and often young people and voicing them.

One of the main functions of the media within the projected European public must be to cover deliberations in the European institutions. This is already done in some cases. However, after a reformation of the Union’s institutions it will not only be more important to do so as the roles of especially the Parliament will have changed. But it will also be of far greater interest, as, again especially, the Parliament will have more to say about what actually affects people. As it is now, and despite its election, the legitimation of the European Parliament seems questionable. It has hardly any publicity, Europeans do not really know what it is up to, and therefore cannot quite comprehend why it even exists. Though there are means to follow parliamentary debates, hardly anyone knowas about these. The fatal impression is that European politics is being made in Brussels and the national capitals, bypassing and eliminating the political will of the people as expressed in its representative body, the Parliament. By giving Parliament the extra coverage of pan-European newspapers and enhancing awareness of possibilities to follow it, it will be able to express its opinions more effectively and efficiently, thereby providing it with more coercive power. The public sphere can thereby enhance Parliament’s legitimation as the electorate, and for the first time would indeed be included into the political process. Parliament would be strengthened significantly, its bargaining position increased as compared to the other institutions of European politics. In connection with European elections in 2014, the possibility of combining a European public sphere with the power and self-confidence of a strongly legitimated Parliament will facilitate a restructuring of Europe.

EU Parliament in session - and being filmed.

EU Parliament in session – and being filmed.

Tasks and competences: Why Europe needs a common Public Sphere

The European public sphere will voice opinions on all subjects relevant to Europeans. It will facilitate ongoing communication between the centre and the peripheries, between all the different peoples, and between all social groups. It will guarantee that the Portuguese understand and follow what is happening in Lithuania, the Maltese in Denmark and so on. Above all, it will keep bureaucrats and officials in touch with everyday reality and report on all events at Union and regional level. This process of reciprocal communication of problems and hopes, of solutions and proposals will help establish a real feeling of belonging together and an understanding that problems in one part of the continent can easily affect all other parts and that therefore they need to be addressed by all. The public sphere ideally will be Europe’s real democratic glue and the source of its legitimation, above and beyond common history, values, and beliefs. It is a way to bring problems to everyone’s attentions and a collective means of proposing solutions in cooperation between the people and government.

The European public sphere is also intended to be educational, in that it must be used to promote scholarly knowledge and research and also to present results that can then be discussed. Europe needs a population of informed, knowledgeable men and women who are not scared of participating in public debates. The European public sphere can, by offering a forum for such debates, ensure that Europe developes into an intellectual world power in addition to its economic, technical, political, military, and diplomatic prowess. The European public sphere, being open to a world-wide public as well, will show outside peoples and governments the strength of Europe in all fields of day-to-day life and high politics and influence polities throughout the world by discursive coercion.

Also, in and through the public sphere, Europeans must constantly be reminded of what Europe means – both in its ideas and its structural and institutional manifestations. The knowledge of what Europe offers to us all must be readily available at all times, or else Europe’s people may well lose confidence once more. It is therefore an important task of Europeans and European institutions to keep Europe’s benefits – its reasons for existence – on its peoples’ horizons. The failure to maintain the understanding of why Europe exists – its historical legitimation and legacy in the preservation of peace and prosperity – has been one of the main failures of the Union’s current structures: Its disentanglement from the continent’s inhabitants and the loss of contact between those in government and those being governed has proven to be potentially fatal. It has, above all the elements of the financial and economic crisis since 2008, led to the crisis of confidence and trust and has helped nationalist movements to flourish. This development can and needs to be reversed. One step in that direction is the outlined creation of a European public sphere.

Yes, Europeans can!

In short, the creation of the European public sphere must begin with creating a critical mass in both national public spheres and the existing rudimentary European public. These then need to be effectively amalgamated, using the critical mass and English as the most common linguistic denominator and in cooperation with Europe-friendly media. At the same time, English will need to be universally taught already in pre-school to ensure bilingualism in all citizens. Once established, the European public sphere must serve as a means of communication and thereby as legitimator. Also, it then takes on a critical role in the system of institutionalized checks and balances and a means of voicing concerns and thoughts on European politics. It must be used to explain and answer questions and to frequently stay in touch with Europe’s sovereign, its people. Once gained, everything needs to be done in order to ensure sustained support in the population for the existence of the Union and its institutions.

Europe can and will only work if the people of Europe not only feel constantly involved and asked for their input and opinion. Much more importantly, it will only function and have the right to do so if they can voice their opinion openly and freely also when not asked. If this can be achieved, Europe will be a model worthwhile copying. If Europe’s people are thus involved, Europe will truly be a strong, durable, and above all incontestably legitimated democratic power to be reckoned with. What we need, therefore, is a “change of structures through the public”.3 Europe has the potential to be famed for its public sphere and thorough democratisation of all its deliberations and policies through public discussion and scrutiny. Total integration of Europeans is what Europe means. Only by following this path can the Union be credibly considered as a model for democracy – a most powerful and persuasive one in that it combines the soft power of its peoples with the hard power of its economy, diplomacy, and military.

Currently, European problems, discussions, and politics are right at the top of national, European, and world media. This fact offers opportunities. For, although the subjects discussed and communicated usually consist of negative news, they have nonetheless brought truly European themes to the forefront of public scrutiny. Often, they serve to formulate critique concerning the Union. Moreover, though what is discussed is of a European nature, the answers given are mostly in national or regional interests. Despite these thoughts, we are at the point at which a possible break-through to a European public sphere and a wide-spread discussion of European problems beyond numerous, yet mostly relatively small blogs, seems possible. What is needed is the determined push by enthusiastic supporters of Europe’s ideals as outlined here. The necessary elements are already available. They have to be effectively and efficiently put together.

The image ‘Protesters agains the Iraq War’ courtesy to Simone Ramella via flickr.com, published under creative commons share alike.

The image ‘EU Parliament in session’ courtesy to European Parliament via flickr.com, published under creative commons share alike. 

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  1. Wirsching, Andreas: Der Preis der Freiheit. Geschichte Europas in Unserer Zeit, Munich 2012, p. 219. 

  2. „Die Diktatur der Bürokraten“, Der Spiegel 23, 2005. 

  3. „Strukturwandel durch Öffentlichkeit“, Helmut Altrichter quoted in Wirsching, Preis der Freiheit, p. 51.