Can Europe Make It?

Brexit lessons: we need European media for a European public sphere

A neglected reason for the multiple crises of the EU is the absence of a European public sphere, where Europeans would be able to negotiate controversial issues with each other.

Thomas Baerthlein
4 July 2016

The green pavilion, Euronews HQ, Lyon, 2015. Wikicommons/Lydie22.Some rights reserved.At the height of the euro crisis, media coverage didn’t exactly help to find solutions: it aggravated conflicts within the Eurozone instead. The then Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme cites the headlines in the German press in 2010 “where the Greek population on average were described as lazy people that only wanted to be on the beach, didn’t want to work. And although the performance of the Greek economy was very bad, to have popular newspapers in Germany portray Greek individual citizens as on average lazy was definitely irresponsible.” (The anti-Greek mud-slinging campaign by Germany’s largest newspaper, Bild, has been documented and analysed in detail.)

Of course European papers do not always peddle such stereotypes about other countries. But the fact remains that whereas we talk a lot about each other, we hardly communicate with each other in the media. The success of the Brexit campaign in the UK is a stark reminder of an all too often neglected problem: There is no functional European public sphere. That would for example mean that Greek and German politicians, economists and ordinary citizens would have been able to discuss their differences of opinion about austerity on a joint, unbiased platform such as one TV debate watched in both countries.

We know from our national experience how essential such discussions are in understanding each other’s perspectives, forming public opinion and holding our rulers accountable. But this does not happen in the EU. The perceptions of the same issue can be completely different in different EU member countries. European summits are a good example of the segmented European public spheres at work – with journalists usually sticking together in national groups and primarily attending their own government’s briefings.

This may appear as a minor challenge for the EU compared to Brexit, the rise of eurosceptic parties all over the continent or the Eurozone troubles. But in fact there is a deep connection – the lack of a European public sphere is a structural problem which damages the functioning of the EU and distorts citizens’ perceptions about the union.

Journalists for national media have a strong incentive to frame their coverage of important European events as a struggle or a competition between nation states. The obvious narrative for their respective home audiences revolves around questions like the one so often heard in the Brexit campaign - “what do we get out of it?” Held accountable exclusively by national journalists, even a committed pro-European leader like Belgium’s Yves Leterme admits he often could not resist the temptation to present himself as solely a staunch defender of the “national interest”.

It is common to point fingers at “Brussels” as a scapegoat, whereas more often than not, rather than the European Commission or other Brussels-based institutions, in reality it is the member states that paralyse the decision making-process. Not surprisingly, according to UK Project Director Shakuntala Banaji of the London School of Economics, an ongoing international research project has found an “overwhelming” trend of negative narratives in the British press about the EU.

There is no comparable journalistic lobby for the EU as a whole, and therefore much less reward for a politician to choose compromise and put the interests of the union first.

The EU and Eurozone set policies with a wide-ranging impact on citizens’ lives, including currency and foreign policy. It is a major anomaly and a key part of the often decried democratic deficit of the EU that its citizens have no platform to debate these policies, or at least witness their elected leaders debate them. In terms of accountability, there is no real pressure either on EU institutions to explain their policies and keep decision-making processes transparent as there usually is in democracies – which in turn feeds aversion against EU “bureaucracy”.

The language dilemma

At least partly, the segmentation of the public sphere in Europe is due to language differences. It is instructive to look at Belgium as an example. Yves Leterme grew up speaking both French and Dutch (Flemish) fluently himself but considers the split in French and Dutch language media audiences a key factor for his country’s divisions: “It’s certainly the number one reason. Based on the difference in language, in my country we don’t have common newspapers, we don’t watch the same news magazines. So the opinion-making for the average citizen is based on a different approach whether you belong to the French-speaking or Dutch-speaking part of the country. And this certainly goes for Europe as a whole!”

Language is a highly political issue in the EU. The disproportionate effort that is spent on translations by the EU institutions is a clear indicator: The DG Translation produced 1.9 million pages in written translations in 2015. Although it estimates that the overall cost of translations for the EU institutions is below 1% of their budget, and equals only about 2 euros per EU citizen a year, the question may be asked whether the private sector would be ready to shoulder similar costs. Probably not.

It is worth remembering that European integration has moved forward more quickly in many other fields compared to the media. More often than not, this involves Europeans communicating with each other in English.

There is economic integration and globalisation, for example: in multinational companies like Siemens, it has long become routine to write all internal emails in English, even if it is just to the colleague at the same site in Germany.

Due to the Bologna Accords, university degrees and credits have become compatible across the continent, and millions of students have received the EU’s Erasmus scholarships to study at least for a few months in another European university. Knowing English is essential especially for communicating in larger multi-national groups. English is no longer just the language of international academic conferences and journals, universities in countries where English is not the official language - such as the Netherlands - also teach more and more degree programmes in English. 

And of course, large-scale migration facilitated by open borders has created more “European” cities. Somewhat ironically, London undoubtedly has become “Europe’s most European city”, as Der Spiegel recently dubbed it. Again, the ease of being able to communicate in English has been an important motivation for many migrants to settle in London rather than Paris or Berlin.

Former Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme, while agreeing on the importance of English for the economy, explains the difficulties of adopting it officially as a common language in the EU: “Europe cannot go to one common language. Very fundamental to European integration is the respect for diversity.”

It is hard to see this attitude changing especially in a post-Brexit EU. But the Belgian example also illustrates that a multi-lingual media landscape is a huge obstacle to a joint public sphere. Not accidentally, the few existing pan-European media platforms mainly use English. The Financial Times, very widely read in Brussels, is possibly the most influential trans-national publication in the EU, although not for a general audience.

Besides, the EU has attracted a number of predominantly digital platforms specializing in European issues, usually based in Brussels. These include the EUObserver, an online newspaper that also gives considerable space to Eurosceptic voices. In 2014, the leading US-based website and newspaper Politico teamed up with Germany’s publishing house Axel Springer to acquire the European Voice and turn it into Politico Europe the following year. Politico Europe is still in a phase of growth but so far, all of these platforms, while undoubtedly broadening debate and contributing to the accountability of European institutions, reach more of a niche audience of Europe “insiders” and “influencers” than the general public.

A European public broadcaster?

Television remains the medium where most Europeans get their news. And TV provides some of the most emotionally engaging joint experiences to Europeans – eg with the ongoing EURO 2016 or the annual Eurovision Song Contest. Historically, there have been several attempts to establish a pan-European TV news channel. Currently, only Euronews deserves this title.

Euronews has been broadcasting from Lyon, France since 1993 – currently in 13 language editions that are on air 24/7, including in non-EU languages like Arabic and Russian. National public broadcasters (from EU countries but also Russia, Turkey and North Africa) are the main stakeholders in Euronews. But whereas most Europeans will have come across Euronews at some point or another, few know it well or feel strong about it. Does this simply show audiences are not interested in a European broadcaster?

There may be other explanations. Euronews often has a distant, slightly artificial feel about its programmes. It mostly contains news bulletins which are shown without a presenter, one reporter’s voiceover following the next. This obviously makes translations easier. And Euronews has even developed a distinct philosophy of pure news “avoiding any national viewpoint”. Tellingly, its most remarkable innovation is a programme called “No Comment”, which simply documents an incident without any reporter’s explanation.

It can be interesting and moving to watch - but is this the right way to engage and involve wide audiences in political discourse? Political television usually relies on the well-known faces of strong presenters. Political talk shows and interactive debates are a key element on national public television to give audiences a chance to ask questions, make their points and develop their own opinion.

Public broadcasters that are (more or less) independent from government interference, with the BBC as the prime example, are a typical feature of European democracies. Outside of Europe, many envy us for these impartial public broadcasters that embody a strong cross-party democratic consensus. In a sense, it is thus surprising that Europe has been able to create a common currency and a common diplomatic service but not an efficient common public broadcaster.

“I think the European Union, the Council of Europe also, should invest more in a public broadcasting institute or organisation, or at least bring existing initiatives together”, says Yves Leterme – “for the domestic scene, in order to have better knowledge amongst Europeans about the situation in each other’s member states; but also for the outside world.”

There is no sign of this happening anytime soon. Current trends in the European media are going in a different direction. Europe’s loudest international voices remain firmly national. Besides BBC World, both France24 and Germany’s DW TV have expanded their broadcasts in English, with competition for global audiences growing from international broadcasters based in Turkey, Russia or China.

Building up a quality TV news channel is very expensive. But the EU already spends huge amounts on communication projects to improve people’s understanding of its institutions and policies, both within member countries and neighbouring regions. If a full-fledged, separate pool of reporters and linear 24 hour transmissions are considered too costly, one could be creative and, for a start at least, rely on synergies, for example begin with a few debate formats that are jointly produced by existing English language channels in Europe and broadcast each week on those networks, as well as online and on national TV channels with subtitles in the respective languages. 

The UK vote on June 23 is a wake-up call – the EU needs to recognize that more and more of its citizens feel alienated from it, and look for new ways to give them a voice and address their concerns. Media needs to play an important role in these deliberations.

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