Can Europe Make It?

The quasi-lack of a European public sphere

Younger educated people are paving the way towards a cohesive Continent – let’s have many more like them in the future.

Alessio Colonnelli
20 January 2015
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Forging a cohesive Europe? Demotix/Matthias Oesterle. Some rights reserved.

A dozen or so weeks ago a Europe-related event was staged at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). The occasion marked the launch of Eutopia, a new pan-European web publication. The widely known Oxford professor of European studies Timothy Garton Ash was there.

Asked by EUROPP’s editor Stuart Brown as to why there is a lack of a European public sphere, Garton Ash came up with a couple of pointers. Europe’s several languages are a hindrance, for a start: from the outside, one doesn’t get to see what the national debate within each country is.

Secondly, EU leaders like the experienced Jean-Claude Juncker, wild card Federica Mogherini, and safe Donald Tusk represent in the professor’s view unexciting choices. In the sense that they won’t inspire the public. Garton Ash has a point.

Let’s try and expand a bit more on what the British scholar perhaps meant by that. The elector’s vote – or so it seems – tends to be based more often than not on the politician’s image rather than anything else. The media play a decisive role in this. If industry moguls like Rupert Murdoch decide his channels and papers must go for a certain political figure and tarnish their image, that’ll give him or her a hard time.

Referring to the American-Australian tycoon’s media empire, the English journalist Owen Jones wrote in this respect in his latest book The Establishment – And how they get away with it (2014) that “the media is made up of self-evidently exceptionally powerful political actors, projecting the opinions of their oligarchic owners into British political life, helping to forge the political direction of the nation.”

Such media are able to stop their target from focusing properly on the way they communicate by instilling anxiety in them. The trap is set. Take Gordon Brown for example.

Or more poignantly take Ed Miliband. The Times’ opinion-maker Tim Montgomerie wrote on 8th January in his regular column that “Mr Miliband’s ratings are even worse than Gordon Brown’s. But Tory strategists have perhaps become transfixed by them. Trusting in Mr Miliband’s weakness, they have become more blasé about the seriousness of their position than they should be.”

Statements like this reinforce some readers’ perception (how many among them?) of the supposed fragility of the Labour leader. ‘Weakness’, ‘fragility’ and relating words appearing day in and day out in the press: a politician’s distorted image is served on a tray. A crumpled one, totally unappetizing.

It happens to EU representatives as well. Think of how many times President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy was depicted – either implicitly or just openly – by tabloids and quality press alike as boring. He had once been described as having “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.” This was a 2010 statement made by a prominent British politician in a European parliament speech, which found plenty of resonance in the UK press at the time.

But on what basis is there such a perceived weakness or lack of charm? On how quick the targeted adversary is at firing an MP of his over a one-off clumsy use of Twitter, or on how poorly he handles provocative questions about the mansion tax on a morning TV show asked by a cool, direct presenter? On facial features, haircut and outfit? On one’s ability to sashay in front of parliamentarians, cameras and microphones? A speech impediment that us the media can pick on? Any nervous tics? The aim is discrediting beyond the scope of meaningful satire.

These are examples of apparently insignificant articles and episodes, which however pile up over a certain stretch of time, forming an overall type of image that could prove as hard as lime-scale to scrape off.

Romano Prodi was also a prime target. Silvio Berlusconi’s media helped coin and divulge an epithet for the former President of the EU Commission and Italy’s twice Prime Minister: il Mortadella, roughly translated as ‘stodge’. A cheap, debasing slandering campaign. The fact he’s originally from the same city (Bologna) as the popular salami surely didn’t help.

What did help, though, was a hilarious picture that sneaked into the Italians’ mind. Prodi was to be thrown out fairly quickly: an experienced emeritus professor of industrial organisation and policy as well as a strong supporter of European integration was to be associated in the collective imagination with a huge sausage spiced up with peppercorns and pistachio that suggested an idea of a clumsy, cumbersome, sweaty, out-of-breath politics.

An image of tiredness, which in all honesty the politically progressive Prodi didn’t fully deserve. (He did though try hard to counter that by getting photographed on his bike in lycra a number of times.) In fact twenty years of hardly-interrupted Italian conservatism did do damage to the fabric of the country’s society – the unwritten intergenerational pact has now gone out of the window.

Public debt ballooned and is yet to shrink. A job not-so-well done. Future generations will pick up the bill; or may well look to Europe, given their country isn’t one they are particularly proud of – at least career-wise.

A recent issue of the Italian weekly Panorama features a report about how to find the best jobs abroad as well as the best schools for your kids – cashing in on the Italians’ resentment towards their land and the ensuing lack of trust in both Italy and who’s in charge.

The fiercely independent daily Il Fatto Quotidiano hosts a much-read section on its website called Cervelli in fuga (Brains on the run), testifying to the haemorrhage of the young with a higher education fleeing the peninsula. A piece by journalist Ferruccio Sansa from 5th January read as its headline: “Emigrate or stay, this is the question”.

So back to the Continent and its lack of a public sphere. Perhaps that’s just a perception. There is a sphere, actually. But it’s a tiny one and made up of essentially former and current Erasmus students, international researchers, professors and functionaries. Plus other people, by all means, who tend nevertheless to be generally better educated. Europe’s added value is tricky to discern; it’s sophisticated and requires intellectual tools that need constant sharpening over time.

To make sure that such groups of individuals become open to anyone wanting to join in we need to start talking about Europe from the very early stages of education. From primary school. ‘Europe’ could be a subject in its own right – like science, history, maths. That should help shape the kind of public who in the future will engage with European issues in an unbiased yet critical way. The EU is in the making after all – Juncker is the first elected President of the European Commission after many who hadn’t been! Europe’s institutions don’t function like clockwork, but are clearly improving.

openDemocracy editor Rosemary Bechler put such a case in the following terms (Eutopia, 24th December): “We could argue that to seriously address this invisibility of Europe, you would have to tackle […] media ownership and the capacity for critical analysis in all our societies – the  whole area of education. But that would be to ignore a credibility crisis that is real enough on which our tabloid press and popular TV are quick to report, and which cannot be laid at the door of a mistaken European public. What they don’t tell you, because it doesn’t suit them, is that this is a crisis in governance […]. This was what we saw in the May European elections, when a lot of Europeans voted against the Establishment: […] [a] widening gap between people and the political class, everywhere. The crisis of governance I am talking about is to do with the absence of convincing representation and interaction […] [and of] people’s involvement in an exercise, building Europe, in which they have been pretty comprehensively left out.”

To build a wider public sphere who’s bothered about the Continent as a whole we need to invest in the future after having ascertained the current situation. The case for shaping our national education systems towards a better understanding of Europe can’t be but a strong one.

That means creating fair education opportunities shaped by the very European concept of solidarity, to which the entire fourth chapter of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union is devoted.

Incongruously, the so-called EU Fiscal Compact, displaying a high degree of neoliberal anxiety, goes substantially against solidarity, denting the progressive side of the EU. A conundrum that needs solving. Received opinions on the EU show disbelief and mistrust on the part of the public at large. Time to act.

Michele Serra – a prominent Italian writer and journalist – received a letter not long ago, which he published in his regular feature in il Venerdì (issue no. 1399), a weekly supplement by the Rome-based national daily la Repubblica. Reader Maurizio Mastrangelore wrote that after having spent a whole year in Lisbon as a political science student, he could now count on a solid and wide network of European friends.

Serra’s answer to the letter is a hopeful one; he says: “Europe is more and better than we think of it most of the time. It’s not just an all-powerful authority adding itself to national and local ones, thus multiplying obligations, regulations, financial charges; it’s also a multiplier of opportunities and acts above all as a driving force for knowledge and human relations […].”

Like with almost anything, things are generally assessed for their usefulness. The EU too; so how beneficial is its horizon for a well-educated youth struggling to get the jobs of their dreams? Very. That’s a significant chunk of the audience making up the Continent’s public sphere at the moment. They read and write about and dream of Europe all the time. We need to start from there. Youngsters need to perceive Europe as a place where fulfilling their plans is a viable alternative to that of their native country when things don’t work out as hoped.

Europe as a broad safety net; and as an alternative nation as well, especially for those disenfranchised second generations with an immigration background behind them – adoptive nations can be ungenerous at times with their restrictive ways, penalising traditions and subtle forms of discrimination which impoverish daily life experience.

Europe goes beyond that – it’s salvific in this sense. You can reach it by starting as a teenager from your town’s libraries, which ought not to be closed down for the sake of improving a country’s deficit, burned on a Fiscal Compact-like, austerity-imposed pyre – libraries are a sacred gate onto the world; onto Europe too. Make their language section huge; let’s have the EU help pay for language-learning tools to be used free-of-charge in our libraries.

Let’s also get the EU to help keep libraries open, and to open more of them. They can become a tangible sign of European solidarity. British author and journalist Bedisha wrote in the Guardian on 22nd December: “Local libraries are probably the only secular gathering place where you’re not required to browse, buy, eat or drink in order to justify your presence. It’s the only place where silence is mandatory and generalised rather than an accidental moment in-between bursts of activity” – a definition that’s a case in point in underpinning the kind of universality Europe is supposed to be about.

The EU (and its EFTA associates) therefore is seen as a viable alternative within young people’s reach, even if from unprivileged families. Languages should be taught more in state-maintained schools, and maybe a few of them at the same time – four, five, even six. Why not. It can be done. The more you learn the easier it gets. Languages share common traits. Maybe Danish and modern Greek make more sense to learn at school level than Chinese does in the light of the above. Who knows. Languages mean one can read European websites first-hand; no mediation required.

The ideal European citizen is a multilingual one. It’s no coincidence that the nation who collectively feels the least European is Britain – its population is vastly monolingual, with many finding languages of no use at all. In a Europe that is increasingly becoming bilingual or even trilingual (if not quadrilingual), particularly among younger people, the British offer a landscape culturally at odds with its neighbouring countries.

That day at the LSE Timothy Garton Ash maintained that “we’re far more European in the UK than we think we are.” Theoretically true, but in practice the continuous toxic drip inoculated by most of the popular media are eroding that optimistic concept bit by bit – inexorably.

Messages coming from swathes of the British press and politics alike are in essence harshly neoliberal, with solidarity being conveniently confined to the vague concept of a big society – and Europe is taking it all in without batting an eyelid. The inconsistency between principles and attitude is getting wider by the day. It’s an issue; and with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – known as TTIP – looming, it is unlikely to fade away.

So, yes, Brits are still European, after all. Garton Ash is right. Though for how long it remains to be seen. Europe and its fundamental tenets are being overlooked; they’re not perceived as relevant. That’s precisely the scenario you don’t want when struggling to build an engaged public sphere.

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