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European publics, desperately seeking European politics

The scope and seriousness of communication about Europe, and concurrent growing demands for European democracy from civil society might even legitimize an argument about an emerging European public sphere like never before. Yet the euro crisis debate also reveals the weaknesses of Europe as a political entity.

Markus Ojala
19 April 2012

The European sovereign debt crisis has marked an unprecedented intensification of public communication on European issues. Indeed, the extended crisis debate suggests that the consequences of the EU’s deepening integration and concurrent expansion of the past two decades have finally been recognised by the news media as well as the wider European public. However, while the euro crisis has demonstrated the interdependency of the European economies and citizens, the political management of the crisis has not reflected the concerns and critiques of European civil society.

Traditionally, the European Union has received little and only sporadic attention in the news media and in the public debates of its member states. The political discourse in European countries has largely ignored the fact that intensified transnational governance and policy coordination between member states has meant, among other things, that much of the legislation of national Parliaments nowadays originates from the EU institutions , or that the introduction of a common currency in 17 countries has tied these economies under the dictates of a single monetary authority. Consequently, the de facto European nature of our social and political reality has not been met with a corresponding public awareness of the extent to which the fate of European citizens, our economic prosperity and social welfare, has become ever more tightly interlocked.

The euro crisis has changed things quite dramatically. For some two years now, the news media all over Europe have virtually ceaselessly reported on the sovereign debt crisis of a number of eurozone countries and identified this as a distinctly European issue. The interdependency of European economies has been underscored by the now almost universally shared recognition that the way the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) was created – i.e. the political structures and rules of economic integration – has, if not created the crisis, at least contributed to it in large extent. More importantly, the political crisis management and its dramatic impacts on the economies, social welfare and sovereignty of the European states have sparked an unprecedented discussion on the past, present and future of European integration within national political institutions as well as European civil society. Europe seems to have become a public and political issue as at no other time, having a significant impact on the domestic election debates and igniting ideological conflicts among national political parties. We might consider this debate a very promising phenomenon: finally Europe and the EU as a political entity gains the recognition in the national public spheres it deserves, based on its political and economic importance for the lives of European citizens.

As a shared focal point for Europe-wide public discussion, the euro crisis marks an extraordinary event in its intensity and scope. The prolonged nature of the crisis has meant that European publics have debated the sovereign debt issue already for some two years, and the discussion has been joined by a growing number of affected groups and interests. The debate has been atypically intense for a European issue, and the extensive time-span has opened public space for the introduction of new themes and perspectives, as well as allowed for the elaboration of critiques and political alternatives. Significantly, as the euro crisis has involved both economic and political as well as social dimensions, they have all come under the same heading for debate. We could argue that the present euro crisis is unprecedented not only economically but also as a phenomenon of European public debate. The scope and seriousness of communication about Europe, and concurrent growing demands for European democracy from civil society might even legitimize an argument about an emerging European public sphere like never before.

News media between two elite positions

Yet the euro crisis debate also reveals the weaknesses of Europe as a political entity. While the disastrous social, economic and democratic implications of the adopted crisis policies have been the target of growing criticism from European civil society, this politicisation of Europe in the public sphere is not reflected in the decision-making over political measures to tackle the crisis. The public discourse of the European elites, led by the Merkozy-duo, government leaders and finance ministers, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the key commissioners of the European Commission, is highly insulated from any relevant criticism from European civil society against the adopted policies. Their communication is mainly aimed at ‘stabilising’ the markets and legitimizing the crisis policies to domestic audiences in the a-political language of “there is no alternative”.

This transnational elite agenda has been mainly challenged by the national political elites of the member states. In the domestic Parliamentary debates there is much more room for critical outlooks on euro policies. The centralisation of power to the hands of a few key powers, and the deeply undemocratic processes of decision-making that have characterised the European elites’ response to the crisis, have ignited considerable political resistance and calls for restoring the status of the sovereign Parliaments in decision-making procedures. Of course, there is much relevant and justified criticism being expressed in these debates against the dominant euro crisis policies and their implementation, which imply the hijacking of democracy by unrepresentative European institutions. However, the national outlook of these domestic institutions and elites effectively limits the debate on European policy alternatives, as is manifest in the worrying amount of nationalist populism in these debates.

The news media coverage of the euro crisis has been largely dominated by these two elite perspectives. On the one side are the Europeanised elites who have dictated political response to the debt crisis; on the other side the national political institutions, which typically use the euro crisis to play into populist anti-EU sentiment by presenting the Union as a threat to sovereignty, to democracy, to the national economy, and social welfare. The partly understandable concentration of the mainstream media on this rather clear-cut conflict results in a simplistic representation of European political division as occurring on the cusp between the “pro-European internationalists” and “the anti-European nationalists”.

A narrow understanding in the news media of the political dimension of the euro crisis leaves little room for European civil society actors to bring alternative economic policy programmes and proposals for reforming the EU institutions into the wider public debate. With the absence of European civil society from the political debates, the news media have largely de-politicized the coverage of European politics. Even in the dramatic circumstances of the euro crisis, European journalism continues to promote an image of the EU as an intergovernmental regulatory body where “national interests” are being bargained over.

Disconnected European publics

The inability of the mainstream media to identify critical civil society as a relevant actor and to connect it to the debate on European politics is one of the main reasons for the fact that the recently abundant communication on Europe has not resulted in a more coherent Europe-wide debate and the formation of European public opinion in any meaningful sense. In a wider perspective, the media coverage of the euro crisis mainly reflects the more general challenges of news journalism in reporting on the EU politics. Without well-established political parties formulating distinct political alternatives, clear government-opposition set-ups, or transparent processes of decision-making, it is hard for journalists to make Europe appear as a truly political arena.

But even with a heightened recognition of civil society demands and political alternatives by the European news media, the resulting more diverse and political public debate would not in itself lead to a more democratic European Union. For such democratization to occur, the articulation of critique and conflict in the European public sphere is not enough. What is also needed is a political system able to channel this critique into decision-making processes.

Unfortunately, the EU as a political system seems ill-equipped to respond to the social critique and to channel conflicting views. Relations of accountability, representativeness and responsibility are vaguely positioned in the hybrid model of the EU between a federal state and a federation of independent states. The integration process has led to a union which has high concentrations of power in some areas but almost no power in other areas, making it a dysfunctional entity both from the perspective of the EU institutions and the member states, as the euro crisis has demonstrated. The EU thus suffers from an inherent lack of public legitimacy, and the management of the sovereign debt crisis has further increased the sense of illegitimate and undemocratic nature of European politics.

Thus, from the perspective of public communication, the institutional problem in Europe lies not so much in the lack of Europe-wide media or platforms of debate. The real problem is the absence of political institutions that could be referred to by the European public. There is no political centre around which the European public sphere might  connect up citizens and their critique. As a consequence, both grassroots protests against the disastrous impacts of the austerity measures and the economic policy critique elaborated by the European civil society are lost in the public debate, and there are no ways of channelling them into the political process. This of course further increases the danger of the European Union losing its legitimacy and the rise of anti-systemic political forces around Europe.

Another consequence of this disconnect between the decision-making and civil society is the apparent isolation and insulation of the European political elite from wider public debates. The policy-making during the euro crisis is a revealing example of this insulation. For over two years now, the elite has pushed through its policy agenda on the euro crisis – consisting of bank bail-outs, publicly funded stability mechanisms, austerity packages and binding inter-governmental fiscal pacts designed to limit public spending – regardless of the skepticism on all sides regarding the meaningfulness and adequacy of such measures even from mainstream economists. At the same time the European elite has refused to discuss any meaningful structural and institutional changes that could pave the way out of the crisis, such as redefining the role of the ECB to operate as a lender of last resort, or creating mechanisms to address the current account imbalances that the monetary union tends to exacerbate. Not even the mainstream media , or the most internationally influential business press , seem to be able to connect with EU institutions and leaders to make them respond to the abundant ideological, theoretical and moral critique against the neoliberal crisis policies. In this way the absence of the practices of representation and public accountability that would connect the European civil society to the European political institutions concretely harms the ability of the institutions to formulate policies that would get the EU out of the economic crisis.

A public European democracy in the making?

Nevertheless, we can also discern in the public debates on the euro crisis some positive elements that could hint at the development of more democratic European practices and institutions. On the one hand, as the debt crisis is not only having dramatic social consequences in countries most directly affected and but also seems to lead to prolonged economic recession everywhere in Europe, the inconsistencies in the elite narrative about the roots and solutions to the problem become more and more pronounced. In these circumstances, even the mainstream media may start to exhibit increased scepticism about the austerity programmes and to offer more space to alternative policy proposals.

Secondly, the apparent failure of the market-driven European integration project should encourage the further development of alternative European projects that could be shared transnationally. Both European civil society and political institutions can develop new forms of transnational connections and integration. Already the left and social democratic parties are trying to come up with shared programs and construct political alternatives to the current neoliberal crisis policies, addressing many of the concerns and critiques elaborated in the civil society and drawing on the analyses of post-Keynesian economists.

Thus it may be that the critique formulated by civil society and presented in the public sphere eventually does get channelled through the European political institutions. Arguably we can already observe traces of an indirect response to critiques in some of the recent political proposals and rhetoric by the eurozone leaders, the introduction of the financial transaction tax being the primary example, with the perfunctory ‘crackdown’ on tax havens being another. Both of these issues have been, of course, campaigned for by European NGOs for many years. As regards macroeconomic policy, we could also interpret the recent unorthodox bond-market operations by the ECB as a response to the increasing criticism that both heterodox economists and some mainstream economists have levelled against the central bank's role in the management of the euro crisis. The problem with these seemingly ad-hoc policy-shifts by the central eurozone powers is, of course, that they have not resulted from an open public deliberation and a democratic political process.

It is possible that with growing media recognition and public scrutiny, European integration, which seems to continue despite the crisis and indeed as a response to it, leads to the emergence of a more transparent and publicly oriented European power centre. The European Commission, with extended fiscal powers, and the ECB, with a renewed mandate, could emerge as the main transnational power centres that would be the targets of public scrutiny and critique while enjoying the capacity to respond to European public opinion formulated by the civil society. In this federal vision, the establishment of truly integrated European political parties with clearly alternative political agendas, could be the key mechanism of channelling the public critique and political demands of the European civil society to the decision-making process through a newly empowered European Parliament.

But even without such constitutional changes in the powers and responsibilities of the EU institutions, it should be recognised that the institutions and practices of transnational politics and governance already exist in Europe. What is now needed is to integrate the democratic element to these processes. This requires the realisation of the public dimension of power: institutionalised ways of presenting critique, public arenas of political conflict, and institutions responsible for channelling these debates into the exercise of power. The construction of democratic legitimacy through a functional transnational public sphere would also mean a move from unofficial governance to institutionalised government

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