European Union Public Sphere
Since its inception, the European Union has struggled to effectively communicate with the public, resulting in a number of embarrassing setbacks and delays in regards to meeting certain goals and convincing the European public at large to support the Union. These failures were rightly viewed with some alarm in Brussels, and the European Commission set about attempting to outline and implement an effective communication policy that would foster the development of a robust, transnational public sphere, a possibility that has actually become less and less likely “with the rise of particular interests at the expense of concern for the general good, as well as the deterioration of rational public discourse about public affairs,” problems which have only been exacerbated and magnified by the recent financial turmoil threatening to disrupt or even sever the frail bonds holding the European Union together (Calhoun, 2002, p. 393). Only by examining the main challenges for those attempting to formulate the European Union’s information and communication policy, the origin of these challenges, and some possible solutions for overcoming them is one able to see any possible path for the establishment of a robust public sphere in which residents of Europe can productively discuss transnational public policy.
The Main Challenges: Public Apathy and Official Ignorance
The main challenges which must be surmounted by European information and communication policy if it seeks to foster any kind of useful or productive sphere are closely intertwined and solving one will undoubtedly help to overcome the other. On the most basic level, the European Union’s lack of an effective public sphere is due to apathy on the part of the European public, which has largely shown itself to be disinterested in the discussion of transnational policy even as “evidence suggests that there is an underlying conviction amongst European citizens that our societies can only tackle today’s challenges by working on a European scale” (Commission of the European Communities, 2007, p. 3). This paradox reveals that public apathy, while a challenge, ultimately stems not from a wholesale disinterest in the details of public policy, but rather a belief that public discourse is in the end fruitless in the face of institutionalized problems. Thus, while this apparent apathy towards engaging in a robust public discourse is the literal, direct cause for the lack of a European Union public sphere, one must look further to uncover the reasons for this apathy, because the disconnect between a lack of public discussion regarding transnational governance even as the European public expresses a general belief in its necessity suggests that there is more going on in this equation that mere public apathy.
Thus, the second main challenge, and arguably the more difficult to overcome, has been the European Union’s own response to this apathy and disinterest, largely due to the tendency for those in power to look for structural problems everywhere except in a mirror. One of the first major attempts to counter “a growing alienation among local elites and masses within member states” was the year-long Convention on the Future of Europe, and represented “a double failure” on the part of the European Union’s leaders due to the fact that “its procedure (the convention’s working groups and plenary sessions) remained a secluded domain of EU-centric ministers, diplomats, lobbyists, journalists, and experts” (Koopmans & Statham, 2010, p. 13). Essentially, the Convention attracted precisely those individuals and groups whose opinion and support was entirely unnecessary for the creation of a European public sphere, and managed to undermine itself completely by failing to “bring in societal actors, such as political parties, social movements, and public policy advocacy networks,” resulting in an embarrassing and telling rejection of the new treaty formulated there “by angry French and Dutch referendum voters in the middle of 2005” (p. 13-14). Thus, while public apathy is the obvious cause of Europe’s “public sphere deficit,” this apathy is created and encouraged by the European Union itself.
The Roots of These Challenges: Condescension and Intransigence in the Face of Public Resistance
This kind of failure on the part of EU leadership has been the central facet of much of the European Union’s attempts at promoting European integration and discussion, and a look at the Commission’s 2007 report on communication policy reveals that few, if any, lessons were actually learned from 2005 (even if cosmetic appeals towards “going local” and “empowering citizens” were made). Furthermore, examining the Commission’s reformulated communication policy helps to uncover the roots of the central challenges faced in attempting to foster a European public sphere, because the Commission reveals, in its almost laughably obtuse response to public dissatisfaction, the pervasive cultural biases and ignorance that permeates all upper echelons of power and prohibits leaders from effectively responding to public opinion.
Despite the fact that the “rejections of the Constitutional Treaty in referenda by citizens of two founder members [â€¦] marked a watershed, indicating that integration could no longer advance without popular consent,” the Commission’s response was not to suggest a fundamental reevaluation as to the ways in which policy is debated and decided, but rather to argue that the problem lies with the public and its understanding of the European Union in general (Fossum & Schlesinger, 2007, p. 110). In effect, the Commission argued that public was not unhappy with the process of policy formation, but rather that it simply did not understand it. Thus, the Commission claimed that its new communication policy would “address fundamental concerns of citizens, for whom the information on the EU seems disorganized, disperse and difficult to understand,” due to the fact that, according to the Commission, “citizen’s knowledge of the EU, its institutions and policies is rather limited” (Commission of the European Communities, 2007, p. 4). Demonstrating the sometimes amazing intransigence of those in power when faced with very real evidence of public disapproval, the Commission took the wrong lesson from the 2005 referenda defeats by fooling itself into believing that the Constitutional Treaty was rejected not by voters unhappy with its contents or the process by which it was formulated, but rather by voters who just did not know that much about the European Union in general.
Thus, the Commission’s plans for improving its communication and information policy largely avoids attempting to learn from the public, and instead focuses on “educating” the European public about the EU, a solution wholly predicated on the assumption that everyone would support and appreciate the European Union and the Commission so long as they were properly informed as to why they should (by the Commission itself) (Commission of the European Communities, 2007, p. 6-7). Despite the repeated mentions of a “debate” in the Commission’s communication paper, the Commission condescendingly proposes that this debate is not occurring due to citizens’ intellectual failures, when in fact “the debate” had been going on for some time, just not on the terms the Commission desired.
Even the Commission’s section specifically titled “Developing a European Public Sphere” makes no mention of actually including or even acknowledging public opinions except as an afterthought via using “surveys more strategically in relevant phases of the policy process,” with the majority of the focus, once again, being the dissemination of Commission-approved information (Commission of the European Communities, 2007, p. 12). The Commission seems entirely disinterested in fostering any kind of public sphere that might lead to open criticism of the structural problems inherent in the EU and its executive branch, so one must necessarily view any of the avenues for public response, such as opinion polls or “the standard website for consultations ‘Your Voice in Europe,'” as a means of containing and modulating the public discourse surrounding European policy and governance. Thus, while it may be a step too far to accuse the Commission of intentionally hobbling the European public sphere as a means of retaining control over policy (a plan that would backfire anyways, as the 2005 referenda demonstrate), one may at least observe that the Commission’s communication policy has had this effect, whether intentional or not.
Overcoming these Challenges through Acknowledgment of Dissatisfaction and a Focus on Discourse over Debate
As previously mentioned, the Commission’s attempts at combating public dissatisfaction and apathy towards European policy development have largely failed, based as they are on the assumption that the public is simply too ill-informed to appreciate the great work done by the Commission. Instead, what is needed is a fundamental reimagining of the role of the public, starting with an acknowledgment of public dissatisfaction with EU procedures and structures. Thus, the first step in fostering a useful public sphere (and not a kind of pseudo-public one constrained by the ideological parameters set by the Commission) is an acknowledgment that the true legitimacy of the EU comes not from the official structures or organizations, but rather “the dynamic interplay between governing institutions and those who are governed or feel subjectively affected by governance” (Trenz & Eder, 2004, p. 7). Recognizing this legitimizes the concerns of citizens and places the consent of the governed as the central organizing factor, resulting in greater personal investment for those citizens who previously felt disconnected from the everyday governance of the EU.
Secondly, a more fundamental reimagining of the public sphere as a concept will undoubtedly help to dismantle some of the destructive and disruptive assumptions governing the Commission’s response to public dissatisfaction. By focusing on “debate” as the central tenet of a healthy public sphere, the European Union’s leadership is able to avoid facing any real public criticism, because that criticism may be treated as an illegitimate and uninformed debate position by the ruling authority. Thus, a “change in perspective from the ‘public sphere’ to, respectively, ‘public discourse'” forces both ruled and rulers to discuss the formulation of policy on equal footing, because one side is not able to dictate what does and does not constitute a reasonable position (Steeg, 2002, p. 508). As can be seen in the Commission’s discussion of its communication policy, the concept of “debate” in the public sphere functions as a kind of distraction from the actual concerns of the public, so by refocusing attention instead on public discourse as a whole, the European community would be better able to give voice to an abundance of opinions, and not just those held by the kind of people likely to be invited to EU brainstorming sessions.
The key problem forestalling the creation of a robust European public sphere is governmental intransigence on the part of European Union officials, who seem committed to ignoring the stated desires of European citizens and instead assume that anyone who is dissatisfied is merely misinformed. In turn, this breeds apathy and disinterest on the part of the citizenry, thus instigating a vicious circle. Solutions to this problem and the challenges created by it involve an acknowledgment of the very real policy differences people have and a focus on involving the whole of the ideological spectrum when determining EU policy, and not just those actors which have been approved by the Commission as a result of their safe, noncritical positions on the structure of the EU itself.
The greatest difficult in writing this essay stemmed not from finding sources of information and criticism, as there were plenty (which is reasonable, considering just how many people this issue effects on a regular basis), but with attempting to elucidate and uncover the motivations and tactics of the European Union’s leadership in their formulations of information and communication policy. Put another way, because the European Union, and particularly the Commission, is so adept at generating the appearance and tone of introspection and thoughtful consideration of public opinion, one is almost lulled into complacency by the repeated references to “empowerment” and local initiatives. It was only upon comparing the Commission’s response to the reality of public sentiment towards it, and the EU in general, did it become clear that the majority of the Commission’s communications and information policy functions not to facilitate communication between the EU and citizens, or between citizens and each other, but rather to dictate the terms of the larger discussion such that no communication is possible that does not implicitly justify the continued existence of the EU and the Commission in its current form, including and structural or cultural problems which keep it from effectively gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
Calhoun, C. (2002). Dictionary of the social sciences. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Commission of the European Communities, (2007). Communicating europe in partnership.
Brussels: Retrieved from http://eur-
Fossum, J., & Schlesinger, P. (2007). The european union and the public sphere: a communicative space in the making?. New York: Routledge.
Koopmans, R., & Statham, P. (2010). The making of a european public sphere: media discourse and political contention. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Trenz, H., & Eder, K. (2004). The democratizing dynamics of a european public sphere towards a theory of democratic functionalism. European Journal of Social Theory, 7(1), 5-25.
van de Steeg, M. (2002). Rethinking the conditions for a public sphere in the european union.
European Journal of Social Theory, 5(4),: 499 — 519.
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