Successful European integration requires more than the implementation of efficient institutions and the harmonization of national and European policy making. It also involves processes of communication and the appearance of public sphere that allows citizens to get involved in public debates about European politics.
The idea of the public sphere can be traced back to ancient Greece. In ancient Greece, the polis-oikos division existed. Political life took place in the polis; the public sphere existed as a realm of discussion and common action. Citizens were free of productive labor, but their status depended on their role as the head of the oikos, or household. The Greek public sphere was the sphere of freedom and permanence, where distinction and excellence were possible. Nowadays we speak about a public sphere as a social area in which private citizens come together to discuss matters of common concern. In the public sphere a public opinion will eventually be formed.
A public sphere began to emerge in the 18th century through the growth of coffee houses, literary and other societies, voluntary associations, and the growth of the press. Public conversations continue to be most important medium for the development of public knowledge, values, interpretations and self-understanding for change and innovation. Mass media play an essential role in the process of creation of modern public sphere, citizens depend on the media’s information in order to establish their opinion and construct public discourses.
Debates on public spheres mostly concern whether the European Union has its own public sphere or not and whether it is possible to talk about a pan-European public sphere independent of individual states or a European public sphere as a result of the Europeanization of the national public spheres.
The growing interests in the EU might also be fostered precisely out of the lack of transparency and accountability of the system. Empirically, we observe that citizens today can find more discussions of EU matters in quality newspapers than 20 years ago following the increase of competencies of the EU.
According to the relevant authors, a pan-European public sphere requires the existence of a common language in which EU citizens can communicate with one another, the existence of mass media with EU-wide reach and the existence of uniform journalistic and media culture in all EU states.
A communicative space (or spaces) in which relatively unconstrained debate can take place is a vital ground for democracy. It has become increasingly relevant to discuss whether there could be a European public sphere. Traditionally, political theory and media theory have conceived of communicative spaces and public spheres in terms of what goes on inside nation states.
The introduction of EURO has introduced a symbol of Europeans into the everyday lives of a wide audience, and therefore the argument concerning the public’s detachment from European policies may no longer be as valid as it used to be.
Public Sphere and the media
The mass media are the institutionalised forum of debate. According to a Eurobarometer survey sixty-six per cent of the citizens in Europe get their political information from the media. So basically: voters are impressed and influenced by the media. At the same time the media - not only the European ones, the international, the national media as well - see the EU as a political identity, a political structure.
National media organizations devote rather limited resources to their news infrastructure in Brussels, and Brussels correspondents face tough competition with other foreign correspondents.
The media play an important role in the Europeanization of the public sphere, but news coverage is strongly bound to the national and international information sources and news-generating events, neglecting European politics.
So what now?
The existence of a pan-European public sphere is rejected by the majority of relevant authors. The public sphere remains an ideal, but it becomes a contingent product of the evolution of communicative action, rather than its basis. The public sphere is a precondition for realising popular sovereignty, because, in principle, it entitles everybody to speak without any limitations. The EU cannot continue its integration process without appealing to the consensus of its citizens. It is a must to link the institutional structure and decision-making process with active involvement, acceptance and legitimacy among citizens.
For example, when we talk about elections, we talk about candidates. At the moment we can see that the political parties in Europe have candidates and most of them manifestos – very good, very clever, full of excellent ideas - but there are not too many European faces, or personalities, who can promote these manifestos to the European voters. Maybe this is the weakness of the European system. Currently, European party groups cannot be considered as political parties, because the European Parliament elections are done at the national level, with a little bit of help from their Brussels-centre.
Maybe now is the time for Europe’s political leaders to start to think about the European elections in 2014. We need to have European leaders who can campaign for two or three years, similar to the American model. And why should we not take inspiration from our transatlantic neighbours? Voters will connect better with European politicians if we have leaders that can give a face to the campaign. And why not organise an internal competition within each European party group to determine its leadership? At least then the citizens will connect more with the European political dimension, and might even learn more about institutions and everything that goes on here in Brussels. But above all it would be wonderful to vote for a person rather than a party group, because by the time the voters are able to understand all the technical information involved, it will be too late.
Dr. Dan LUCA / Brussels