After reading recent posts by Martin Westlake and Julien Frisch I actually remembered a post on “EU debates” that I wrote a couple of months ago but somehow forgot to publish. It is rather an exploratory post, very general and patchy and open to new ideas. I want to look at the nature of EU debates without getting into any ideological debate. And after writing this blog for almost 2 years, I think there are numerous problems of debating EU issues online as well as in the “real world”. Here some reasons and possible solutions:
However, to put it into context of the debate, let’s look at the main argument of Julien Frisch who thinks rightly that “The problem of European political communication is that it is not filling our attention on a daily basis because it focuses on the wrong notion of “importance”. Of course it is debatable whether importance as such exists or whether it is a construct of the media/society. So if we accept the latter we should ask ourselves why EU debates are generally constructed as not being inportant?
1. facts vs. myths
Every EU debate at some point touches the issue of EU myths. What does this tell us about the quality of the debate? The fact-myth problem in debating the EU is a time consuming one with two implications: (1) it only reinforces the ideological standpoint of the reader and the commentator; and (2) people tend to forget about the real issues at stake. This shows that something is missing. I would suggest it has something to do with education. Interestingly, not many “national” legislative myths do exist (at least I tend to believe that, but I could be wrong about that…)
2. facts vs. oversimplification
Closely connected to myths is the tendency to oversimplify EU issues. One example is the notoriously used “Brussels wants…” phrase. But also the battle motive is very popular: Head of state 1 vs. Head of state 2. It is very handy to forget that different actors (Commission, Parliament, national ministers, lobbyists, NGOs,…) are involved in the decision making procedure. The European Parliament has a similar problem, citizens do not link their MEPs (in case they know them!) with any EU policies.
Another tendency is a kind of ‘conspiracy component’. Lots of people conveniently buy into some sort of conspiracy theory when it comes to EU institutions. I want to emphasize two points: (1) In every political structure there needs to be a certain degree of secrecy in order for the system to function. (2) The institutional setting of the EU is quite complicated and, yes, the EU is a huge bureaucracy.
The result of overlooking both aspect leads to the perception that the EU is a huge “anti- democratic conspiracy” and lots of people also tend to believe that there is some sort of masterplan somewhere behind closed doors. I do not want to deny that there are indeed problems regarding democratic accountability in the EU but people tend to forget where they actually come from… Paradoxically, both points are also interconnected: If the EU acts not coherently (because of its institutional setting) it rightly gets criticized. But if the EU tries to coordinate policies and approaches (similar to the coordination between national ministries) it gets accused of too much secrecy and not enough transparency. I do not want to defend deals behind closed doors but it is rather difficult to streamline positions of 27 member states (including internal disagreements between ministries!), several European Commission DGs as well as the necessity to deal with lobbyists and other organizations that all want to have a say in EU policy making!
3.institutions vs. policy
Every EU debate at some point turns to the legitimacy question of EU institutions. Of course this is important for any future development of the EU and it also shows that EU institutions are far from being perfect. At the same time, the debate about policy content is missing. Public debates never discuss policy options at an early stage.
4. General popular apathy.
Ok, this is a topic on its own. However, the majority of European citizens seem neither very enthusiastic nor concerned about the EU. They simply do not care about the EU because it is not something one can easily relate to, it is too far away from every day life and it is really boring (that is how it is perceived). Even the European success stories (generally related to the “four freedoms”) are usually taken for granted. I am not very optimistic here, probably this is not gonna change any time soon…
I my opinion EU debates take place too late. Especially national media only reports about EU initiatives after their adoption in the Council, or more accurately, in that moment the national parliament debates it. The debate needs to start earlier in order to have any impact on proposals. I think two major reforms should take place:
1. It is still cumbersome for non-experts to monitor the EU decision making process. Especially the internet and new online tools have the potential to make it easier to monitor and control EU decision making processes. Even though the europa.eu portal contains most of the information, it needs a serious relaunch. A new EU portal needs to be transparent, with a focus on policy processes that makes it easy to follow documents, combined with some interactive elements.
2. Education seems to be the key. Topics such as EU institutions and decision-making procedures need to be integrated in all school curricula as a core element at an early stage. Also national newspapers and TV stations should find ways to integrate EU news in their daily news coverage.
3. The European Parliament or better MEPs individually need to strengthen their relations with national parliaments/MPs. At the same time, national parliaments should be encouraged to engage more with ‘Brussels’ in order not to be surprised in the end… Needless to say that a lot of MEPs should step up their efforts to communicate with their constituency.
4. Further institutional reform (even though that is neither on the agenda nor very popular these days…) that addresses legitimacy, accountability and efficiency issues.
5. Better politicians for Europe! Although some improvements have been made in the last couple of years, there is still a tendency that Brussels/Strassbourg is seen as a retirement posting. However, it is a good sign that lately MEP and Commissioners were appointed national ministers!