Hagerman on the need for a virtual European salon

In February Maja Hagerman published an article in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter (available online here), which then was translated for the multilingual website Presseurop.  This short writing, in its English version entitled “When will there be a virtual European salon?”, criticises the lack of EU-wide public debate. The original Swedish title is even harsher: Utan samtal ingen demokrati, which means “without a dialogue there is no democracy”.

In her article Hagerman emphasises the media’s role in promoting democracy and the need for a discussion salon for the European citizens. She argues that one hundred and fifty years ago there were no democratic countries in Europe but it has changed over time since there was a long period of sustained pressure for change. The pressure came from books, newspapers, culture and trade unions. This opened the door for participation in politics and a debate in the public sphere. The free press shaped the ideas of a new society and parallels can be drawn to the modern technology of today. A concrete and recent example for the internet’s impact is the Arab Spring started with (online) debate among people.

Hagerman wonders how these new channels of communication affect the European Union. The example she examines is that of the euro.  If the EU wants to have a common currency it needs strong central governance, new rules are constantly being introduced, but there seems to be a lack of discussion that brings the European people together. Most of the news that concerns the EU present failures and mistrust. European citizens are influenced by their national media and there is still no European opinion magazine. She argues that there can not be a true democracy without discussion and unity among the citizens.

Hagerman, however, uses also a quite controversial argument that may be contested. She states that there is a lack of a common European story about Europe as a continent, and European history is confined to ethnicity and nationality. According to her even in the Scandinavian region there are differences, as for example Swedish and Danish art history or music differ from each other. She does not take into consideration that culture can be spread and spreads across borders. However, it is true that nationalism has awakened in Europe and only the future will tell if there will be a Union with a broader debate concerning common European interests.

The people of Europe are not only citizens of their own countries they are, in fact, also citizens of the European Union. Since there is democracy in all the Member States, there is nothing prohibiting the citizens from discussing European politics and common interests. The opportunity to have a discussion on the Internet is endless. The problem seems to be that “average” people do not generally discuss European politics in the same way as national politics. European politics appears to be very distant from the people, the gap between the small citizen and the European Union seems to be huge. It can be a challenge for an average citizen to completely understand how the system works which can be problematic. People in Europe are aware of how democracy works on a national level, but it is much more complex on the EU level.

Hagerman argues in favour of the emergence of a public discussion beyond the institutions of the EU. The discussion among the citizens and the institutions are also crucial for a democratic organisation. She stresses the importance of the media which exercise actual power as they decide what the citizens shall learn and read about the European Union. She argues that the media gives mostly bad news, reports on “failures, an atmosphere of mistrust and the possibility of imminent catastrophe”. In fact, in a discussion salon citizens can not only promote their own opinions and interests but also get a better understanding of the European Union as a supranational organization and knowledge about the different interests in the different Member States.

Hagerman promotes a very integrated union, but we cannot overlook the fact that the European Union consists of different nation states and the Union itself is not a state. It is a supranational organisation dealing with cooperation among the Member States. The Constitutional Treaty never came into force since it was considered to be too far-reaching with symbols such as a flag and an anthem. This can be seen as a sign that the European citizens want to keep their own national identity. Even if cooperation between states is necessary in today’s global world the cultures are different and it has to be taken into consideration. On the other hand, the different national histories are also a part of our common European history. National histories give the history of Europe.

Hagerman is of the opinion that harmonisation should go even further but she is not taking into account that Europe is still diverse. This is also a matter of time and maybe in future the Member States will be more united. In this case the actual purpose of the European Union must develop into a new broader one, giving the citizens’ interests more consideration. One can ask what impact this development is going to have on the interests of the European Union, which after all represent the cornerstone of European integration. If the interests of the citizens will be taken into more consideration, how an eventual clash with the interests of the Union is going to be solved? However, this question goes beyond the limits of this post.

Concluding, there is a clear need for an increased Europe-wide debate in the public sphere. Its consequences, however, cannot be to reduce the national identities of the countries within the European Union.

by Amelie Edgren, Stina Haglund and Lina Olsson

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About eulaworebro

Örebro Universitet (Sweden)
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3 Responses to Hagerman on the need for a virtual European salon

  1. Marijela says:

    The Arab Spring is a good example that shows how the Internet has opened channels for communication and how it plays an important role in the instigation of change. Internet is here to stay and it is therefore clear that the Internet will have a big influence in the future too.
    It would however be foolish to expect and demand an instant change with regards to public debate in the EU. Hence, while it is true that democracy begins with public debate and that Article 2 TEU states that democracy is one of EU:s core values, it is important to keep in mind that the European Union is a supra-national organisation which has to be given time to find a solution to this paradox. Hence, democracy works differently at the national respectively the supra-national level, and the most effective solution to this problem has to be found in order to solve it.

    It is not questionable whether public debate and a more democraticised Union is needed, because it will established more trust and bring the people closer to the EU. It is furthermore important for citizens, who are affected by the decisions taken at EU level, to understand the EU system and the reasoning behind the decisions. They, i.e. the citizens, should have the right to influence decisions that affect them. As it is now the Union is quite distanced from the citizens, and a change is needed and if a “virtual European salon” can help to bring about change I do not see why it should not be used. Hence, it will bring EU citizens closer to one another and it will bring about understanding on different EU matters etc.

    As Hagerman however pointed out in her article there were no democratic countries in Europe 150 years ago but that it changed over time due to a long period of sustained pressure for change. I strongly believe that change will come but that it will take time, because nothing happens over one night.

  2. Josefin says:

    It is hard to really get what the author of the article really is suggesting. I do agree with the opinion that public discussion between citizens and the institution of the Union is important, but as I see it, it already is in place. Public, international discussions about politics and EU is easily accessed on the internet and you can find blogposts written by people working within the institutions discussing all kinds of questions regarding the Union. The problem is more the lack of knowledge, and interest, about the EU among the general public. A “virtual salon” where discussions, opinions and thoughts are shared does not automatically mean that there will be a greater understanding about the function of the Union. Most likely it will still be only a smaller group with a great interest in matters regarding the Union and it will not reach out to “everybody”.

    The problem is that the Union feels to far away from the people, the media reporting mostly about failures and mistrust and the system itself is difficult to understand and relate to. It gives the impression that EU is an organisation which is only taking power away from the states and making decisions that people get a negative feeling about. This would be solved with information, discussion and participation, but I am not sure that the virtual salon is the right way. Instead the responsibility lays on the member states to make sure that matters regarding the Union is discussed in a public way and that the citizens get the information and education they need to have a chance to take an active part in the discussions. I do agree that discussion is a key feature in a democracy, but in order to give everybody a chance to be a part in this discussion, you need education.

  3. CL says:

    The European creation is primarily a commitment after war for the rebuild. Gradually political and economic agreements have also seen the day with the purpose of creating an entity capable of competing with the United States. Only after some time that European citizen have stink enjoy the Community policies such as free movement of people, capital, services and products. Or the introduction of the euro currency.
    Today a national citizens may consider not to be sufficiently represented by a political party because “far” of the power of decision. In point of view European, the gap and lack of representativeness is even more striking. It’s probably from there that the lack of democracy and the lack of legitimacy arise. Citizens’ interest is taken into account through the interest of Member States that they are expressed in terms of benefits they see. This is why a total harmonization is not possible because nations don’t have the same desire.
    Indeed, governments and European institutions must know the concerns and policy changes they desire. This is done through conducting surveys, consultation of the websites and with the realization of conferences, inviting citizens to express themselves. Public opinion must be central to the debate. Concrete answers must be made to ensure that citizens have in mind what the EU is able to offer.

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