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