European Public Sphere: for the sake of democratic accountability and political effectiveness

, by Matteo Garavoglia

European Public Sphere: for the sake of democratic accountability and political effectiveness

Camillo Benso of Cavour, chief architect of 19th century Italian unification, once famously said that Italy been made, it was then time to unify the Italians. At the beginning of the 21st century his wishes have not been fulfilled yet: the flawed democracy embodied today by the Peninsula is partly a result of a very limited “sense of Italianess”, and civic consciousness, perceived by its citizens.

The European Union is today planting the seeds to experience similar difficulties over the decades: a pan-European economic and legislative framework is being rapidly set up without paying due attention to the development of a European demos that may provide a qualitative democratic substance to it. Europe is in the making, Europeans are not. Should we worry about this development? The answer is yes because of two fundamental reasons: democratic accountability and political effectiveness.

On democratic accountability

Democratic accountability is essentially the condition whereby, through a control process, certain political actors are bound to account for their behaviour to other social actors.

Democratic accountability is on the line in a system where citizens are not informed on the basic processes that shape legislative activity or on the actions and views promoted by individuals belonging to the socio-political and economic establishment. This situation is clearly the case in today’s Union. The citizens have an extremely limited understanding of the interaction between the executive and legislative process as it takes place within the institutional triangle formed by the Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament; they are also poorly informed on the positions held by key players of the pan-European socio-political establishment.

On political effectiveness in the legislative and executive processes

Political effectiveness in the legislative and executive processes consists in a situation whereby the modus operandi is generally conducive to the attainment of clearly stated policy objectives.

Political effectiveness is the first casualty, when democratic accountability is lacking. The pan-European ruling class feels more easily exempted from displaying a coherent and effective political action, both at the legislative and the executive level, and from reporting to the masses upon it. A case in point is the gross incoherence, and ineffectiveness, displayed by the Union in managing overseas development aid, whereby financing is dispersed between the Commission and twenty-five agencies pursuing narrow national interests. Such a situation is partially made possible by the fact that the European public as a whole is simply not aware of the problem, and is consequently not exerting the pressure that may lead to rectify it.

Lack of democratic accountability and poor political effectiveness in the legislative and executive processes are two features the Union cannot afford if we, European citizens, are to retain some significant degree of control over the socio-economic dynamics that will shape the world over the coming decades.

The European Public Sphere (EPS) as a tool

How to rectify the current situation? Through the development of a European Public Sphere (EPS). The European Public Sphere is the primary tool through which the current modus operandi can be modified. The development of the EPS essentially signifies the establishment of a multilayered framework or arena through which pan-European socio-political actors can interact and create the substance of a continental social, political, economic and cultural dialogue. The European Public Sphere is ultimately the “space” within which political discourses take place and contribute to the birth of a demos that is also European.

One fundamental point should now be stressed: the development of the EPS and the ensuing European demos is not intended to replace the existing national and regional public spheres. The European Public Sphere is an additional dimension, complementary and not substitutive to the existing ones. As much as the creation of a European Public Sphere is necessary in order to give substance to pan-European democracy and to the legislative and executive processes, so the protection and further enhancement of the national and local public spheres is necessary for the same reasons.

Where do we stand?

At the beginning of the 21st Century a European Public Sphere as such does not exist yet. Present are some of its features and its first seeds only. “Vertical elites” that existed for centuries within nation states are being progressively joined by a new pan-European “horizontal elite”. This is not necessarily (but very often is as well) a financial elite. The pan-European horizontal elite is primarily an educational and socio-cultural one whose main feature is the capacity of its members to “horizontally slide” from one vertical elite to the other. Belonging to none but being able to fit in all. As much as vertical elites are the result of ENA or Oxbridge training and a life spent primarily within a national and socio-cultural system, horizontal elites are the result of various years spent in gaining an education in a number of different countries, the speaking of a number of languages and the skills developed adapting to the insecurities brought forward from being continuously “culturally challenged”.

The European horizontal elite moves along “bridges” that exist between the older national vertical elites. Examples of these bridges can be the Erasmus programme, the Euronews television and internet channel, the extensive and continuous use of low-cost airlines on the Ryanair model, the Economist magazine, fluency in a number of languages that are all used on a regular basis, or, more informally, a network of acquaintances and friends across the continent. These features can all certainly be present in the lives and used by the vertical elites as well, but what distinguishes the horizontal elites from the vertical ones is both that the former, unlike the latter, do not belong to any specific national elite and yet can fit in all of them as well as the frequency with which these “bridges” are used.

...ultimately the existence of strong and thriving pan-European horizontal masses is the best insurance for substantial democratic accountability and political effectiveness in the legislative and executive processes.

The “bridges” across which horizontal elites can freely move do represent the nucleus of those features and elements that can contribute to the development of a European public sphere. If it is therefore possible to claim that the horizontal elite have access to a pan-European arena or framework through which a socio-political debate can be developed, not the same can be said about the European masses. These only have access to local and national public spheres but do not have the “bridges” through which become also horizontal pan-European ones.

The way forward: the EPS for the masses

If it is important to further strengthen and enhance the European public sphere for the benefit of the horizontal elite, even more pressing is the need to begin to develop those features that can contribute to the establishment of the EPS for the pan-European, horizontal masses that do not yet exist. Because ultimately the existence of strong and thriving pan-European horizontal masses is the best insurance for substantial democratic accountability and political effectiveness in the legislative and executive processes.

A number of programmes, political actions and processes can be put in place to start to provide the first “bridges” across which the national masses can begin to become also pan-European ones. Here is a brief list of possible examples: the joining of forces of parts of leading European newspapers when dealing with pan-European or global issues, the creation of pan-European tabloids, the establishment of a one-year compulsory high school exchange across the Union, the same process in the context of university education through compulsory Erasmus programmes, the facilitation of a vast-scale European Voluntary Service, the compulsory teaching of two additional languages on top of the native one from the beginning of primary school, the serious teaching of European civic values in schools and so on.

Some final considerations

Of course a number of these arrangements and programmes already exist. What is necessary is to seriously strengthen them (which means also to invest in them financially) or to promote some of them from scratch. It should not come as a surprise to notice that many of these proposals would be primarily directed at the younger generations in line with the need to have an “historical perspective” rather than a short-term one. It is also clear that these interventions would not all necessarily affect the whole of the European population and the masses across the continent and that a trickle down effect would be possible only through the decades.

And yet all these interventions would be useful in contributing to move forward from the nucleus of a EPS currently enjoyed only by the horizontal elite to a genuinely European Public Sphere also enjoyed by the masses. For the sake of democratic accountability and political effectiveness.


- Universal Humanity. Source: Flickr

Links of interest:

- What is a Public Sphere? From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

- Wallström in search of a ’European Public Sphere’. Article from Euractiv

- Koopmans, Ruud and Erbe, Jessica. Towards a European Public Sphere? Vertical and Horizontal Dimensions of Europeanised Political Communication. In Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (WZB). Berlin, November 2003. Source: WZB Library

- European Public Sphere(s): Uniting and Dividing. Research project of the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki. Source: Blog of the project


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