Creating a European space of debate: Cross-border debate on EU and domestic affairs

, by Kalojan Hoffmeister

Creating a European space of debate: Cross-border debate on EU and domestic affairs
© European Union 2017 - European Parliament

For European democracy to function properly, a public sphere is essential. Kalojan Hoffmeister, a student at the Humboldt European Law School, makes proposals for achieving a common space of debate. In the first part of his two-part article, he listed measures to ensure that European elections are truly an occasion for European debate. In the second part, he focuses on building Europe-wide debate outside election period.

You can find the first part of the article here.

Televised debate before each Council presidency

In order to involve citizens and create a sphere of debate, one should present European affairs in a more interesting way. In my opinion, many people enjoy watching politicians argue over something. Therefore, one needs to create platforms on which European politicians would have the chance to verbally fight and argue.

In 2014, Euronews organised the first-ever Spitzenkandidaten debate. At this televised debate, the Spitzenkandidaten – lead candidates – of the respective European political groups were able to face one another and debate. This was perceived as a milestone in bringing the elections closer to citizens. However, since this is a debate before every European election, such a debate will logically only take place every five years. Having a debate once every five years cannot be enough.

The annual State of the European Union address (SOTEU) held by the Commission President is in fact a very good initiative, introduced by the Lisbon Treaty and the Framework Agreement on relations between the European Parliament and the European Commission. It allows the President to speak about important European matters before the Parliament, making the political life of the Union more transparent.

It also gives the President the possibility to judge the current political situation of the Union and the world, to outline the Union’s reactions to challenges it faces and to emphasise political projects to come. This should in theory create a stronger link between “Brussels” and European citizens, as it would give some food for thought and give space for critical reactions to it. However, one cannot expect that citizens notice or even engage critically on this speech if (1) it takes place in the middle of a working day morning (the SOTEU of 13 September 2017 and of 12 September 2018 both took place on a Wednesday) and if (2) it is not being broadcast Europe-wide or (3) covered by European media during prime time.

Compared to public addresses of national leaders like Merkel or Macron, or even non-European heads of state like Barack Obama, the SOTEU address of the highest European servant – the Commission President – has experienced very little national media coverage. This needs to change. It is time for the national medias to take the Commission’s State of the Union address more seriously and to cover it during prime time. On the other hand, the Commission President should make an effort to deliver a fiery, citizen-friendly speech without using technocratic EU jargon.

Having these changes in mind, one can also think of new, more innovate formats: The current rotating system of EU presidency is politically extraordinary and unique. So why don’t we put a little more focus on that? Why don’t we introduce a televised political debate that takes place every six months, where the new Council presidency and the leaders of the political groups in the European Parliament can discuss and argue about the upcoming priorities. This political talk-show would be televised, live streamed on social media, giving especially young people the possibility to ask questions online and would also be covered by newspapers. It would of course need to be broadcast all across the continent.

If on the eve of a fiery European political televised debate newspapers report on it and most citizens on the continent are aware of different positions, then a true a European political discourse will have been created.

Of course, the new Council presidencies already appear in the Parliament plenary every six months, presenting their programs to MEPs. This is good and should be continued. Yet, how many citizens follow the plenary debate? Imagine broadcasting a TV show with high profile politicians from the member states and the European Parliament that are known to the European public, arguing with each other over European topics in front of the cameras. Such a new format will contribute to more transparency, more awareness and more political engagement in European affairs.

When it comes to implementation, there is no need to change the legal framework. The only thing needed is the presidencies’ political will and the willingness for media to organise this. Overall, this seems more than doable.

Cross-border debate on domestic affairs

In mid-2018, the German state of Bavaria introduced a new police law which gave police forces the right to intervene earlier than before. This change caused not only outrage in the state of Bavaria but also in many other parts of Germany, even though it concerned only the state of Bavaria. National and local media covered the issue. Though it was a state only law, many German and non-German citizens were aware of the issue and had taken a position on it.

Meanwhile, this February the Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio met with the leaders of the “gilets jaunes” movement. Following this particular meeting and numerous comments by the Italian government about the escalating situation on French streets, France recalled its ambassador to its neighbouring Member State on February 7. Overall diplomatic tensions between France and Italy were rising quickly. The French foreign ministry even issued a statement saying Italy’s attitude was “unacceptable” and “unprecedented” since World War II. Regardless of whether one does or does not approve of the Italian government’s positions, comments and provocations in that very particular case, one should acknowledge that in fact this is a step forward.

The interior policy of a country and Member State has so far been seen as part of the core of national sovereignty that forbids any meddling or comments on it from the exterior. However, such thinking in a common union is outdated. Home affairs affect European Affairs and European affairs have an impact on domestic affairs of other Member States. One might call it “indirect interaction”. Furthermore, commenting on each other’s policies helps create a cross-border debate.

National governments might find it unpleasant and inappropriate, but it is still of some importance to European citizens to know and discuss what their neighbour’s situation is and what their neighbouring citizens are going through. In fact, by opening this “armour of sovereignty” towards cross-border discussion on domestic affairs, citizens can be integrated into a pan-European discourse. Once they start taking up positions by themselves on certain subjects and start discussing, this cross-border discourse will grow by itself.

In an “ever closer Union” like our European Union, it should be normal to comment on each other’s internal affairs, given that our Union has become so much more than just an integrated common market. It is also a political project bringing its citizens closer to one another and in which its nation-states slowly but steadily grow together.

Believing in a completely isolated national armour guarding the interior national sovereignty is naïve. On the contrary, opening up towards European neighbours should be embraced and seen as a chance of creating a truly European and continental democracy.

Conclusion

A European public space of debate is essential for our beautiful union to work. It is crucial to forging stronger ties between European citizens. Only if Europeans understand what is going on in their union, only if Europeans jointly talk about the political problems that the continent is facing, only then will our union truly become one for its citizens.

We need citizens who can jointly discuss and decide in what direction they would like Europe to go. Even if the language aspect makes it harder, I still do believe that we have the technological facilities to overcome the language barrier. And besides, more and more young people learn foreign languages. If one takes a look at the numbers, in 2016, 94% of pupils in upper secondary education in the EU learnt English and 59% of students learnt two or more foreign languages at school. Overall one could say that in the future most Europeans will indeed find at least one common language to discuss in, which would make it even easier to have a common political discourse.

Finally, needless to say, it lies in our hands to take the necessary steps towards achieving a common European public space of debate. We should encourage politicians and policymakers to create the necessary instruments and formats, some of which are stated above. I personally hope that we will not miss the momentum we are living in right now. We must take action and prepare citizens for the challenges of the 21st century.

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