By Linda Piersma
Ever since the EU was diagnosed with a so-called ‘democratic deficit’, it has attempted to close the gap between the European elite and its citizens. At first, its communication policies were directed at providing information and ‘educating’ the public about Europe. However, since the mid-2000s, the EU has committed itself (in theory at least) to the idea of a true European public sphere involving genuine dialogue with its citizens. Via its ‘Europe for Citizens Programme’ (EfCP), the EU now supports various external projects to stimulate this two-way relationship.
A case in point is ‘Debating Europe’, a website created by the organization Friends of Europe, which seeks to stimulate a direct conversation between European citizens and their supranational politicians by connecting them on their online platform. Several of its debates are funded by the EfCP and citizens can engage in these debates by sending in questions or posting comments. Debating Europe then takes these questions to certain ‘European leaders’ like MEPs, policy-makers, academic experts or NGOs to have them respond. However, does Debating Europe actually succeed in its objective of encouraging honest debate and bringing together European leaders and their citizens? How is the interactive process shaped by all these actors?
Although research on the European public sphere has come a long way since the original Habermasian understanding of the term, I argue that the interaction between all these different actors asks for an approach that integrates both bottom-up and top-down perspectives. Especially in current-day digital society, traditional media, political actors and citizens are all involved in the online “production, distribution, consumption and discussion of political content on issues of societal relevance.” By understanding the European public sphere as a network of online and offline meaning-making, it becomes possible to see the intersections between EU policies, transnational media discourses and citizens’ practices.
Using a combination of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and interaction analysis, I have analyzed various policy documents of the EfCP, as well as the design and workings of Debating Europe to understand the socio-political and online context in which the interactive processes take place (read more here). Moreover, one co-funded debate on Hungarian fence-building (and whether other countries should follow Hungary’s example) has been analyzed in-depth.
The analysis reveals the different ways actors are involved in this online sphere. The EU often uses “persuasive communication”, intended to convince the European people of its value and importance. In the EfCP priorities of 2016, for example, the European Commission encouraged applicants to “explain the benefits of EU policies, acknowledge difficulties met and challenges ahead, as well as to put forward EU achievements and the cost of no Europe.” Although Debating Europe is officially ‘editorially independent’, it does have to specify how it intends to contribute to such EfCP objectives in order to receive the funding. In other words, the policy framework indirectly sets certain standards for the discussion process on the platform.
At the same time, Debating Europe facilitates a relatively open discussion in its comment section and allows for various opinions of European leaders to be represented on its website. Less positive, however, is how Debating Europe selects comments of previous debates (sometimes from more than two years ago) for European leaders to respond to, in order to construct a particular narrative in its introductory text. With regard to the debate on Hungarian fencing, for example, Debating Europe constructs the issue as mainly concerning questions of effectiveness and historical morality. Yet, many citizens tend to associate fencing with questions of national sovereignty and the prevention of illegal migration. The European leaders do not get a chance to respond to their public directly and therefore they engage little with such opinions and concerns about the topic. Notwithstanding the fact that Debating Europe does give a platform to different viewpoints, open dialogue between European leaders and citizens is severely hampered.
Moreover, most of the comments published on Debating Europe actually stem from their Facebook page and are subsequently (without a proper heads-up) transferred to the website. Before publication, every comment is also ‘awaiting moderation’, a process that often takes up at least a day. This means that most debates do not even take place on the website, but rather in the comment section on Facebook. Even though this might positively affect the outreach and intensity of the debate, it could foster further separation between citizens’ and leaders’ discourses.
These findings are relevant to the study of the European public sphere as it shows the importance of understanding the way the socio-political and online context shape discursive processes and affect the possibility for open and inclusive dialogue. It also conveys how certain actors are in a more influential position to affect discourses than others, which raises important questions with regard to EU policies and the way it uses intermediate structures to enhance its own legitimacy. This one-way process of persuasive communication is especially troublesome as it prevents a real consideration of the issues that European citizens worry about.
Since populism and Euroscepticism are on the rise, it is important to start an honest conversation with European citizens rather than only speaking against them.
 Asimina Michailidou, “Vertical Europeanisation of Online Public Dialogue: EU Public Communication Policy and Online Implementation,” in Mapping the European Public Sphere: Institutions, Media and Civil Society, ed. Cristiano Bee and Emanuela Bozzini (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010), 65, 70, 81.
 “Europe for Citizens,” EACEA (website), European Commission, accessed February 25, 2018, https://eacea.ec.europa.eu/europe-for-citizens_en.
 “Welcome to Debating Europe – The Platform that Lets You Discuss Your Ideas YOUR Ideas with Europe’s Leaders,” Debating Europe (website), accessed February 25, 2018, http://www.debatingeurope.eu/about/.
 Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991), accessed February 28, 2018, http://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/courses_readings/phil123-net/publicness/ habermas_structural_trans_pub_sphere.pdf.
 Dennis Nguyen, “Analysing Transnational Web Spheres: The European Example During the Eurozone Crisis,” in The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere: Conflict, Migration, Crisis and Culture in Digital Networks, ed. Athina Karatzogianni, Dennis Nguyen and Elisa Serafinelli (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 213-214.
 Hannu Nieminen, “Social Networks and the European Public Sphere,” in Media, Democracy and European Culture, ed. Peter Madsen and Ib Bondebjerg (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2008), 66.
 Jo Angouri and Ruth Wodak, “‘They Became Big in the Shadow of the Crisis’. The Greek Success Story and the Rise of the Far Right,” Discourse & Society 25, no.4 (2014): 542.
 Michael Brüggemann, “Information Policy and the Public Sphere: EU Communications and the Promises of Dialogue and Transparency,” Javnost 17, no.1 (April 2010): 63-64, 68.
 However, as is explained in the paper, Debating Europe does foster more direct debate in so-called ‘student-led debates’ as well as in live discussion fora.
 On the role of power in the public sphere, see: Chantal Mouffe, “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism,” Political Science Series Working Paper 72 (2000): 13-14, accessed April 14, 2018, https://www.ihs.ac.at/publications/pol/pw_72.pdf. And: Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” Social Text, no.25/26 (1990): 67.
Featured picture credit: Dresden, by Rick.
This article was written as part of a series; it is based on a paper written by the author within the framework of the Euroculture Intensive Programme, held in Krakow in June 2018. To read more about the IP 2018 and its theme “Where is Europe?”, click here.
Main sources used for the article:
Angouri, Jo, and Ruth Wodak. “‘They Became Big in the Shadow of the Crisis’.
The Greek Success Story and the Rise of the Far Right.” Discourse & Society 25, no.4 (2014): 540-565.
Bee, Cristiano, and Emanuela Bozzini, ed. Mapping the European Public
Sphere: Institutions, Media and Civil Society. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010.
Brüggemann, Michael. “How the EU Constructs the European Public Sphere:
Seven Strategies of Information Policy.” Javnost 12, no.2 (June 2005): 57-73.
——– “Information Policy and the Public Sphere: EU Communications and the
Promises of Dialogue and Transparency.” Javnost 17, no.1 (April 2010): 5-21.
Debating Europe (website). http://www.debatingeurope.eu/.
European Commission (website). https://ec.europa.eu/commission/index_en.
Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy.” Social Text, no.25/26 (1990): 56-80.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.
Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991. http://pages.uoregon.edu/koopman/ courses_readings/phil123-net/publicness/habermas_structural_trans _pub_sphere.pdf.
Madsen, Peter, and Ib Bondebjerg, ed. Media, Democracy and European Culture. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2008.
Mouffe, Chantal. “Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism.” Political Science Series Working Paper 72 (2000): 1-17. Accessed April 14, 2018, https://www.ihs.ac.at/ publications/pol/pw_72.pdf.
Nguyen, Dennis. “Analysing Transnational Web Spheres: The European Example During the Eurozone Crisis.” In The Digital Transformation of the Public Sphere: Conflict, Migration, Crisis and Culture in Digital Networks, ed. Athina Karatzogianni, Dennis Nguyen, and Elisa Serafinelli, 211-233. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.