European political soap (Editorial, Polarities/Focus, 10 April 2001)

Editorial by Tapani Lausti

What does it mean to be European, a citizen of an EU country? We talk a lot about European values, often in a way that makes us none the wiser. Is there a European political consciousness? One interesting attempt to think about these questions was a recent column by Michael Prowse in the Financial Times ("Political soaps that keep Europe divided", 20-21 January 2001). I am still struggling with the conflict of positive and negative reactions to his ideas.

Prowse wrote: "For the EU to have the powerful sense of unity of the typical nation state, its people would have to participate in the same political soap. Ideally, an integrated media based in Brussels and Strasbourg would transmit the same basic script to all parts of the EU, just as a unified US press core centred in Washington DC services the collective American psyche."

My initial reaction to Prowse's suggestion was confusion. Somehow what he was saying seemed to make sense. Yet, I could not rid myself of the immediate unease about his line of argument. Is the "shared political consciousness" he recommends really worth aiming for? Well, yes, clearly the various national political cultures need a lot of interaction in order to create a feeling of European togetherness. And, yes, probably citizens of the EU countries must be aware of some kind of common "political narrative".

Perhaps it is that Prowse and I think differently about political narrative and political consciousness. I dislike the no-alternative school of thought which now seems to permeate the pages of almost every newspaper in Europe (and probably much of the rest of the world). I believe there are arguments to be argued, ideas to be debated and conclusions to be contested in all aspects of politics. My daydream is of a Europe of heated political debates where nothing is taken for granted. There shouldn't be a single political narrative even in one country, not to speak of the EU. And I am not speaking of narratives in a postmodernistic, relativistic sense. I am talking about the courage to contest the "reality" as defined by people with power, whether governmental or corporate.

Indeed, one part of Prowse's column which made me shudder was where he wrote: "The journalists get their news from the same or similar sources and interact a great deal, not just with policymakers but also with each other. As a result, a continous political narrative is constructed that runs through the heads (to a greater or lesser degree) of all British citizens."

Whew! No wonder much of political journalism is so boring. Seriously speaking, I can understand that it is a good thing that all citizens have access to reports of what is going on in the heights of political decision-making. And probably Prowse doesn't disagree with me when I say that all this information needs to be analytically challenged down to the last detail. My fear is that in the current pretended political consensus much important debate is not allowed to take place. It is seen as irrelevant. Globalisation is seen as dictating a certain kind of politics which us mere humans must not challenge.

This culture of political powerlessness harms European integration as well. Being a European is a mixed experience these days. I have simultaneously warm feelings for the integration process and deep suspicions about how it is being carried out. I worry about the lack of meaningful fora for real free debate by European citizens. I dislike the bureaucratic attitude of many Brussels officials. The EU Ombudsman Jacob Söderman has been warning against the culture of secrecy in the EU corridors of power. Heidi Hautala, MEP, has been waging a courageous battle against the lack of openness in EU decision-making.

Let me add one more worry. In the European political narrative, large nations have a huge advantage over small member states. In conversations with many Britons I have come across deep indifference to the experience of smaller nations. These countries have limited channels to get their analyses over to a larger European debate. In Finland, many people were positively surprised when Anthony Giddens bothered to answer Erkki Tuomioja's (currently Finland's Foreign Minister) criticism of the Third Way. Small mercies are gratefully received.

Giddens's readiness to engage in argument with somebody from a "lesser nation" created a pleasant contrast to an experience which I had in an Oxford seminar. A prominent British diplomat ridiculed some "silly ideas" of "an insignificant foreign minister" of "an insignificant small country" (not Finland). The ideas may have been silly (I don't know) but the pleasure which the diplomat of a major European country obviously drew from ridiculing a small country left me uneasy. So did the chuckles from a mainly British and American audience.

10 April 2001

 

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