Getting Europeans to talk to each other
Published: 16 April 2009 17:39 | Changed: 16 April 2009 17:56
By Marc Leijendekker
If one newspaper is read in all European countries it is probably the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of The New York Times. In second and third place are the Financial Times and The Economist, both newspapers from a country that is only half heartedly a part of Europe.
Europe now has its own currency, central bank, parliament and court. As soon as the Lisbon Treaty comes into effect it will have a genuine president and a foreign minister. Yet, when it comes to getting information about Europe there is not a single transnational medium that Europeans can turn to.
There is no European newspaper that is read by Italians and Czechs alike, no single website where both Spaniards and Swedes go to get their news, no TV news programme that is broadcast to every living room in Europe at 8 p.m. A few German-speaking media, like Die Zeit or the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, do have some influence beyond their national borders. But there is no Europe-wide debate, not even in the run-up to the European elections in June.
Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan calls it the "European vacuum". There is no cross-border discussion, he says, no European marketplace of ideas. Even as contacts between European countries increase, Europe itself remains a mosaic. Each country has its own culture and its own public agenda.
There is no lack of attempts to change this situation. The internet is awash with websites that try to lift political or society debates to a European level. On Cafebabel, for instance, young Europeans are invited to discuss the European elections in six languages. But sites like these often focus on Europe as seen from Brussels. The same goes for EUobserver, Eurointelligence, European Voice (an Economist publication) and Europe&me.
"I think, if anything, we should get away from this Europe of conference rooms and institutions," says Gaby Mahlberg of Eurotopics. "Instead, we should be talking about the European growth process, the European public space, about the problems that transcend borders. How do people in other countries think about these problems?"
A European perspective
Every day, Eurotopics select fifteen articles from various European newspapers that are likely to be of interest to readers outside the country where they were published. The site provides a short summary in English, French, German and Spanish and links to the original article.
Its newsroom is in a slightly dilapidated building hidden away in an interior courtyard in East Berlin. "We want to offer a European perspective on the public debate," says Mahlberg. "It is exicting to see how much opinions on certain issues can vary from one country to the next."
Her colleagues agree. If you follow the news on Eurotopics, they say, you get a better idea of how important the democratic process is in certain East-European countries. Or that poverty among the elderly is a problem in many countries. Or you can find out about original solutions to universal problems: in Slovenia you can loose your driver's license if you don't pay your alimony.
Eurotopics is financed by the German government. The French foreign ministry used to have an interesting website, Idées de France, where French debates were translated into English to expose them to the rest of Europe. The experiment was abandoned because of disappointing results.
A few years back another site, signandsight, came close to realising the dream of a European platform. The site was linked to the German-language website Perlentaucher, which offers a weekly selection of articles from foreign publications. For a couple of weeks, French, German, British and Dutch intellectuals debated each other on signandsight about multicultural society. But the German foundation that bankrolled the initiative for three years has since withdrawn. "There is a lot less money to translate articles now," says Thierry Chervel, editor in chief of Perlentaucher and signandsight. "We have had to adjust our ambitions."
Greetje van den Bergh, the former president of the Taalunie, a transnational foundation promoting the Dutch language, is sceptical. "These are all well-meaning initiatives but they remain very marginal." Van den Bergh tried to put in place a permanent cultural exchange programme during the 2004 Dutch EU presidency but that idea failed too.
Van den Bergh says the only way genuine transnational debate is going to be generated in Europe is if a few large newspapers put their weight behind it. She points to the collaboration between the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, the German news weekly Der Spiegel and the Danish newspaper Politiken. The project, which combines English-language articles from all three partners, is still in its early stages but there are plans to expand the collaboration to other European newspapers. Van den Bergh: "If you can link international discussions on a website with the weight of publication in a leading newspaper, you have a real chance of creating cross-border debate with political meaning."
But De Swaan, the sociologist, doubts if there are enough people willing to join such a debate. "There are very few opportunities for intellectuals in the European marketplace," he says. "Most intellectuals make their living from universities or the media, and these usually have a national agenda."There is a European university in Florence, and there are prizes and awards, but it is all too little to make a difference. "There is no incentive to play an intellectual role at the European level," says De Swaan.
The Dutch publicist Paul Scheffer has tried to promote the exchange of thought-provoking articles within Europe. He knows from experience how difficult it is to transcend national borders. Scheffer's own controversial essay and book about multiculturalism was widely translated, but even this didn't lead to a European debate about the issue.
"You can be translated but this doesn't mean that you get to take part in the debate of another country. Writers will always have a bigger impact in their own linguistic area. Look at what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk wrote about genetics. It led to a huge debate in Germany, but not in the Netherlands or France despite the fact that we are faced with the same dilemmas."
Not everybody thinks this is necessarily a bad thing. Isn't Europe's force its diversity? Some people argue that it is precisely the differences between Europeans that allow for a much more nuanced world view than, say, the American one.
But Perlentaucher's Chervel says this should not be an excuse to debate the issues only at the national level or even lower. Europe faces challenges that are beyond the reach of the nation state: migration, climate change, energy policy, Europe's relation to Russia... "These things need to be discussed at the European level, and not just by 'professional Europeans' either," he says.
Language is an obvious handicap. In the corridors of Brussels, English is heard more and more often, especially since the recent enlargement to Eastern Europe. But officially, linguistic diversity is still sacred.
"It's a good thing that everybody can speak their own language in the European parliament," says Chevel. "But the refusal to accept English as a common language is an obstacle to European debate. Brussels keep preaching the ideology of multilingualism. There is a lot at stake because an entire translation industry depends on it."
De Swaan is dismissive about arguments that adopting English as the common language of Europe would mean a victory for Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism. "Why should people continue to speak a language if they don't wish to do so?" In fact, De Swaan says, the victory of English is a foregone conclusion. "It's just that nobody has dared to tell the French yet."
But he warns that having a common language is no guarantee for a debate. "In the Netherlands nobody is interested in what happens in Belgium, and the same goes for Germany and Austria."
And there is the risk that adopting English as the common language of Europe will give native English speakers a disproportionate weight in the debate. The Anglo-Saxon monopoly, which is strengthened by the leading role of newspapers like the Herald Tribune, The Financial Times and The Economist, must be broken, says De Swaan. "Non-English people have to play a bigger role in setting the agenda."