Lively media debate on Europe

Article published on May 23, 2005
Article published on May 23, 2005

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Debate surrounding the adoption of the European constitution has finally put the European Union at the heart of media discourse. Despite its faults, this discussion is bridging the gap between the EU and Europeans.

A democracy is obliged to provide its citizens with information and the media plays a crucial role in ensuring that this happens. For the European Union to become a real democratic space means placing some responsibility in the hands of European journalists, who would assume this role with more enthusiasm if it wasn't all so complicated. But how is it possible to attract public interest and give it points of reference when the EU has so many institutions and centres of decision-making that intertwine? How is it possible to make citizens understand a European constitution with 448 articles when journalists themselves do not always understand the issues at hand?

A new direction

The media sometimes deals with European problems, the institutions and their members in a simplistic manner, either by using technical Eurocrat jargon or by using a range of generic terms, such as “Brussels”, “Strasbourg” or “the twenty-five”. These stereotypes are understandable, given that information on the European Union is often reduced to the positions of national leaders or viewed as a collection of laws and directives. As a result of this, citizens see themselves as only “cogs in the wheel”. However, the debate has taken a new direction since the EU engaged in the process of adopting the constitution. Even if each member state has reacted in a different way, it is impossible to deny that the content of debates has become more diversified.

With the French referendum approaching, the columns of French newspapers have lost their consensual nature and instead have been replaced with socio-economic, but also ideological, arguments. The discussion on the relation between the text of the constitution and the Bolkestein directive, which aims at a liberalisation of EU services, is an example of these arguments. Information has been dealt with in more detail and the media has gradually become more obliged to explain the issues of the text in greater detail by repeating the formulation of certain articles of the Constitution, which are sometimes open to interpretation. National political issues and the personal strategies of French politicians have clearly led the debate and, in this respect, it cannot be said that the French media is encouraging a “democratic debate”. We do, however, find ourselves hoping that passion aroused by this will enliven public opinion in the countries where referenda are shortly to take place. Regrettably this was not the case in Spain, where journalists and voters alike did not have enough time to understand the importance of their vote.

Euroscepticism or Euro-ignorance?

According to analysts, the high level of abstention during the February 12 referendum in Spain was not a result of Euroscepticism, but rather a consequence of a lack of information. The Spanish government’s pro-constitution campaign opted for the sensationalist approach, portraying the referendum options as a Yes or No to Europe, and failing to inform the voter of the implications of the constitution for the Spanish population. According to a post-referendum survey conducted by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Investigations (CIS), the lack of information accounted for 25% of No voters and 44% of blank voters. The same study discovered that only 7.4% of Spaniards do not believe that Spain has benefited from its membership of the EU, proof of the Euro-enthusiasm of the Spanish people and the failure of the referendum campaign. The complexity of the constitution itself combined with the lack of useful explanatory information provided was problematical for many voters. There was also a sense of hurriedness, with the Zapatero government keen to be the first country to ratify the constitution by referendum.

Agreement all around

Germany’s lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, adopted the constitution on 12 May with 569 votes for and 23 against, with two abstentions. The CSU, the Christian Social Union of Bavaria, was the only party to have members which opposed the constitution. This absence of opposition meant that debates on the content of the constitution were avoided, with some remarking ironically that Germans would know more about Chancellor Schröder's position if they listened to Chirac rather than reading the German press. Indeed, following the suggestion by the majority Social Democrat and Green coalition to hold a referendum, discussions had centred more on whether or not to hold a referendum than the constitution itself. This debate was abruptly brought to an end when the Christian Democrats, the CDU, blocked the necessary reform of the German constitution to allow a referendum on the subject.

The countries called on to adopt the constitution will clearly be influenced by the decisions made by other member states. Now is the time to prepare and inform oneself, using clear and honest explanations of the real issues surrounding the constitution. It remains to be seen whether those states which have chosen to hold a referendum will succeed in inciting public debate as France has done. Its citizens are well informed of European affairs and better informed than their European neighbours on the content of the constitution. Now they only have to fight against the attempt of French political parties to “steal” their vote on the constitution.