Sunday 8 November 2009

The Observer, Europe and Blogging

Henry Porter's article in today's Observer is interesting for 2 reasons: (1) he repeats the mistake of confusing the ECHR and the EU and the role of the President of the European Council, and (2) he calls for a kind of enlightened scepticism of the EU's institutions - a good idea - that is undermined by the factors that bring about point (1). So I sent the Observer a letter (ok, email):

Henry Porter is convincing in his argument for a better scepticism when it comes to the EU institutions ("I saw the joy on German faces - but now I despair", 8th November). The need for civil society to debate and scrutinize European institutions is great, and the duty of the media to enable continuous debate is particularly strong. However, Henry Porter fell victim to a few assumptions that highlight the lack of media scrutiny in this area, and shows that without this scrutiny, it's hard to have an effective and informed scepticism.

Getting basic facts such as the difference between the European Court of Human Rights and the EU's European Court of Justice wrong (the ECHR belongs to the Council of Europe, a completely different organisation) can make such scepticism ill-informed and misdirected, since placing the blame at the EU's door for the ECHR's rulings would be ineffective. Similarly, the office of President of the European Council has been talked up to be a full-blown "President of the EU" (there's no such post), giving rise to fears of a powerful executive President who would be unelected - when, in fact, the post is one of chairman/woman who would only preside over the European summits, with no vote or veto on issues. The President would be more the role of a parliamentary speaker than a president, though with more publicity.

For such scepticism and political engagement to work, we need to not only see the EU as a set of institutions, but also take part in the political discussions at its heart - the EU isn't monolithic: there are many fractions in the Parliament and the Council arguing for different policies. We can't just blame "the EU" for faults and failings, we must identify who is in power (currently the centre-right EPP, with Barroso as Commission President), and what the opposition (Socialists and Democrats, the Greens, etc) is doing, and question their policies.

It is a demanding task to stimulate this kind of debate, but it's essential. The EU can try to open up all it wants (for example, the Commission President has to face a European version of PMQs before the European Parliament), but without the engagement of ordinary people and the media, it won't work. Will the Observer start scrutinizing the Brussels Bubble?

Conor Slowey

It's annoying to see that important political debates (over liberty versus security, and questions over the ECHR court case on cruifixes in Italy) being diverted off course by ingrained misinformation. The EU is mind-numbingly complex, and it can't just be explained in a short run up to European elections or each time there's a summit: there needs to be constant media scrutiny of the policies and political actors acting in the Brussels Bubble. Though I'd like to see the mainstream media improve it's journalism on the EU - and really open up a continuous debate on the issues and policies confronting the EU (as well as if the EU should confront them in the first place) - it'd be very naive to expect anything to change here.

So if the mainstream media won't do it, could there be a duty for civil society to step in? I'm generally sceptical of the power of blogging versus the mainstream media, although the mainstream media clearly doesn't always get it right, but could bloggers be said to have a certain duty in this instance?

Probably not. Bloggers are probably the most prickly of groups when it comes to independence and implying duties, and I can't see how you could convincingly say that people have a duty to investigate these things, except as, perhaps, the general and vague duty of voters who want to participate in the political process fully.

Still, I think that scrutinizing the polcies, actions and goals of the parties and fractions in the EU is vitally needed (despite the boring detail), and I'd encourage EuroBloggers out there to start looking into the Parties and holding them to account. EuroBloggers (and perhaps particularly myself) are guilty of focusing too much on the institutional/constitutional side of things, but hopefully that will change with the passing of the Lisbon Treaty.

It's certainly an area we'll be keen to look at on Chasing Brussels in the future.

Edit: Jon Worth has gotten wind of this journalistic mistake.


  1. How could anyone require individual, unpaid bloggers to set things right with regard to the European Union, when newspapers selling millions of copies and leading politicians distort the public's perceptions, either on purpose or through ignorance (in Britain)?

    On the other hand, during these last weeks, when I have followed the EU debate in the UK more closely, I have noticed that many Euroblogs, although written by "amateurs" have generally been more accurate than the outpourings in the English press.

    Perhaps discerning readers should take notice, and try to read quality blogs as well as Continental media.

  2. Which is exactly why I'm sceptical of the power of blogging versus the mainstream media in the first place.

    Still, parts of the Brussels Bubble is very open to blogging and the internet (though, granted, it's still only part), and an active blogging network covering the EuroParties may prove useful in opening up the system for others.

    If nothing else, it could be an interesting line of blogging for anyone interested in European politics.