ITC program on International & European Security, Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP)
Why should, for instance, an Austrian Christian-Democrat run campaign, handing out leaflets in a small Danish town market, arm to an arm with his or her French, Portuguese and Polish political sparring partners whom the Danish locals hardly ever heard of? Effectively, the Party of European Socialists (PES) will not actively campaign over ‘swing states’ against the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) or vica versa. This approach is likely more apparent in bipartisan America, but that’s not how it really works in Europe (although they’ve tried such a joint trans-European campaign model briefly during the eighties). After all, these elections seem quite like an artificial lump-sum of party interests, of whom the average citizen hardly understands the ‘added value’ and importance of his cast single ballot.
Then again, the European elections are vulnerable to a critical ‘grudge’ that they’re little more than a façade, an ineffective political theatre in which outcomes shift only marginally, as they have during the last two European elections. In reality however I wish to retrieve the root principle and the basic motivations to advocate for attending the European election rounds that will ensue in the beginning of June 2009. I cannot and will not concur to the défaitist and eurosceptic perception that EU parliamentary elections are little more than a game of stag hunt, an imposed compulsory charade that appears as the sole widely accepted method to adorn the democratic power division with a remote sense of legitimacy.
European elections are vulnerable to a critical ‘grudge’ that they’re little more than a façade, an ineffective political theatre in which outcomes shift only marginally.
Then why this top-down demand that you, a European citizen, should go and vote for the national representatives who have been put on the list of electable candidates, if your vote lacks a visible and measurable impact on the ‘canonized’ programmes that have been drafted ‘over our heads’ by the European political umbrella organizations, EPP-ED, PES, ALDE, Greens-EFA and ELDR? It should be clarified that the European elections serve three specific, vital and necessary purposes:
First of all, they aggregate and articulate the interests and preferences over all the parties operating on a national level. Secondly, and more obviously, they are an indispensible platform to spur electoral competition. Agendas and manifestos are being developed in the months running up to the election, in order to indicate to the audience what kind of policy guidelines these mainstream political parties in the Parliament wish to pursue. This is not a political ceremony that MEP’s practice as some kind of cyclical entertaining ‘rally’ for show. Thirdly, the outcome of the elections ultimately directs reserved mandates to those to hold public office and wield executive or legislative powers.
The ‘Lack of Information’ Paradox: Who is to Blame? While attending the study day on the European elections at the University of Antwerp (March 2009), there was a lot of finger-pointing to the European delegates, who were accused of not informing the voters enough about the concrete policy directives proposed in their manifestoes. That’s one end of the extreme. The anti-critique voiced at the other extreme was that the European media simply give little to no attention to the dynamic interactions during the months preceding the elections at the European party level. That depends of which branches of the media we are focusing on... but even those that report on the elections, are minimalist in their ‘deep-down coverage of issues’. I will talk more about this in the next part of this series.
Nevertheless, one cannot deny that there’s a serious lack of homogeneity concerning the coverage of the EU elections in the public and private radio and television landscape. Once in a while, spectators and listeners get bits and pieces of information, that have gone through the newsroom editorial board and have been chopped-up to the essentials. Only the proactive ‘media consumer’ is able to discern certain prevailing questions about information that tends to be obliterated or plainly shoved under the carpet. ‘Has this particular Summit resulted in hard law that benefits us as EU citizens?’, ‘Why haven’t the EU citizens been consulted about this new directive on genetically modified foods?’, ‘Why didn’t they explain the long delay and lack of progress in implementing the Bologna process?’. Paying attention to the broader picture, putting it into perspective, proves to be a very hard exercise for the average citizen.
We should be more aware of the so-called ‘sleeper effect’. Simply put, this psychological phenomenon comes into force when people are exposed to a highly persuasive message (such as an engaging or persuasive television ad), and their attitudes toward the advocacy of the message display a striking increase. It’s a pattern of normal decay in which newly formed attitudes gravitate back toward the position held prior to receiving the message, almost as if they were never exposed to the communication in the first place.
When applied to the media coverage on EU-related affairs, we tend to ‘let go’ of omitted or erratically explained or presented news information, and dissociate from it. This indicates a basic lack of awareness to verify ‘blind spots’ of information that are not being tackled or addressed in mainstream media.
There has never been a widely broadcasted major pan-European debate series between delegates of all major European parties, including independent candidates, on the major European television networks since the first European parliamentary elections of 1979.
A Multilingual Pan-European Broadcast in all EU member states: Our Next Common Guinness Record? The fact remains, there has never been a widely broadcasted major pan-European debate series between delegates of all major European parties, including independent candidates, on the major European television networks since the first European parliamentary elections of 1979.
The most compelling innovation in the history of television since the introduction of colour displays, has been Digital TV, which enables a series of functions that could adequately solve the linguistic constraints of a multilingual debate in the framework of European elections. One could argue that, televised debates are practically better suited for presidential elections, for instance during the past French elections where Nicholas Sarkozy had to campaign against Ségolène Royale.
Involving pretty complex broadcasting techniques, a continuing series of panel debates between party members, each putting their own logic and expertise on the table on separate and intertwined policy areas, would be a huge step forward in the history of television itself. In order to get to put into force such a daunting media frenzy, I discern three major obstacles that have to be overcome first:
First, there’s the buying of broadcasting rights. All the European party families would have to split the bill altogether to be able to be shown on at least one national channel per European country. That means they’ll have to sign 27 contracts times the amount of participating parties. Unfortunately, also here the democratic deficit comes into play, being the fact that independent MEP candidates will be left out of the debate. But this is also a shortcoming that inherently affects the American presidential election campaigns. Therefore private sponsoring to bring the European election campaigns to the TV-screen in our homes should be avoided at all cost. It would enslave the democratic process to narrow corporate and private interests. The same principle applies in case these needed debates would be broadcast on the internet. Currently, the largest European political families have set up their own press and PR departments and broadcasting stations on the internet, plugging their actions and reports into YouTube channels.
Secondly, there’s the languages issue. Obviously, the MEP candidates will likely be requested to talk to the panel moderators and to each other in the languages of the ‘big three’: English, French and German. Adequate translators can be put in place for MEP’s lacking sufficient knowledge of these three mainstream languages, true. On the first hand, the very concept of supplying correct translations (either through subtitles or by voice-over) for twenty-two other national languages seems a painstaking and tantalizing task. Yet from a technical point of view, it’s not impossible. Retrospectively, even before this ‘Digital revolution’ entered the TV landscape, we managed to receive and cover Eurovision Song Festival in all languages spoken in the EU, didn’t we? While the dubbing remains somewhat improvised and ‘condensed’ under these circumstances, I think we can do better.
True, not everyone enjoys the technological bliss of Digital TV, where digital audio channels can be freely selected to either emit the original language (with subtitles) or change to the voice of a translator who talks in one’s vernacular language. But there’s no excuse not to try it, as technology only earns its value in relation to the extent by which its intended practicality is applied! We should not miss out on this opportunity: What one can conceive, one can achieve.
Thirdly, there’s the level of willingness and quality of interaction. It is on this third matter that I wish to elaborate a few next chapters.