Why creating a European sentiment needs more than a conference

By Andre Wilkens and Paweł Zerka (ECFR)
Andre Wilkens und Paweł Zerka
Andre Wilkens is ECF director of the European Cultural Foundation. Pawel Zerka is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

The Conference on the Future of Europe is coming to an end. On today’s Europe Day its final report will be published and delivered to the presidents of the EU institutions – a result of a more than a year of deliberations among over 50,000 European citizens. Its far-reaching 49 proposals include the end of unanimity voting, introduction of transnational lists, or the launch of Joint Armed Forces of the Union.

This may prove to be a useful initiative – or just a PR exercise that gets quickly forgotten. Much will depend on the actual adoption and implementation of the proposals. But in either case, if its goal has been to boost public engagement in shaping the union, it won’t suffice, and mainly for two reasons.

First, it only represents one of the strategies that can be deployed to awaken the European sentiment. It corresponds to what Dutch historian Luuk van Middelaar calls a ‘Greek’ strategy, consisting in giving the public a voice, which is already the case with direct elections to the European Parliament. In the past decades this has coexisted with other political strategies, such as promoting a shared cultural and historical identity, or appealing to the benefits of European integration. But the European sentiment does not necessarily come into being because of such intentional strategies – it can also be triggered by sudden external events. This seems to be particularly the case today, with a return of war to the European continent.

Meanwhile, and secondly, most of the conference happened before the war in Ukraine started. And this single event has become the source of several of the main dilemmas that the EU currently needs to address – from energy sovereignty to viability of its climate ambitions, to readiness for another round of financial solidarity, to determination in defending democracy and rule of law in member states, and so on. They added to the already long list of issues brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The war is confronting Europeans with some new and difficult questions about themselves. For example, they have been much more solidary with Ukrainian migrants today than with Syrians seven years ago. How should that be interpreted? 

In the European Sentiment Compass – a new data tool and an essay published today by the European Council on Foreign Relations and the European Cultural Foundation – we have uncovered the different angles through which such issues are currently discussed across the EU27. For example, the EU’s climate policy elicits hope in some member states but fear in others, and the same goes for the bloc’s rule of law activism. We have also analysed whether these topics would improve or harm people’s attitudes towards Europe in respective member states. We have learned that on all issues the prevailing feeling is that they could bring Europeans closer together rather than drift them apart, although this all strongly depends on the decisions that Europeans choose to take.

No European discourse without independent media and cultural freedom

At the same time, we have explored the role which two very specific sectors – the media and the culture sector – play in allowing the European sentiment to emerge in each country. We believe that, even when external circumstances are favorable, that process won’t succeed if media are not independent or cultural expression isn’t free. The channels for translating events into shared meanings need to be unobstructed, and in several EU members they are not.

An obvious example is Hungary where cultural institutions are subordinated to nationalist discourses, and the media heavily controlled by an illiberal government, making it very hard to expect that the pandemic and the war could help the Hungarians feel they are in all of it together with the rest of Europeans.

But the issue with the media concerns not just weak media freedom in countries like Bulgaria, Hungary, Malta, Greece; or low media literacy in a similar list of countries. It is also about an infiltration by Russian interests elsewhere, and complacency to foreign interference. Recent examples include an Italian TV letting Sergey Lavrov use prime time for his antisemitic accusations; major French private TV channel conducting an interview with Kremlin’s spokesman; or The Guardian accepting an opinion piece from a former Kremlin’s advisor arguing against sending arms to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, with the cultural sector, the problem is not just the public promotion of nationalist discourses in countries like Hungary or Poland – but even more so the sector’s worrying economic shape after the pandemic. Some studies show that it has been among the most heavily affected sectors in the EU: on par with air transport and ahead of tourism. Despite a civil society campaign – the Cultural Deal for Europe – encouraging member states to earmark 2% of their national recovery and resilience plans to culture, only two countries – France and Italy – have effectively done so.

Today, art and culture – from the Venice Biennale to the Eurovision contest – are at the front of Europe’s reaction to war in Ukraine.  Culture has also played a crucial role during and after the pandemic: bringing people together, putting solidarity in action, helping individuals and communities to make sense of what is happening. But it’s pertinent to ask whether in all EU countries the sector can count on sufficient resources and the necessary freedom to continue performing these vital roles.

There are some positive signs of a growing appreciation of culture and the media in their role of shaping the European sentiment. Ursula von der Leyen has recently acknowledged that “Europe cannot be Europe without a thriving cultural sector”. With the recovery fund, the EU institutions have for the first time mobilized an extraordinary support for cultural and creative sectors. In the same spirit, and the recognition that Kremlin’s war is, first and foremost, a war against fundamental European values, dreams, ideals and culture, our responses need to include a strong cultural dimension.

The soon-to-be-established Trust Fund for Ukraine should therefore include culture among its priorities. Media pluralism is already part of the European Commission’s annual rule of law reports, which monitor significant developments relating to the rule of law in all member states. At the same time, the European Commission is expected to propose a new regulation later this year to tackle media independence. A corresponding monitoring mechanism is missing when it comes to cultural policies though.

An ecosystem for permanent joint discussion

The point here is that for the EU to tackle its current challenges – from security to climate change, to migration – it needs an ecosystem that would allow these issues to be permanently debated across the union, in the European public sphere, and for joint conclusions and meanings to emerge undisturbed. Free media and culture need to be considered part and parcel of that ecosystem and the necessary actors in helping Europeans shape their future. They are thus also vital for the continent’s security and its capacity to act in a coordinated way.

Exercises such as the conference on the future of Europe are praiseworthy experiments – but they seem to be too much one-off and top-down, and their legitimacy is still far from perfect. It would be dangerous to assume that they alone could suffice in bringing Europeans together.  A European sentiment, a feeling of belonging, needs to grow, needs to be nurtured. Not by sporadic citizens conferences but in a conscious, strategic, and sustainable way. Otherwise, we really make ourselves vulnerable to events.


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