Staging Europe’s Great Debate

BERLIN – The European Union has a long track record as a global beacon of peace, prosperity, and success in fields ranging from culture and science to sports. And yet Europe has attracted more global attention in the last two years than it did in the previous six decades, as its debt crisis – exacerbated by a sputtering economy and internal disagreements – makes headlines worldwide. After all, controversy sells. But the public debate that this controversy has fueled has not been entirely constructive.

Nearly six decades after the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community, the debates taking place throughout the EU continue to be conducted largely by national actors in national fora – and with a view to national interests. To make genuine progress, clearly defined European interests must replace national interests in determining the EU’s development.

Defining these interests will require a serious, honest, pan-European debate – one that is more than the sum of national debates. The discussion must be public, engaging European citizens, rather than just the small circle of policymakers that comprises the European Council.

The absence of a European public sphere presents an obstacle to such a discussion. The existing common European space – composed of media outlets like the Financial Times and TheEconomist, and Europe-wide conferences, NGO networks, and exchange programs like Erasmus – engages only wealthy, cosmopolitan European elites. While social media could offer an opening for creating a more inclusive European public sphere, at least for English-speaking citizens, this will take some more time.