The EU Communication Gap? It’s a Feature Not a Bug

January 27, 2014

One of the staples of discussion about the EU is the democratic deficit.  Why are people who live in the EU indifferent if not hostile to organization? One of the most popular explanations is that there is a ‘communication gap’.  This question has spawned a continuing stream of research (much of it funded by the EU) looking at the reporting of the EU and the extent to which there is a European public sphere or the extent to which national public spheres are becoming Europeanized etc.  Like a lot of political communications research there are new studies but the whole area never seems to move forward.

I’ve been reading a provocative new book by Francisco Seoane Perez, Political Communication in Europe: The Cultural and Structural Limits of the European Public Sphere (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013) that argues that the so called ‘communication gap’ isn’t a bug but a consequence of what the EU is.  The process of construction of the EU has managed to combine neofunctionalist networks, diplomacy and corporatism (governance) all of which privilege the position of insiders and the expense of those outside, ie the mass of the citizens. The result is a situation where the EU is neither domesticated (seen in terms of an identification between rulers and ruled) and or politicised in the sense of producing clearly defined antagonism over the kinds of stakes that will mobilize participation.  There’s a good chunk of political theory here, the categories of domesticisation and politicisation are drawn from Carl Schmitt via Chantal Mouffe, but a big part of the weight of the text comes from the empirical underpinning.

The starting point of the study is a comparison between two regions: Yorkshire and Galicia.  By normal measures Yorkshire is a bastion of Euroscepticism while Galicia is seen as being very pro-EU.  Given that these two regions vary in terms of political and media system that fact that people in the two regions seem to talk about the EU in similar ways suggests that the core of the problem may be something about the EU itself.  The author applies Philip Howard’s network ethnography: follow the connnections that constitute your object of interest and then watch what the people you find at the nodes are doing.  In over 100 interviews and observations the study follows what the different actors; farmers, trawlermen, their representative, executives of regional development agencies, the consultants who put funding bids together, diplomats, Members of the European Parliament actually do.  It’s a fascinating read that says the EU is sui generis, it’s not a nation-state in the making, in fact it only holds together because of the processes of exclusion at work that allow those on the inside to forge agreements and allocate resources.

I think that there’s broader lesson here for people interested in political communications issues: sometimes the problem is with the politics not the communications and the only way that this can be addressed is by looking beyond better communications.

Full disclosure: the book started life as a PhD thesis in the Institute of Communications Studies at Leeds and I did have a minor and temporary role in supervision but it’s not just me who thinks this is an really interesting study as it has been awarded the 2013 THESEUS Award for Promising Research on European Integration.

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