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The illusion of the European public sphere: British political actors and their perception of citizens’ political participation in EU politics

Garcia-Blanco, Inaki ORCID: and Wahl-Jorgensen, Karin ORCID: 2010. The illusion of the European public sphere: British political actors and their perception of citizens’ political participation in EU politics. Presented at: IAMCR Annual Conference, Braga, Portugal, 18-22 July.

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The adaptation of the normative concept of the public sphere–and the deliberative democracy that concept evokes–to the EUropean polity in the making has been the subject of heated academic debates over the past decades. At the same time, the pursuit of a European Public Sphere has also been the main driving force of EU’s communication policies. The unprecedented embrace of contemporary political theory by political institutions can probably be explained as an attempt to remedy the acknowledged remoteness of the EU (European Governance: A White Paper, 2001) that affects the democratic legitimacy of the Union. Research on the European public sphere has reconceptualised the original Habermasian notion in different ways, often underplaying the participatory aspect of the public sphere, instead equating it with European content in national and/or transnational media. While most scholars reject the possibility of a pan-European arena where EU citizens deliberate due to the linguistic, cultural, and national barriers within the EU, as well as to the low influence of pan-European media, other researchers suggest that a European public sphere emerges whenever the same topics are simultaneously discussed in the national media of different European countries with a similar frame of relevance. In any case, and regardless of the different understandings of the concept in the academic realm, the central purpose of a political public sphere is to bring citizens together so that they can deliberate about matters of public interest. Research on the public sphere has generally focussed on the necessary conditions / hindrances for such a sphere to exist. Less is known, however, about the channels through which political actors get informed about the deliberations of the public sphere, let alone about the extent to which political actors are interested in listening to such deliberations (if at all). This paper addresses the perceptions of British political actors working on EU-related topics on the present and the future of citizens’ political participation in European politics. Drawing on 42 in-depth interviews with political elites–including MPs, MEPs, Welsh Assembly representatives, journalists, political activists, and researchers affiliated with think tanks–, this paper explores, amongst other things, the discourses about citizens’ participation in European politics circulating amongst British political actors, their different understandings of the European public sphere, and their perceptions about its vitality. Our research reveals a great deal of scepticism about the idea of a European public sphere, perhaps rooted in conventional British Eurosceptic approaches. Depending on their definitions of the concept, most actors believe that the European public sphere either *does not exist*, or that it is an elite space which only includes policy-making actors and/or other privileged groups or individuals, and has little relevance to the lives of ordinary British and European citizens. The lack of an authentic, bottom-up European public sphere is sometimes presented as a matter-of-fact reality, whilst some interviewees see it as a problematic indicator of the democratic deficit of the EU. To most interviewees, it also seems that questions of organisational collaboration are entirely conceptually distinct from issues around the European public sphere. Overall, then, in the British context the notion of the European public sphere as a viable space for citizen participation remains problematic and debatable, rather than taken for granted as an empirical reality and/or normative ideal.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Status: Unpublished
Schools: Journalism, Media and Culture
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
P Language and Literature > P Philology. Linguistics
Additional Information: This paper was also given at the Transcultural Communication – Intercultural ComparisonsEuropean Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA), Hans Bredow Institute, Hamburg, 12 - 15 October 2010.
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Last Modified: 19 Oct 2022 08:36

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