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Everyday conversations about Europe are more important than public meetings
by Newropeans-Magazine
2009-04-14 08:58:09
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What would a European public sphere look like? Elites know the answer: in debate centers, public meetings are held about European issues. The value of these debates for the European public sphere is largely overestimated. Why is there not more appreciation for everyday conversation about Europe among citizens?

It is Tuesday evening in a debate center in the large Dutch city of Utrecht. A debate will be held about student exchanges in Europe. The organiser complains that only eight citizens attend the meeting. Maybe it is an extreme example, but it is not an exceptional one: many public meetings about Europe are ignored by a majority of the citizenry. Most citizens never show up, and those who do have a very specific profile: they are interested in politics and have many European ideals.

While citizens ignore public meetings about Europe, elites cherish them because they see these meetings as an important part of the European public sphere. European institutions invest large budgets to organise them and European politicians like to give speeches there. Many citizens find European politics uninteresting, but still it is discussed in public meetings more often than any other issue. Elites seem to be blind for citizens’ interpretations of this ‘European public sphere’. 

  1. Citizens do not have much knowlegde about European issues. They will not always be able to understand the announcements for public meetings. In addition, citizens find these discussions too complicated. Citizens who overcome this fear, are disappointed afterwards: debates are more technical then they thought, they do not know so much about the structures and policies that were discussed. A debate is not a relaxing experience, but it is not an instructive one either. 
  2. Citizens want to go to social events: they want to meet new people and have inspiring conversations. European debates only attract politically engaged elites who speak about Europe in a different language: it is not the language of citizens who do not know much about Europe. In this context, asking questions is seen as being uninformed and not as being interested. Citizens know that their friends will not join them to such a meeting: it will be a lonely experience.
  3. Citizens want to talk about the issues under discussion, but they often think that they can not. Many citizens dislike speaking in public, especially about issues that are unfamiliar to them or that they do not have much knowlegde of. Even worse, these meetings largely attract elites who are experienced with giving public speeches and who do have much knowlegde about Europe. This will make citizens even more insecure than they already were.  

Public meetings seldom stimulate citizens to go there again. Critics suggest that these citizens are uninterested, lazy or even stupid, but that is untrue: many citizens know that Europe is important for their everyday lives and many of them want to vote in the European elections. But these citizens should be able to discuss European issues in their own words and in their own style. Public meetings are not the correct forum for this. 

The European public sphere can only develop from the everyday conversations of European citizens. These conversations are the complete opposite of public meetings: relaxing, instructive and social. Citizens can discuss Europe in ways that resemble their conversations about other everyday issues. When Europe would be a subject in these conversations, that would be much more important for the European public sphere then public meetings that only attract elites. 

The only way to stimulate these everyday conversations about Europe, is to show citizens the relevance of Europe for their everyday lives, and not to repeat again that Europa is important. If European politicians show that Europe makes a difference in the lives of European citizens, these everyday conversations will come up naturally and a European public sphere will be formed. Public meetings cannot compete with this. 

Chris Aalberts*
Amsterdam - The Netherlands

* Chris Aalberts is lecturer and researcher in political communication. Visit his blog: www.chrisaalberts.nl

This paper is also accessible in Dutch: http://www.newropeans-magazine.org/content/category/6/193/323/

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