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European Focus #1: We’re all in the same boat

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Hi, and welcome to the first issue of European Focus,

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have you ever wondered why it is a problem for you personally that the European public sphere is so limited?

“You don’t have to be a naïve European enthusiast to ask this question,” said our Polish colleague at our first weekly European editors’ conference, which opened this issue.

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And isn’t he right? Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine, the rise of right-wing populists in Europe, the rapid spread of Corona conspiracy theories, the climate emergency and the energy crisis are just a few examples showing that our European societies face major challenges and dangers that transcend borders .

It should be clear to everyone by now: we are all in the same boat.

This is why all of us, including European journalists and media, need to develop new habits: we need to leave our national bubbles and start discussing our common issues and problems together instead of talking about the “others”.

With the “European Focus” we try to open a small European window in your inbox every week, with five short pieces from our different cooperation partners and a rotating editor-in-chief.

Thank you for joining us in this experiment and keep spreading the word!

Christian Zsolt-Varga, editor-in-chief of this issue

Meloni’s allies: In Italy, a right-wing extremist politician will probably soon lead the government.

In Italy, the probably most right-wing politician since Mussolini will soon take over the government. The extreme right celebrates in all EU capitals. Had the public debate been more mature, we could not only have foreseen Giorgia Meloni’s victory, but also understood her tactics. If we had looked more closely at Budapest, for example, we would have found that the stronghold of “illiberal democracy” serves as a point of contact for the European right.

Erik Tegnér, right-hand man of French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, was a visiting researcher at the Danube Institute, which is close to Viktor Orbán. The same applies to Hungarian President Katalin Novák, who previously, together with Lorenzo Fontana from the right-wing Lega in Italy, invoked the “traditional family”. Francesco Giubilei, a young ideologue in Meloni’s “conservative turn”, also has ties to pro-Orbán think tanks. In Rome, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia used their election campaign to attack the first same-sex couple on the children’s show Peppa Pig.

This is no coincidence. In Hungary, animated series are reported to the media authority under anti-LGBT legislation. Orbán began his new term by declaring that “gender is Europe’s big problem”. The better Europeans understand how the far right conducts identity politics in other countries, the better they can counter such tactics.

Shortly before the elections in Italy, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that there were “instruments” against countries with an illiberal course. However, the prerequisite for a strong European democracy is a genuine democratic debate – and that starts at the grassroots level. However, this cannot only take place in social media. Mark Zuckerberg’s meta has a budget of €6 million for lobbying in Brussels. On the other hand, one important interest group is underrepresented: the European public and its opinion. To build such a public, we should start with ourselves.

Francesca de Benedetti, Domani, Rome

Unwillingly Soviet

Whether in the “New York Times”, the “Wall Street Journal” or Western European media – an outdated term persists and persists: the Baltic states are often referred to as “former Soviet republics”. It makes absolutely no difference whether the respective article deals with the economy, digitization, tourism or Russia’s ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine.

Against this backdrop, a tweet by Estonian politician Eerik-Niiles Kross went viral earlier this month. He criticized that the reference to “former Soviet republics” was associated with stigmatization. The member of the liberal Reform Party posted a sarcastic guide to how other countries in the world should be referred to: Germany as a “former Nazi state”, the USA as a “former British colony” or Italy as a “former fascist state”.

We in Estonia try to take it with humor. In fact, however, the superficiality and ignorance of many large media and their editors is evident. As a reminder, these “former Soviet republics” never agreed to be part of the Soviet Union. They were forced to do it by force. What we are today and what we do today has little to nothing to do with our Soviet heritage.

Holger Roonemaa, Delfi, Estonia

Orbán’s monopoly

An hour after Vladimir Putin ordered the mobilization of 300,000 reservists, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán took the floor on Facebook – not to express concern about a potentially even more dangerous phase of the war in Ukraine, but to point the finger at the west . “Energy prices are rising because of failed sanctions from Brussels,” he wrote.

Orbán’s siding with Russia and undermining a determined European response is not just a domestic issue for Hungary. The crucial question for Europe is whether Russian imperialism can be stopped. False narratives can help Putin win. In fact, Orbán is looking for a scapegoat for his own failures: the economic misery, the weakness of the forint, the rising national debt, high inflation. That’s why he criticizes the EU sanctions and keeps quiet about the Russian threat.

His most important tool is the Hungarian language, with which he creates a closed reality for his compatriots. The key is control of the press. In Hungarian, Orbán’s word weighs a thousand times more heavily than any other. Few people in the country are able to hear and read dissenting opinions in English, German, French or even Ukrainian. Orbán thus has a monopoly on storytelling about dangers emanating from abroad, which he tells us only he can save Hungarians from.

There is still a free section of the Hungarian press that tries to reflect different sides and views. But their effect and reach are limited by the system. Unfair taxes, laws and the power of the oligarchs have pushed the (still) free media into a corner so that they can no longer reach certain regions of the country. The fate of Europe also depends on how much the people of Hungary perceive of the outside world – and on what conclusions the citizens of Europe draw from the Hungarian autocracy.

Marton Gergely, Editor-in-Chief of HVG, Budapest

Number of the week: 3.6 percent

In the period 2015-2020, EU-related issues accounted for only 3.6 percent of TV news in France. This is the result of a recent study by the French think tank Jean Jaurès. In comparison, the EU average in 2018 was 13 percent. The figures for France drop even further to 2.5 percent if you exclude the French-German public broadcaster Arte. This was created in 1991 with the aim of “addressing open-minded and curious citizens in Europe, especially in France and Germany”. But apparently, more than three decades later, European news and debates on French television are still a ‘niche’ topic.

Lea Masseguin, Liberation, Paris

scapegoats and democracy problems

Johannes Hillje is a political consultant with a focus on pan-European communication and the author of the book “Platform Europe”, in which he develops his vision for a lively public discourse in Europe.

Mr. Hillje, you criticize the fact that the space for public debates in Europe is mostly still designed and understood at national level. Why?

Although there is a lot of reporting on EU issues in the respective national media, this is almost always done through the national lens. The question is often asked: What benefit does “our” country have from this or that decision? But not: How does this decision serve our common European interest?

What risks and problems do you see?

The result is a democracy problem. After all, we live in a common political system: the national states have transferred relevant decision-making powers to the EU. Our common EU institutions make decisions that affect all of our lives on a daily basis. Nevertheless, we do not have a common public and democratic debate in which we could discuss these decisions together. Furthermore, the national governments repeatedly use the absence of a pan-European debate for a “blame game”, with the European Union as the scapegoat.

This means?

Responsibility for unpopular decisions is shifted to Brussels, while everything good supposedly comes from their own capital. There is hardly anyone who corrects this stereotypical representation of the European Union or the other member states. This is an easy way to stir up anti-EU sentiment. This happened most recently during the election campaign in Italy.

What do you suggest?

We need more common communication spaces and European mass media. I imagine a big hit: a common digital European communication platform in the public sector, which provides the infrastructure for a pan-European discourse according to democratic rules, i.e. unlike Facebook and Co.

What is such a platform supposed to do?

This platform should not only offer news on European and EU issues, but also entertainment and cultural content that promotes a European sense of community. There should be talk shows with European politicians and series that tell stories about living together in Europe, for example from border regions, during an Erasmus stay or on Interrail trips. This could enable a truly pan-European exchange, preferably also through artificial intelligence translations or meetings in virtual reality.

The interview was conducted by Teresa Roelcke, Tagesspiegel, Berlin

You can subscribe to the English version of the newsletter here: europeanfocus.eu.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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