It was a day unlike the others. On June 4, Presseurop held its first Forum at the European Parliament in Brussels. Usually spread between Paris, Rome, Warsaw, Madrid and Lisbon, the team moved to the EU’s capital to host the event and meet our readers.
As a result of the day, each of Presseurop’s 10 desk editors formed an image, feeling or idea of their European experience.
In search of a breakthrough
By Maciej Zglinicki
The good news is that the EU’s disintegration is unlikely today. But there is bad news too. Recession, or weak growth at the very best, high unemployment, mounting social discontent, member states’ egotism, a huge deficit of democracy, and the lack of a shared vision of the future – this is the image of the EU that emerges from the Forum Presseurop.
There is no doubt that the Union has found itself at the crossroads and no one knows what will happen next. According to MEP Danuta Hübner, we are over the worst of the crisis, a revolution is not necessary, and the citizens of the debt-stricken south, weary of the drastic austerity measures, should – like the Poles in 1989 clench their teeth and accept painful reforms in order for their countries to return to a fast-growth track.
The problem is that the recommendations coming from Brussels and the “troika” (IMF-EU-ECB) boil down basically to satisfying the markets’ demands. “Less markets, more people”, “stop destroying Spanish companies”, appealed the reader Spanishengeneer.
His words were echoed by Parliament Vice President, Miguel Angel Martínez Martínez, who stressed the need for rebuilding the European social model, welfare state, and social confidence. Without that, he said, the European project will not stand the test of time. Portuguese deputy Rui Tavares joked about the poor condition of the European democracy saying that, “unlike in India, there are only two castes in the EU: officials and bankers”.
And what about European citizens? Overwhelmed by daily problems, lacking jobs and the support of their own governments, they are loudly voicing their protest in the streets of European cities. Next year’s European Parliament elections are a last chance for people to take matters in their own hands and start democratically shaping an EU that will better address their needs. The clock is already ticking and less time is left than it might seem.
Presseurop… stresseurop, losteurop, I love Europe
If I had to sum up in a few words my state of mind during our first Forum Presseurop in Brussels, I would have to mention one of our guests, Italian journalist Adriana Cerretelli (Il Sole 24 Ore): “When you are the head of a European state, you need to be open to other opinions.”
When you are the head of a European press title at the forefront of multilingualism and cosmopolitanism, as Presseurop is, you need to be open to others. This is what we set out to prove in our marathon day away in Brussels.
The debates (crisis, citizenship, federalism etc), open to more or less Eurosceptic participants, had the merit of straight talking, of getting away from the cliché – that everything is just fine – which is so deeply buried in the conscience of Homo europeus. The EU is not a monument left carved in marble by the founding fathers, but an extraordinary melting pot of our desires, fears, and frustrations, which are growing constantly.
In 1986, Romania did not know the word “European”, nor “anti-European”, like we do today. The dictionary of neologisms (from the Academy of the Socialist Republic of Romania!), which arrived in 1986 during the National Olympiad of Language and Literature and now sits imposingly in my Paris office, serves to remind that we never know where we are going.
Presseurop is a barometer of European frustrations, and achievements as well. If we are able to handle this Brussels experience, it means that we – with you, readers – are capable of much more.
By Emmanuelle Morau
On the morning of our forum, Brussels was shrouded in fog. It wasn’t just over the European Union capital that clouds were gathering. We got the news just the day before, as we were sitting down to our first glasses of Belgian beer: there would be no interpreters [for technical reasons related to the broadcast of the debates]. All the debates would be in English.
Beautifully affected by the spirit of the European team on the eve of my first steps into the lair of democracy of the 27, I felt a thrill of patriotism.
Why, with Europe being battered by the crisis, give preference to the language of the European Central Bank at the expense of the noble dialect of the deliberations of the European Court of Justice?
Why, when President Hollande came up with a script for Europe that was more sensible than the powder keg of student [David] Cameron, should we yield to the wind of Stratford-on-Avon rather than the sweet music of Gif-sur-Yvette?
Other fellow francophones and francophiles came to a radical conclusion: The conference would go on without them even if French was not used around the table. Informed – in French – of the situation, I was surprised to find this somewhat confined attitude. And I suddenly heard resonating in my ears the echoes of the Parisian jousting, debating whether classes should be held in English at university.
At the end of the day, the sun shone once again. And in my ears rang another chorus. It was the chorus that came from readers from Greece, Spain, Portugal or France, to exchange ideas, ask about solutions, explain points of view and, ultimately, demonstrate that English was not only the language of Frankfurt but that it could also express anger and disagreement.
Brussels, the city of Presseurop
Hardly had I the time to open my book before the train crossed the landscape between France and Belgium at breathtaking speed. The Sunday calm of the Gare du Midi suddenly soothed me. Have the Belgian railway workers been on strike for a week? The sleepy town opened its arms, gave me a breath of fresh air from the countryside and a beer on a sunny terrace.
Everything seemed to be in slow motion, like in a dream. No one was in a hurry. And yet there was much commotion. Brussels, I hear it said, is the city that has the largest concentration of journalists in Europe. I no longer recall in what language, because in Brussels, all languages are spoken. French, Flemish, English, Italian, Slovak, Portuguese.
It’s the city of Presseurop! I say to myself, and I’m not the only one to think it: “Why not move our editorial office here to Brussels? “It’s nice here,” says my Romanian colleague, talking in the European Parliament cafe with one of her countrymen to try to find out what Lady Ashton, the invisible woman of European diplomacy, actually does.
We have come from all corners of Europe, but in Brussels we’re not foreigners; everyone here is an expat. Into this sonorous cacophony of Europe join the loud voices of young Turks protesting in Luxembourg square. Their mission? Freedom of the press and the overthrow of Erdoğan. Let’s support them calmly, before getting back on the train and the story of an unfinished book.
Face to face with austerity
From the comfort of the Brussels bubble, it is hard to appreciate what a youth unemployment rate of 58 per cent really means.
This is the crippling level Greece is currently enduring, according to latest estimates.
Bringing a taste of that reality to the European Parliament was one of the principle achievements of the Forum Presseurop.
Despite endless news articles, photos and television footage detailing the plight of Greek job-seekers, the reality only comes into sharp focus when you look it straight in the eye.
That is why listening to Greek Presseurop reader Constantinos Papadakis spell out to German MEP Gabriele Zimmer and others, his first hand experience of how austerity is choking the life out of his country was so crucial.
The EU is spending billions of euros combatting the debt crisis but faces an even greater challenge that it cannot be solved by money alone, as it struggles to connect with Europe’s citizens.
Headline quotes from Spanish MEP Miguel Angel Martínez Martínez, Vice-President of the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly describing the troika as “hateful” make a big impact, but so too does Ms Zimmer’s assessment that left unchecked, youth unemployment will sound the death knell for the EU.
The overriding message from all participants in the Spinelli Building was that the crisis is galvanising public opinion and turning people away from the spirit of EU unity.
As the unemployment toll in Greece and throughout Europe continues to rise, the goal of European unity will move further out of reach.
No need to worry
I was a bit anxious in the run-up to the forum, as it was the first time we had arranged such an event and there were no obvious precedents regarding what to expect.
Would it turn out to be too kind-mannered and devoid of real confrontation, given the institutional setting of the European Parliament? Or, on the contrary, would it descend into an ugly clash, with furious rants outlining conflicting visions of Europe, as we have so often seen since the crisis turned ugly?
And what about our reader guests? Would they feel comfortable sitting beside the European Parliament vice presidents and some big names from the ranks of the EU press corps? In their shoes, I would have not been surprised if my voice faltered as I tried to express my views.
But my worries proved unfounded. The debates started on a cordial but assertive footing, the same as usually features on the comment section of the Presseurop website, and never derailed. There were moments of stark contrast between the speakers, but none of bitterness. Our readers contributed some of the most interesting insights and didn’t shy away from taking on their more titled opponents. Further proof that European citizens deserve to hold the mic more often.
Of monsters and men
It was my first contact with The Monster from Brussels, and indeed, when I saw the European Parliament building, I thought it would devour me. As I did during a visit to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, I thought of the humility of snails of which, that poet of the day, Francis Ponge once sang the praises. Everywhere they go, they carry their houses so that they can go home at any moment. Yet the monster too is worthy of my respect because it takes a strong dose of courage to want to abolish borders and to take charge of a project that requires a strength far beyond that of a single individual.
This is why, in fact, the citizens of Europe, during European elections scheduled for next year will not vote for individual candidates but for wide-ranging lists each composed of several parties from either the left, right or centre.
This will complicate the electoral campaign. How will the European Union, itself in crisis, be able to attract the attention of its citizens? The response I got from Doris Pack, president of the Culture and Education Commission, seems relevant. “The European Union does not happen in Brussels but where the people are. That is why it needs ambassadors from the cultural sector and from civil society to fight the European cause – film-makers, teachers, local officials,” she says. Suddenly, the Monster from Brussels has a friendly face. It is good to know that inside the Brussels fortress there are people who stay in touch with the outside world.
Bring in the readers!
On June 4, six readers of Presseurop debated face-to-face with some MEPs and journalists. This was an unusual meeting; it can even be called an unprecedented event. If “participatory journalism” and “citizen journalism” are entering the mores of web-based journalism, real-time meetings remain rare.
It is thanks to its readers, and to hundreds of others who comment on our articles, that our site has become a genuine forum on European current affairs and the future of the EU. These readers, who “hide” behind such cyber names as “spanishengineer” or “continental drift,” leave reactions that are sometimes vehement or provocative thus feeding the debate and animating these chats. This was Presseurop’s goal when it launched in 2009. Until then invisible behind their iPads or other equipment, these readers are a key component of Presseurop.
The success of the debates and the comments of our readers on June 4 – although some had never spoken in public before and if, for most, English is not their native tongue – demonstrated a real need for a direct dialogue between citizens and journalists on one side and politicians on the other. This live forum also showed that European citizens are avid for an exchange that traditional or web media alone cannot fill. The latter play an important role but cannot be substituted for face-to-face meetings. Let us thus hope that this forum will be followed by many other meetings, whether they are organised by Presseurop or by others.
A day in Europe’s home
In the morning, a slight anxiety seized me. And with good reason. I was about to discover the stage of European democracy and some of its players, the MEPs. I would also be meeting some of our most faithful readers, those who keep Presseurop alive though their impassioned opinions as well as some of the journalists who provide the articles to make this project a reality. For a person such as me, who reads, writes and breaths Europe on a daily basis, this was an event.
Coming out of the taxi on Luxemburg Square, my eyes turned towards the glass-fronted edifice in which are taken the most essential decisions for the future of this – alas so troubled – continent. It was precisely to discuss the future of Europe, about austerity, about the role of European institutions and of the Union’s citizens that Presseurop brought us all to Brussels.
The aim was clear and, to my mind, it was achieved – to promote a discussion that transcends national boundaries, a pan-European debate fundamental to the understanding of citizens. The views of participants to Forum Presseurop converged on one point: it is indispensable to consolidate the tools available to European citizens to ensure that they will do their civic duty in 2014. So that they will know exactly who they are voting for, what they can expect from Europe, and conversely, what Europe expects of them.
I heard a few comments during the day that continued to bounce around my brain for the rest of the evening. Words that speak volumes about the fears and the hopes of all those that joined us to safeguard – if only for a few hours – the spirit of this Union that does not deserve to disappear. “If there were to be no future for the new generations, they will no longer feel at home in the EU, that will be the end,” warned MEP Gabriele Zimmer. This is what must be avoided at all costs.
A European story
In the library of the European Parliament, I bought my son a nice little book titled “Little Europeans”. How good, I thought, to be educating European children to be Europeans, free from prejudices. I opened it to the page dedicated to Spain. According to the book, Spanish girls sing and dance after midnight – what irresponsible parents! Clearly, that’s why things are going… Well, same old story, I thought. If Brussels, the heart of a Europe that is “united in its diversity”, is still the realm of prejudice, we’re off to a bad start. Is it the product of an old historical and cultural cliché? The fruit of a bad marketing policy? The corollary of a macroeconomic disaster? A biological and genetic destiny? Or an unavoidable reality?
Among my useless ruminations warmed in the sunshine of Luxembourg square, the human answer Brussels can give to the cold and crystalised gigantism of the European Parliament building, I remembered that in the lobby of the parliament there was a stand to announce an event that was also taking place there that day: the promotion, with great fanfare, of something called Marca España. Indeed, the Spanish government was putting together an event to convince MEPs and the other visitors thronging the hallways of Brussels of the excellence of our country as a solvent and safe place to invest in.
The situation seemed profoundly paradoxical to me. I wondered, was it in the little book where the great European misunderstanding began, and in this event where it ended? In the cavernous airport halls of the building, a frenetic pace of comings and goings did make me forget for a moment Europe’s stagnation.
On the same day, we’re inviting MEPs, journalists, experts, and our readers to a get-together. I’m thinking about them. If this is about creating a European demos, and the building that welcomed us aims to represent it, then the people were talking there directly, face to face, with their representatives. And I felt that my work, despite everything, was useful.