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From closed circuits to communicating tubes

Polish journalist Adam Krzeminski points the way toward a European public sphere

A European public sphere is a reality and at the same time a vision, if not a philosophical impossibility. It is only with some difficulty that the circuits of national discourse join together to become communicating tubes in a common discourse that is pursued as their own by people from Poland to Portugal, and from Cyprus to Lapland. There are, of course, some major European debates that make big waves in all the EU member states simultaneously. Yet – as Ulrich K. Preuß wrote – the EU cannot claim to be a universal-republican model of a public sphere.

The Europeans discuss common foreign and energy policies. They talk about the Lisbon Agenda or the Bologna Programme, and they follow with baited breath the presidential elections in France or the parliamentary elections in Germany, England or Poland, knowing that the outcomes of these elections will soon leave their mark on their own domestic politics. Yet at the same time they continue to live primarily with their own national media, even if these are published by "foreign " media concerns. And these media, in turn, concern themselves primarily with national problems, corruption scandals, ranking lists and economic interests. And yet, in spite of everything, slivers of a European public sphere are part of our daily experience.

There are some excellent examples of this. A German filmmaker – Volker Schlöndorff – for instance, makes a film about the Polish strikes in the summer of 1980, because he considers this an important contribution to the German debate about the revolutionary aberrations of the twentieth century. In Poland, meanwhile, young writers suddenly produce a dozen Baader-Meinhof dramas, because they are disappointed by the Polish "Round Tables Revolution" of 1980-89. But neither the German attempt to address a Polish issue nor the young Poles' excursion into German affairs goes down well with their domestic audience. There are, however, projects that have been surprisingly well received in a public sphere that even transgresses the EU's boundaries. Such as when the Polish filmmaker Jerzy Hoffman presented the Ukrainians with a low-budget film trilogy entitled: "Ukraine. The Birth of a Nation". The upshot was a heated nation-wide debate of the kind that would have been triggered in almost any European country in the nineteenth century by a new national novel.

In the era of the Internet, satellite dishes and cheap flights, it is not difficult for anyone who wishes to do so to gain access to a neighbouring country. But you do need to know the language. English will take you a long way, but not far enough if, for example, you are a Pole trying to find your own path through the Ukrainian labyrinth, or a German wandering through the Polish one. English continues to be the lingua franca in this European Tower of Babel, but even fairly good school or tourist English is rarely sufficient when comes to holding a qualified discussion or in some cases even delving into the psychology of someone from a neighbouring country. And yet this is a bitter necessity in a Europe so proud of its national, cultural, confessional and linguistic variety, in a Europe whose national histories have often been bloody ones, and in a Europe of carefully cherished collective self-interest and a degree of ignorance that is arrogant.

And yet fragments of a European public sphere are what we dream of everyday. The dream begins with the TV news about an endless series of summit talks - EU, G8, NATO. Even if only a few snippets of what is actually happening on this occasion reach average TV viewers -- another phase of EU enlargement, some veto or other on some agreement or other with Russia, the Americans' anti-missile defence shield in Poland -- they have already got used to the fact that even their private world can no longer be viewed in purely national terms.

Even in Poland, where a nationalist conservative government is currently trying to resurrect the deeply rooted mistrust and dislike of Germany and the Germans, opinion surveys continue to show a greater enthusiasm for Europe than ever… Indeed, EU institutions, including the European Parliament, are more highly valued than the Poles' own national political institutions. Even the European Constitutional Treaty, despite being heavily criticised by the coalition parties, would receive a clear favourable majority if a referendum were to be held today.

For Poles, Europe is not only the norm - as a conservative journalist wrote pre-1989 - but also a kind of insurance policy against the abstruse antics of their own political class. After joining the EU in 2004, a majority of Poles were even in favour of electing a European president directly; they wanted a common foreign policy and the formation of a Euro-army; and they wanted the euro to be introduced as quickly as possible. And yet at the same time they wanted the nation-state to have a higher status within the EU. An attempt to square the circle that is not untypical for Europe.

Large parts of the European public now have a notion of the nation in which the EU is directly present in debates on domestic policy. Has their government obtained the best possible conditions in the treaty of accession or "gone down on its knees" and "sold out" national interests? Are European members of parliament who take their own national institutions to the European Court in Strasbourg traitors? Or are they good citizens trying to mobilise Europe to defend them from attacks by their own boorish politicians? Or vice-versa: should they - in order to avoid damaging the country's reputation even further - try to talk sense into an EU member of parliament who makes a laughing stock of himself in Strasbourg by mounting attacks on Darwin and homosexuals? (And here the issue is not primarily the reputation but the nonsense being talked.)

Europe has taken on the function of a huge corrective, monitoring body - and even an educational institution. It acts as both a litmus test and a catalyst for national debates and domestic disputes. Can we rely on Brussels in the final instance to stop inept autobahn freaks who are prepared to destroy unique ecosystems, or legislators who in their frenzied desire to get even with the communists and with their political opponents undermine human rights? After just a few years, the EU has assumed a presence in many areas of domestic policy and has become a piece of political normality, to a much greater extent than one would ever have thought. Even the euro-sceptics in the "Law and Justice" party of the Kaczynski brothers, who in 2003 avoiding taking up a clear position in the accession referendum and in the 2005 party programme refused to move beyond de Gaulle's notion of Europe dating from the 1960s – who in other words railed against the euro, against the constitutional treaty and against a common EU foreign policy -- even they are today insisting on a common EU strategy on energy policy towards Russia.

The rapid Europeanisation of the EU-member states has, however, also given rise to an open counter movement. The call for "re-nationalisation" in the 1990s came from the "old" Europeans, not from the "new" ones. In Germany people started to worry about their country as an economic location, about the role of German culture as the "defining culture," about national pride and about the "new patriotism". And finally a German chancellor declared, urbi et orbi, that German policy was made in Berlin and not elsewhere. The egocentrism which led the French in 2003 to declare that the German-French position on the Iraq war was also the European one and which in 2004 caused France to reject in a referendum the treaty for a European constitution (which, one should note, had been initiated by France) on the grounds that the French labour market was threatened by "Polish plumbers" comes as no surprise. For it was France after all that rejected the European Defence Community in 1954. And in French eyes there is nothing so outrageous as the idea that France and England will eventually give up their permanent seats in the UN Security Council in favour of a common EU vote... Even Germany is now claiming the right to hold such a seat.

But it is not political discord that questions the existence of a European public sphere, but rather a lack of political will to solve current problems in an efficient way. In other words, national interests are still at the centre of European political discourse.

And there still aren't enough supporters of a European public sphere. After nine years the British press tycoon Robert Maxwell stopped publishing The European, a newspaper conceived as a forum for European intellectual discourse. European democracy is still practised to a great extent within nation-states and not in the continental dimension. Even the ponderous television channel "Euro-News" has not succeeded in creating a European public sphere. But without a European consciousness there will be no European federation.

We are still to a greater or lesser degree caught up in the influence of the local media, even if these are in the hands of international concerns. A European television station that would transmit from Lisbon to Helsinki and from Kiev to Ankara - not only for the purpose of broadcasting the Eurovision Song Contest - is still unthinkable. But does it have actually have to transmit that far? Up to now only local attempts to transmit across borders have been successful, involving two, or at most three languages. For some time now the idea of at least founding a local Polish-Ukrainian station in Przemysl and Lviv and a German-Polish-Czech TV station in in Breslau, Dresden and Hradec Kralove has seemed desirable. Such stations could be modelled along the lines of the German-French cultural channel Arte, which admittedly does not have a very large audience, but is considered one of the most cultured and ambitious television channels in Europe. There is no chance of a pan-European version of CNN. For although English is spoken everywhere, it will be a long time before Europe speaks one language. The Europeans will continue to be dependent on interpreters, translators of neighbouring cultures and mediators for some time to come.

And in many cases, they function very well. The Dutch reporter and essayist Geert Mak succeeded in carrying out a single-handed survey of the European history of the terrible twentieth century. His book received glowing reviews in several countries, but it can only be read in a few languages. Arne Ruth, a Swedish journalist, is right when he points out that although European journalists read and discuss the likes of Fukuyama, Huntington and other trend-setting American books, they spend little time talking to one another about European journalism. Timothy Garton Ash's book "In Europe's Name", which takes stock of German Ostpolitik, may have been talked about in Germany and Poland, but it aroused less interest in France, never mind Spain or Greece. And by the same token his book "Free World" appealed to Britons, Germans and French, but not to Poles or Czechs… And while in 2003 we all read Kagan's Philippika against Europe, Emmanuel Todd's passionate epitaph on the USA was read only by the French, a few hundred Germans and one or two Poles.

The Europeans have no equivalent of The New York Review of Books, no qualified source of information about European thinking. Each country has its own monthly journals devoted to European thought – like the German Merkur – but each is written from its own perspective. From time to time the major weeklies, and in Germany the arts pages and Sunday supplements of the national dailies, peer over the fence to see what's going on in their neighbours' gardens. And while what they find on the other side may tell them quite a bit about their neighbours, it seldom grows into a whole ecosystem of European discourse.

There is no European cultural magazine – and no website either – that regularly publishes the bestseller lists from the countries of the EU. If they were to do so, it would become obvious that we Europeans are out of sync with one another. We all read the American international bestsellers -- albeit with a time-lag -- and then our own national bestsellers, but if we do manage to read books published in neighbouring countries, then usually so much "after the event" that no common literary discourse is possible. There are exceptions, of course. When a year ago Günter Grass surprised the European public with his revelation that he had spent a short time serving as a soldier with the Waffen SS (more here), it was the Poles from Gdansk who supported their writer Grass and ultimately stifled the German campaign against Grass. On that occasion the communicating tubes functioned.

But for this to happen interpreters were needed, not only to translate texts but to explain the motives of one side to the other, and to question the cliches. These interpreters are missing from the European discourse, however. Or rather they exist, but they are seldom called upon.

Who can say quite honestly that they know what the current debates are that are taking place in Portugal, Greece or Finland? Who is worried about the fact that a representative survey conducted in Portugal revealed that Salazar is still considered the most important politician in Portuguese history? Which German journalist or satirist making jokes about the Kaczynski brothers as Pilsudski warmed up for the third time goes to the trouble of comparing the founder of the Polish state of 1918 not with a banana republic caudillo but – once again with a time lag of half a century – with Otto von Bismarck? And when Gerhard Schröder took along Bismarck's portrait to a meeting with European intellectuals outside the chancellor's office, or in good old Bismarckian tradition embraced Putin, the flawless democrat, in Kaliningrad, or rather Königsberg, passing over the Poles and Lithuanians, were German journalists disgusted? Why should we worry that the Polish and Lithuanian presidents - in other words, the heads of the states directly bordering on the Russian exclave - were not invited to Putin's celebrations when the oil continues to bubble so agreeably out of the Siberian earth?

A European public sphere needs to start in our heads. Europe's leading philosophers - the grand old men of European thought - still think in "old European" terms. They read English, French and German, sometimes some Italian as well, but their image of Europe has atrophied too. When two of Europe's great philosophers - a German and a Frenchman, wrote a manifesto on Europe's concept of itself in 2003 - they invited only their colleagues from "old Europe" to participate in a debate: an Italian, a Spaniard and an Anglo-Saxon, but no Czech, no Pole, no Estonian. Among those invited was an excellent historian who talked about Western - i.e., Atlantic - values. But although he paid lip service to the fact that the Eastern Europeans share these values, he showed no knowledge of the history of ideas in Poland or Hungary, which could have been expounded in just as much detail as the French, German or American ideas. And thus the debate missed all the subtleties of the lack of synchrony between "old" and "new" Europe, which so often leads to misunderstandings in day to day politics.

One need only cite a few examples: when in 2005 a Latvian minister put Stalin's crimes on a par with Hitler's, she was angrily taken to task by people in the West for challenging the received opinion that only the Holocaust and not the Gulag should belong as a negative memory to the founding myth of a united Europe. Another example is the "old Europeans'" failure to show solidarity with Poland in its attempts to counter the Stalinist view, still prevailing in Russia, that the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 and the subsequent annexation of Eastern Poland and the Baltic states by the Soviet Union were legal and morally acceptable acts. By the same token, Putin's refusal to classify the Stalinist mass murder of Polish elites as genocide is received with indifference in "old Europe." The desire to bring about "change through integration" is not yet advanced enough to bring about a revision of the Stalinist model underlying the Russian philosophy of history.

Nevertheless, one might argue that shortcomings in history lessons are not what constitutes the essence of a European public sphere. So let us instead – as Jürgen Habermas recently urged us to do – talk about the new kind of structural change in the public sphere - in other words, the sale of quality newspapers to international concerns that focus entirely on profits and circulation figures and not on deliberative democracy. Let us talk about the new electronic media, about the bloggers who, particularly in times of crisis, like the Ukrainian Orange Revolution, are able to do their research more quickly and better than professional journalists. And let us stop complaining about the Europeans' ignorance of their own continent's history and about how in our Tower of Babel people all too rarely take a look at the culture pages of their neighbours' newspapers. For in Germany there is an organisation called Perlentaucher - the pearl divers - which publishes a weekly round-up (in English here) of the most important European, American and even Arab weeklies and supports a level of international debate that does not allow itself to be hemmed in by "old" or "parochial" views of Europe.

And yet the structure of the public sphere - the transformation of the media - is one thing, while the changes that need to be made in the actual messages being communicated are something else. Even if there is a connection between the two. When the Poles are up in arms because a minister of education (who is also chairman of the "League of Polish families" an ailing nationalist-Catholic party, but one that still plays a vital role in giving the governing coalition a majority) purges the curriculum of school literature not only of critical Polish authors but even of Dostoevsky and Goethe, then that is no longer an exclusively Polish matter, but receives attention in Germany as well. It would be well worth some time comparing the lists of compulsory reading in all EU countries in order to find out to what extent they are both national and European. How much of Europe's literary heritage penetrates the minds not just of Spanish, Latvian and Bulgarian pupils but also of German and French ones? Where in European consciousness do there continue to be blank spots, where is our European "valley of the innocent"? A situation in which pupils in the schools of "old Europe" associate nothing at all, literally nothing with the cultures of East Central Europe is untenable.

Thus we come to one of the most enticing European debates of the next few months, which the media will probably have no trouble taking up. Namely, the question of whether it is possible to write a European history book that would be approved for publication in all EU countries. The European Commission would like to create such a book. Historians and many journalists are more sceptical, pointing out that European history is simply the sum of national histories, so that combining these in any meaningful way is scarcely conceivable. What for one country would constitute a glorious victory, for another would mean defeat (whether shameful or honourable). There is no getting round that fact. And yet there have been attempts, some more, some less successful, to forge links between all of us Europeans.

As in the Middle Ages, the successful ones are the single-handed efforts made by individual historians to consider Europe as a whole. Among these one may list Norman Davies' long essay "Europe. A History" - albeit, at 1200 pages, hardly a book suitable for schools. A rather less successful attempt would appear to be a collectively written German-French school textbook of European (as opposed to German-French) post-1945 history. While it is structured in an accessible manner and does not try to cover too much ground, ultimately its focus is too narrow, looking at the history of this period from a German-French perspective. The 17th of June 1953, for example, gets five times as much space as "Solidarnosc", which is relegated to mention in a footnote. A further omission is the tortured, decades-long German debate over recognition of the Oder-Neisse line (and hence the significance of German-Polish reconciliation). The highlight of European modern history in this strange school textbook, though, is the icon of the so-called "St. Petersburg triangle," a large picture of Chirac, Schröder and Putin. Probably intended by the authors as a tribute to the political imperatives of the day, it was an image that already been forgotten a year later. The French-German-Polish "Weimar Triangle", on the other hand, which came into being in 1991, is not mentioned because the authors did not consider it opportune in the context of current politics.

And yet this German-French attempt does deserve praise, simply for the fact that it was initiated at all, and thus provided an incentive for emulation. It is now to be followed by a German-Polish school textbook, which will hopefully be read critically by their neighbours as well.

We may thus conclude that while a European public sphere may be a theoretical impossibility – as Ulrich K. Preuß asserts – there are some early signs, albeit indistinct and fragmentary ones, that it is beginning to take shape. And while they may be reminiscent of the game of "Chinese Whispers," where the last person in the chain receives a completely different message to the one sent by the first person, we do communicate with one another all the same. In one way or another.


Adam Krzeminski, was born in West Galicia in 1945 and has been editor of the magazine Polityka since 1973. He is one of Poland's leading journalists and chairman of the Polish-German Association in Warsaw.Translation: Melanie Newton

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