EU correspondents are needed to make differentiated integration accessible to the public

Asimina Michailidou, Hans-Jörg Trenz |

In a time of growing political complexity and differentiated integration, the role of high-quality journalism on the EU is more important than ever, argue EU3D researchers Asimina Michailidou and Hans-Jörg Trenz.

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay.

Two years into the Conference on the Future of Europe, citizens remain largely unaware of the platform where they are meant to have their say about what future they want for the European Union. To be able to make meaningful contributions to this debate, citizens need to acquire knowledge about the multi-level governance system that characterises the EU, about the division of competences between member states and EU institutions and about the differentiated integration process. But how and by whom are the citizens informed about the EU? We argue that at this critical junction for the EU polity, the function of high-quality professional journalism as a guarantor of democracy in the face of differentiated integration and growing complexity of governance, is more important than ever. EU correspondents are best placed to function as translators of EU technocratic and differentiated governance, as they combine insights into the Brussels-based policy-making mechanisms with first-hand understanding of national politics and interests. Even if covering EU processes may appear irrelevant from a commercial perspective, it is necessary to safeguard the independence and viability of this specialist professional journalism body.

EU correspondents are best placed to function as translators of EU technocratic and differentiated governance, as they combine insights into the Brussels-based policy-making mechanisms with first-hand understanding of national politics and interests.

Making EU understandable and accessible

EU differentiation has challenged the capacities of EU actors and institutions to build the type of public understanding that is needed for democratic legitimacy. The language of EU differentiated governance is built on high levels of complexity and cannot easily be translated into public parlance. The EU does in this sense not suffer so much from an information deficit as is often assumed but from a mediation deficit. As the overall complexity of the EU institutional set-up and policies increases, the public communication capacities of the system decrease. Not only has the EU failed to deliver on its own goal to invest in better and more efficient public communication. The available media and communication infrastructures that could provide translations are also weakened by the general decline of professional journalism with less resources for the financing of the work of EU correspondents and for the promotion of the quality of EU news.

The language of EU differentiated governance is built on high levels of complexity and cannot easily be translated into public parlance.

The two complementary functions of European journalism as experts of differentiated governance and as translators that make the EU understandable and accessible, have often been misunderstood and conflated with the expectation that they would cover the EU in a neutral and unbiased way in the service of EU democracy. Yet, the core function of journalism as an intermediary institution in democracy is selective and interpretative. Selective means that not everything the EU does or proposes makes for a good news story. Interpretative means that EU news stories are framed according to cultural schemes and news values. Framing is a chance to reduce complexity in a meaningful way to enhance citizens’ understanding of the EU, but it can also introduce negative biases towards EU institutions, EU policies or even the values at the core of the EU project of integration.

How do the media translate differentiation in the European Union?

One possibility is that journalists professionalise and specialise as experts of EU governance; but then they may not necessarily succeed in translating EU into public parlance, but rather they replicate the hard-to-relate-to Brussels jargon. A second possibility is that journalists focus on random details instead of systematically monitoring EU differentiated governance, selecting click-bait EU news without providing a cohesive narrative or bringing audiences closer to understanding the system that produces these noteworthy news bites. A third possibility is that journalists succeed in translating EU jargon into public parlance, but do so by differentiating along national lines and providing mainly news for national audiences and along national criteria of relevance.

Yet despite the obvious shortcomings of each of these possible scenarios, journalists are needed as specialists with expert knowledge in their daily monitoring of the performance of the EU and its institutions and with critical capacities to relate differentiation to the quality of democracy in the EU. Journalists, especially EU correspondents, further play an important role as agents of unification of EU journalism in the way their news-coverage relies on collaborative schemes and shared interpretative frames that bridge national media systems and languages. The EU differentiated system of governance is not simply to be held accountable for its public communication deficits but might as well become an experimental field for the institutionalisation of a new type of differentiated EU journalism and its role for the promotion of new forms of democratic control beyond the confines of nationally segmented public spheres.

It is the subject of future research to empirically test the extent to which differentiated EU integration and the differentiation of public spheres driven by digitalization and marketization will converge to push the role of EU correspondents in either direction. What is at stake is the capacity of EU correspondents to function as democratic entrepreneurs who provide a fair judgement of the performance of the EU differentiated system of governance, identify deficits, and bring EU publics together in support or opposition of European integration.

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This blog post is based on Asimina Michailidou and Hans-Joerg Trenz’ paper ‘Mimicry, fragmentation, or decoupling? Three scenarios for the control function of EU correspondents’, published in The International Journal of Press/Politics (2021).