Can pan-European politics thrive online? An interview with Euroblog's Jon Worth
BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, December 2 2009
Ears couldn't help but perk up when, at PdF Europe, a presenter showed this map of the European blogosphere and noted the almost total lack of overlap between national online conversations, but pointed to the middle of it all and said something to effect of 'that's Jon Worth.' As the European Union takes ever greater hold, with the legal enforcement of the Treaty of Lisbon just yesterday, is there a pan-European online political conversation? If not, why not, and should there be? The Brussels-based Worth, the blogger behind Euroblog, was nice enough to join me on IM for a chat.
First of all it's worth saying that Anthony [Hamelle of Linkfluence] was talking about political blogospheres, not blogospheres about cooking or Formula 1 racing. Essentially political blogospheres operate rather nationally in Europe. It's to do with languages, prevailing political culture, and the fact that the European Union as a whole does not necessarily lend itself to blogging. I am somewhere in that gap between the national blogospheres. I'm British, I live in Brussels, I am an EU politics person by background, and I can do tech. And I have been blogging about the EU for more than 4 years. So what transnational/EU wide political blogopshere that exists one way or another passes through my blog quite often.
I was not remotely surprised by what Anthony presented. It's essentially what I've intuitively understood.
Can you expand on that idea that "prevailing political culture" helps to explain why there doesn't seem to be a pan-European online conversation?
Every political culture has its characters, its symbols, its history. People grow up with that. I grew up with Thatcher beating the miners in the 1980s on TV, with debates from the House of Commons on the news. There's no real EU equivalent of that. Not the characters people know, not the cartoons people watched as kids and the references to national popular culture that enter a political discourse. Everyone still has a relentless national focus in Europe. That's understandable. National newspapers that are still well read. [There are] higher turnouts in national elections than in other elections.
That raises a question, though. So there's no real conversation across nationanl borders amongst the politically engaged. But you do have political leaders busily building a powerful unified force in the form of the European Union. Is that worth worrying about?
Perhaps, but not necessarily. It depends if people are capable of having multiple levels of identity, that they can relate to the city or region they live in, their country, and then also something beyond that. No one is ever going to love the European Union. But I do hope that eventually people will see its importance [and] work out ways to interact with the EU and its institutions. For that I don't think you have to have as much communication across borders as you do within borders. But more than we have now is for sure necessary.
I tend to cite my father in relation to this sort of question... He's an Englishman living in Wales. Doesn't speak Welsh. But he votes in Welsh Assembly elections because he sees how it impacts his life. It's a kind of rational choice. I hope that in the future people would think that about elections to the European Parliament too, even if they do not have a personal affinity to the institutions as such.
You mention the fact that your father doesn't speak Welsh while he lives in Wales. But when it comes to the Internet, he's going to have access to much more information (in English) than his neighbors who only speak Welsh. How big a factor is language when we're talking about politics and the Internet?
Everyone in Wales can speak English too, even if they deny it... But seriously, the language issue is an important one.
Fair enough. But there are enough French men and women who don't speak English.
Yes, fair point. Essentially there is going to be some kind of heirarchy of languages in the end. A lot will be conducted in English, with some in French, German, Polish. But already some of the smaller European languages are used less for EU business. Swedish Members of the European Parliament often address the chamber in English, for example.
I'm also personally lucky on the language front. I speak good French and German, and some Swedish and Italian, as well as English. And mother tongue -- English -- is very, very helpful in EU politics.
You work throughout the region. What European countries are embracing the way that technology can change politics, and where do you see more resistance?
It varies a lot across Europe. The Nordic countries are out in front. Swedish and Norwegian politicians have a tradition of openness. That works well online. It also helps that very high percentages of the populations in those countries have broadband. Interestingly those countries also still have the highest newspaper readership in the world too, so it's not as if you have to have one or the other.
The development in France, UK and Spain is rather patchy. The UK has excellent eGovernment, but ePolitics has taken a long time to develop. And UK ePolitics is still all rather Westminster/London focussed. In Spain, there are some good examples (as seen at PdF) but it's a generational issue in politics I think. In France, Segolene Royal's presidency bid was a good example of a candidate building support online and that gaining in the mainstream media. I think the French tradition of rebellion against the 'system' also helps.
The countries (among the larger ones anyway) that are behind are Italy and Germany. Italy lacks the infrastructure (poor broadband for example) and its politicians are really over the hill -- there too long, very traditional politics.
In Germany, it's rather different. Populations that still maintain a considerable degree of trust in their politicians. Too much in my opinion. Titles (Member of the Bundestag, even PhDs) still count for an awful lot in Germany.
And "blogger," not so much?
Yes. That applies to the lack of a German blogosphere -- a political one in any case. That culture online prevents individuals with good ideas standing up for themselves and blogging. But for me ePolitics requires independent bloggers, people who scrutinise, check, write, create debate. In Engish I can say "OK, here I am, I have these opinions" and people will take that at face value. In German, people would be more likely to look at my qualifications to determine whether they could trust me. Look at the number of PhDs in Merkel's government.
A theme that ran through PdF Europe was that the Obama campaign here in the U.S. was somehow exceptional. I heard again and again that Obama's style of campaiging that matched the rhetoric of participation with a dependence on citizen engagement just wouldn't work in some places in Europe. Why is that?
I'm not quite so negative about tha. Obama is also an exceptional person, who has traditional political qualities of the highest order -- speech making, for example. Where is there any character remotely like him as an individual in any European country? Perhaps the fact that there is not one, that the party political systems do not produce those indviduals, is the root of the problem.
But for me it's about risk. If politicians have to risk something, have to risk to win, then great campaigns, Obama-style, are doable
Between the political establishment and the activist class, there sometimes seems to be a greater divide in some parts of Europe than we have here in the U.S. For example, you can hear young new media staffers with the Obama campaign talked about as 'spin doctors,' when at home they might be looked at more as activists than as part of the system. Is that a fair generalization?
I think it's a fair generalisation. And I think it ties in with the Obama stuff generally, from the previous question. If you're a bright, innovative, thoughtful, Internet politics person, what do you do? Do you push the system from the outside? Or do you join it, or at least contract to it? That depends on which country you're in, and how you deal with the overall culture in politics. I remember Markus Beckedahl (Netzpolitik, Germany) telling a TV crew a few months ago: why would I spend my time sat in boring meetings when I can actually DO things on the outside? We all face that sort of tension.
I think that probably US political parties are better at dealing with creative people inside the organisations than parties are in most EU countries.