Democracy is at risk and requires healthy media, several portfolios from the new EU Commission are relevant. After years of fake news and weak self-regulation, this ecosystem could be rebalanced if four key Commissioners cooperate around the media sector, argues Christophe Leclercq.
Christophe Leclercq is the founder of the EURACTIV Media Network and the think-and-do tank Fondation EURACTIV, promoting #Media4Democracy; he was also on the EU’s High-Level Expert Group on disinformation.
Building on the previous mandate, there is wide consensus on goals in these areas. This includes preserving democracy against fake news and destabilisation, and countering the platforms’ lack of taxation and accountability.
More positively, it is about rebalancing the platform/media/advertising ecosystem – which we would call a ‘democracy infrastructure’ – and helping the media sector grow more innovative, across borders. This ‘geopolitical’ Commission has a broader narrative, about sovereignty: stability and influence of quality media also matters for Europe as a soft power.
Goals are clear, time for action
These shared objectives were painstakingly established via a number of processes, including legislation on copyright and on audiovisual services, and the High Level Expert Group’s report, endorsed by the subsequent Commission Communication on tackling online disinformation. Stakeholders and MEPs also agreed, across party lines.
Then, fears around the EU elections led to a short term focus: mediocre commitments by platforms, and the action plan on disinformation, focusing chiefly on Russian threats and cyberattacks.
Now is the time to become strategic again, and to act firmly. Without spending months or years in talking shops or turf battles. Brussels loves consultation, while stakeholders and countries need impact, especially given the media crisis and growing populism..
Indeed, these goals can be enacted by several Directorates General, led by several Commissioners. From the President von der Leyen’s top six priorities, two are most relevant for democracy and media’s health: ‘’A Europe fit for the digital age’, and ‘A new push for democracy’.
The digital agenda is mentioned in the mission letters of three Commissioners: Executive VP Vestager, Commissioner Goulard for the Internal Market and digital, and also Commissioner Gabriel for Youth and Innovation (notably Horizon Europe, and the MEDIA programme, plus new skills initiatives?).
Countering destabilisation via digital platforms is of course also relevant to foreign affairs (High Representative Borrell) and to VP Šuica, dealing chiefly with citizens and the ‘Future of Europe’ conference.
VP Jourová, supported by Commissioner Reynders’ justice department, will aim for media pluralism and write a Democracy Action plan, tackling notably disinformation and political advertising. However, Věra Jourová does not have democracy in her title… (yet). This leadership sounds promising on paper, but how will it work?
Commissioners’ titles in line with portfolios, please
Good news: there is a symbolic victory for those who advocated a Vice-President for democracy Bad news: we had anticipated some pitfalls, alas there is one more: that title is currently tied to the wrong portfolio, hence the wrong Commissioner. So, let’s clear upfront two possible misunderstandings.
First, in line with press freedom, media policy should not be confused with EU communication, and this is established since the Juncker Commission. Indeed, Dubravka Šuica’s letter of mission provides her lead on DG Communication: she should not appear in charge of democracy.
Secondly, Věra Jourová comes under ‘values and transparency’, but de facto she has the democracy portfolio: her letter of mission includes the electoral system, a Democracy Action Plan, resilience, media pluralism, ethics and citizen initiatives.
Dubravka Šuica’s mission letter includes little on democracy despite claiming it as the headline. To clarify, as a condition for MEPs approval, I suggest adjusting Dubravka Šuica’s title to ‘VP demography and citizens’ (or shorter: ‘VP People’?).
Logically, Věra Jourová’s title would become ‘VP Democracy’ (which can encompass ‘values’ and transparency’), or even better: ‘VP democracy and media’. She will face questions about the Czech prime minister but is expected to pass through the hearings.
To prevent vetoes by Parliament, some title adjustments are likely anyway, such as the migration portfolio. And several letters of mission are likely to be updated as a result of the hearing process. Should the Commission not anticipate, and offer ‘improvements’ already at the hearings?
Jumpstart industrial strategy with a Commissioners’ group for media
Industrial strategy is firmly anchored in the mission letter of Sylvie Goulard, who will also lead the Directorate General CONNECT, and she has the credentials to deliver. Margarethe Vestager as Executive VP will harness competition powers for Europe’s digital strategy.
This means that tech giants may adapt their behaviour, also regarding their interactions with the media sector (less abuses of dominant positions). These two ladies could shape the ‘democracy infrastructure’, if that purpose is made clearer.
On past experience, horizontal debates on ‘politique industrielle’ may take an ideological character (prejudices about State planning versus market), leading to slow progress. In parallel, quicker agreements could be found around some sector strategies.
The media sector would lend itself to this approach, mostly using existing tools (including competition powers). Such a ‘smart policy package’ for media could be added to the existing ‘100 day’ narrative of the political priorities.
There are policy proposals from the services, they can now be bundled in the Commission’s work programme, under the political headings discussed by a Group of Commissioners for media.
This group would include the ‘four power ladies for media’: Mmes Vestager, Jourová, Gabriel, Goulard.
Political cooperation between the Commissioners will be key. For operations, rather than spending time restructuring many Directorates-General, this could be prepared and implemented by a further Media Task Force, at services level, with officials from the portfolios mentioned.
Stakeholder views tend to go in the same direction of coordination. For example, Reporter Sans Frontières is worried about the Hungarian Commissioner for enlargement, pointing to Věra Jourová on press freedom issues (not ‘VP Democracy’ Dubravka Šuica), and also mentioning M. Vestager, S. Goulard, as well as Didier Reynders, and Josep Borrell.
For its part, the European Federation of Journalists is concerned about media pluralism. Like RSF, it is pointing M. Vestager for a level playing field between media and online platforms.
Act firmly now to broaden political support
Our overview of key Commissioners also includes the main questions I would recommend for MEPs to address them during the upcoming hearings. Further, a media intergroup is considered within the Parliament, which would support continuity and coordination. Not only between relevant committees, but also between political groups in the potential majority.
Because here lies the challenge for this Commission: to broaden its parliamentary support. For the moment, the majority is thin, at the risk of any hiccups, and hostage to semi-hard right like Orban’s Fidesz.
Not counting on hard-right, hard-left, and further populists, still, mainstream pro-European MEPs are missing in the von der Leyen majority: many social democrats, and the Greens. A more effective set-up for media health and democracy could make a difference for them.
Behind the ‘four power ladies for media’ facing hearings, President-elect von der Leyen could take further leadership. She could pre-announce this Commissioners’ group for media, and change Mrs Jourová’s title for VP democracy and media. She would show that democracy is more than her number six priority, and will be powered faster.