EU coalition and futureproof media: Europe needs a VP for Democracy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

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Given difficult elections, the new EU Commission President will need a theme supporting MEPs and Prime Ministers. After years of fake news, platforms’ self-regulation and media crisis, this ecosystem could be rebalanced by a Vice-President for Democracy, Media and Platforms,  Christophe Leclercq argues.

Christophe Leclercq founded the EURACTIV Media Network and the think-and-do tank Fondation EURACTIV, pioneer of Europe’s Media Lab ; he was also a member of the EU’s High-Level Expert Group on disinformation.

 

Dear Commission President-nominee,

As people start discussing the ‘top jobs’ for Spitzenkandidaten and others, we anticipate implications on policy requirements.

Nationalists did not gain a majority, in the end. Now it’s about coalition building, to energize our Union for good. You want to be a real leader? At your July 15 speech in Strasbourg, aware of future storms, what course will you set?

Why: Democracy is an opportunity for coalition-building

Democracy is the EU’s only raison d’être, together with peace and prosperity. But it’s not a given. And it’s not just about lamenting disinformation and blaming some national leaders. The EU needs to tackle systemic issues generated by the platforms, just like it did by upgrading its banking set-up 10 years ago. So, it is about strategic thinking in the digital world and rebalancing the ecosystem made of platforms/media/civil society/advertising. And in the process, creating a European public space anchoring EU democracy in national public opinions.

Does it look like a challenge? Yes! But the good news is that you have the necessary tools, plus the teams, and soon the leaders.

Four to five political families have enough in common: they are your potential coalition of broadly-defined pro-European MEPs. First they share a number of values, such as fundamental rights, notably press freedom. Second, they want to save the EU from populism and nationalism, notably keeping at bay nationalist leaders such as Orban, Salvini, Kazinsky, Dragnea, and the aspiring leaders Farage, Le Pen and others. Third, even the most free-market MEPs know that public authorities should act with regards to platforms and media, both at the national and European levels, while respecting liberties.

In addition, the mainstream parties’ electoral platforms are supportive. The Greens, as well as the hard left, fight for democracy versus ‘oligarchs’. Socialists also care about jobs for journalists, and support to public broadcasters. Liberals’ push for liberties at large includes individuals’ right to privacy and content usage. ‘New centrists’, notably from France, try to build pro-European alliances across party lines. Last but not least, for the Center-right, the European DNA is at stake, setting red lines from the hard right to the extreme right, and also supporting market innovations.

 

A strategy for the media sector and sound platforms

This democracy and media strategy should be based on insightful information, such as the report by the High Level Expert Groups on disinformation, which gave rise to an Open Letter to your predecessor, signed by a cross-section of MEPs.

The Juncker Commission, in this area, has more or less delivered the Digital Single Market package: basically what online platforms had lobbied for. This horizontal approach was actually necessary, but not sufficient: we now need an industrial strategy, as a new ‘top 10’ priority.  Regarding fake news, platforms’ limited implementation of the 2018 ‘Code of practice’ has shown the limits of self-regulation. As a follow-up, MEPs will call for platform taxation and regulation. Some governments already use the EU’s softness as a pretext for allowing censorship, endangering civil liberties. But a better way is possible, mostly using the existing arsenal of policy and budgetary tools.

Europe’s sovereignty is at stake, as there is not a real European media sector yet, and technologies could help, a recent report to the Commission indicates. It is quite telling that Europe’s political parties had to beg Facebook to accept their (paid!) campaigns across borders. There have been calls before for a media industrial policy: now is the time to do it.

Platforms do not want to be publishers, and may in time wish to be regulated, rather than being blamed for one scandal to another. As for the media, they rightly insist on editorial independence, and also have to improve their own fact-checking.

How: leadership by a Democracy VP, and coordination across ‘silos’

Media-related issues have often been discussed between Commissioners, a ‘High-Level group’, or led by a ‘Communication VP’.  It is important however to distinguish between EU communication on the one hand, and media and platform policy on the other. To avoid suspicions of supporting the media in exchange for favorable coverage, you must establish a clear difference between communications (tactics) and the setting up of a European public space (strategy).

So, you could pick your most trusted and multilingual Commissioner to be your chief spokesperson while choosing another one, a strong mainstream ally, to be “Vice-President for Democracy, Media and Platforms”. The Commission services team could then release a new ‘smart policy mix for democracy’. What challenges await such a Commissioner?

Pitfalls: drift, under-powering, laissez-faire, stalemate

Firstly, a fuzzy drift would consist in confusing this portfolio with the Council of Europe and with pro-European NGOs: issuing statements and law suits, plus dishing out small subsidies to consensual initiatives. This would not change the ecosystem.

Secondly, there is the risk of ‘under-powering’. For example, a mere Democracy Commissioner without real say on other portfolios, relying only on a new DG, needs time to set-up. This could be overcome in writing your Mission Letters to a group of other Commissioners. They would lead several associated Directorates General, including five ‘core Democracy DGs’ (notably sectoral ones, plus competition, justice and research), plus functional and foreign departments. Of course, interaction with governments would also be strengthened: the EU can chiefly facilitate a policy frame and R&D projects.

Third, laissez-faire would confuse freedom of expression with letting dominant players do as they wish. We also had a smack of this, when platform-supported ‘NGOs’ claimed that the copyright legislation was against democratic principles.

Reluctance by some media publishers could also spur inaction, even against their sector’s interest. Either because of their ideological blinds against ‘anything EU’ (notably in the anglo-saxon press), or because Brussels has indeed meant bad news all too often. The Democracy VP should ask its Commission services to go and meet the media leaders where they are, not only their few lobbyists in Brussels.

Working with journalists’ organizations will also help speed things up: unlike the management of platforms, they are driven by values, not valuation. And given the media crisis, they understand better than ever the sector’s economics, driving journalists’ jobs and pay.

Fourth, legislative stalemate is another risk. It took five years to decide on the data privacy law, the copyright directive and the audiovisual legislation. All arguments should be heard, but legislative processes are too slow. The chief role of MEPs is not to discuss the fine print of draft directive for years. Rather, they will support and scrutinize your team, reminding the Executive of goals like democracy, and vote on the budget underlying the agreed priorities. Also, some Prime Ministers depend on their government’s control of media or on dubious oligarchs; in the Council, they may try to slow down your democracy agenda, but direct opposition would help your coalition’s cohesion.

So, beware of starting yet another new, wide consultation: rather, trust political demands and existing reports: it’s time for decisions and actions.

Next steps: Generating momentum in coming weeks

Regarding the media/platform/advertising ecosystem, you could start the next mandate ‘hitting the ground running’ and rolling out existing basic regulation. To underpin future regulatory moves, there have been calls for DG Competition to open a ‘sector enquiry’ on this ecosystem, like it successfully did before the e-commerce directive was updated. People were wary before the elections, perhaps also due to the power of platforms (advertising against the copyright directive until the last minute).

Finally, President-nominee, we hear your ‘chef de cabinet’ will prepare potential job profiles and eventually the Commissioners’ mission letters.  We would be delighted for this person to meet parliamentarians and media stakeholders soon. For example at events under #Media4Democracy: MEPs from your potential coalition are fresh from fighting fake news and nationalism, and would be ready to support this Democracy agenda. Around 15% of MEPs have some media background or interest; there are talks of a MEPs ‘media inter-group’, potentially a cross-party ally.

To preserve the European Union, it is essential that you prioritize an integrated strategy for democracy, sound platforms and independent media.

This piece will be updated following comments to fondateur@euractiv.com , or reactions on social media under #Media4Democracy    @LeclercqEU     @FondEURACTIV.

 

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