Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

Nosemonkey interviewed: On EU blogs and Russia

Believe it or not, from time to time people actually ask me for my opinion on things, rather than me just spouting out unsolicited words into the electronic ether and hoping that someone may spot them and correct my mistakes.

As such, this evening I’ll be doing the talking head thing on the BBC World Service’s World Have Your Say, trying to come up with a coherent theory about Russia’s current plans and how the rest of the world should respond. (Likely argument? Russia’s being childish and throwing a tantrum, and there’s usually two responses to tantrums: smack them or ignore them. Unfortunately, neither option’s really possible in this case.) Any suggestions much appreciated.

Oh, and some content from this place may soon start appearing in syndicated form on the website of a new PBS world news show – about which more details when I have them. (Check me out – I’m a regular media whore…)

Meanwhile, last week the chap behind L’Europe en blogs got in touch to ask my take on all things Euroblog. The write-up can be found here and is, I believe, the first in a series of interviews they’re doing with leading EU bloggers. Below the fold is a longer version of my somewhat pessimistic take on the state of the EU blogosphere – a taster:

the EU continues to work largely unscrutinised by the public – because us bloggers ARE the public, and if we’re not doing it, who the hell is?

There’s not yet enough EU-focussed blogs to really generalise about them. The one major thing that does stand out is the lack of readership – something I’ll return to in a bit.

Other than that, EU blogs keep covering the same ground – pondering about what the EU’s for, how it should be reformed, etc. etc. etc. – largely because most bloggers don’t stick at it for more than a few months, so Euroblogland is littered with dead blogs full of much the same sort of thing. There’s also very little detailed coverage of events in Brussels, Strasbourg, etc. – because there are very few insiders blogging, relatively few EU news sources, and because it’s mostly very boring. The only time I’ve seen anyone discussing EU policy in much detail is on the EU law blogs (usually heavy-going for the layman) or eurosceptic blogs (normally packed full of wild conspiracy theories and deliberate misinterpretations that would nonetheless take hours to research enough to debunk effectively).

In any case, without decent automatic online translators (they’re getting better, but still aren’t good enough to rely on), bloggers and blog readers who struggle outside their native language are stuck with a very small part of EU blogworld. I can read a bit of French, but that’s it – so have no idea what’s being said about the EU in Spanish, German, Italian, Czech, Polish, etc. etc. etc. Until the language barrier is overcome, it’s impossible to talk about a genuine European blogosphere – just as there’s still no shared European public sphere / demos.

Having said that, there have recently been some moves in the right direction – Euros du Village attempting a multi-language group blog which is showing some promise. Blogactiv attempting to set up a hub for EU experts in an attempt to bring a wide range of analysis together. European Tribune – the longest-running of these – bringing a Daily Kos-style multi-author approach to EU affairs. There are a few ongoing efforts to provide similar hubs – be it via RSS aggregators, Digg-style portals, or whatever.

But there still aren’t enough attempts to reach out to wider audiences – the hubs to date may have built up healthy readerships of their own, but there isn’t much cross-linking, and readers seem to tend to stick to the few blogs they know well, rather than jump around.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the EU’s insanely complicated and equally insanely boring. But it’s also that there are too few genuine experts out there with the writing skills to make the thing interesting. Over the last five years I’ve seen countless pro-EU blogs come and go, and I’d say the majority have been written by enthusiastic students whose knowledge is sorely lacking. Many get disillusioned by the level of debate – which, in English at least, is dominated by rabid British eurosceptics (see the comments at Margot Wallstrom’s blog for some good examples). Others simply lose interest in the whole blogging hobby. Yet more no doubt get depressed by the lack of interest their writings have attracted – the perennial problem of writing about EU affairs.

EU political news sells even less well than regular political news. And, as with all news-based publishing, it’s only the bad news that attracts interest. Which is, no doubt, why the anti-EU sites get so much more traffic than those in favour (well-meaning but frequently overly-excitable long-running eurosceptic blog EU Referendum and the barkingly mad conspiracy theorists of the Brussels Journal are far and away the most popular EU-focussed blogs, because they never have a good word to say about anything – bar the US military). Good news doesn’t sell and isn’t interesting, and the pro-EU blogs are usually trying to put out good news. (Which is part of the reason I take a more critical line than many other pro-EU bloggers – to suck in unsuspecting sceptics with attacks on Brussels before presenting alternative, more positive arguments that they won’t hear via the usual channels.)

This is the fundamental problem – coverage of EU affairs is not profitable. There aren’t enough willing readers out there to justify launching EU-focussed publications as profit-making ventures, so we’re stuck with amateurs – the blogs (even the few professionals – like the BBC’s Mark Mardell, Liberation’s Jean Quatremer, The Economist’s Certain Ideas of Europe team – are sorely under-funded and under-resourced, doing the blogging as a sideline, while the EU news sites are mostly – like EurActiv – not funded via advertising or subscription, but public grants and sponsorship).

Us bloggers are hampered by the same problem – we may be doing it for free, but we’re also all (mostly) having to rely on the same very few EU-focussed sites, papers or magazines. And being amateurs doing this as a hobby, we simply don’t have the time or resources – even collectively – to dig down and find the juicy bits that will be floating around among the tens of thousands of words of policy documents, briefing papers and the like that are produced daily by the innumerable EU institutions, thinktanks and lobby organisations.

And so the EU continues to work largely unscrutinised by the public – because us bloggers ARE the public, and if we’re not doing it, who the hell is?

In short: it’s all very futile, and is rarely rewarding. It is, however, quite addictive. And by blogging about the EU we could – just could – be taking the first steps towards the kind of European public sphere that most people are agreed is essential for the EU’s long-term success. If each of us EU bloggers can inspire just a handful of people to go and find out more, to start reading and/or blogging about the EU themselves, and they in turn do the same, eventually we’ll get there. It’s early days, but you never know – stranger things have happened…

The thing with blogs is the collective benefit – the more there are, the more that gets covered. Thankfully there’s not enough EU-focussed blogs yet for the usual blog groupthink to have kicked in (except for, usually, among the British eurosceptic blogs), which means that if you do the rounds of all of them you’ll usually get a nicely rounded picture of what’s going on. But at the same time there’s not yet enough of them to cover EU affairs in the amount of detail that is warranted – and needed.