February 12, 2020
This famous phrase was uttered by Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU. Most likely he meant that the economy and the law of the marketplace no longer suffice. Perhaps he was also suggesting that without a cultural seed, there can never be a united Europe. The question merits examination in the light of today.
Battling against fake news is one of our great debates. But what is “fake news”? Is it a piece of information known to be false and deliberately communicated as if it were true? Yes, that is the definition of fake news. But in practice it is not quite so. The majority of fake news is information communicated in good faith, believing that it is true while in fact it is false. Another category of fake news comprises information that you would judge false if you had time to think about it, but which one broadcasts as true through laziness, laxity or incompetence.
The European debate is polluted with fake news, a large portion being unintentional. The person simply has not taken the time to verify it. He or she did not have sufficient “culture” to understand that the reasoning was false or the statistics inaccurate. Not having sufficient capacity to disentangle true from false would not be a problem if it were possible to verify using sources recognized as reliable. The press would be one. But is the press reliable? EU agencies (EFSA, ECHA, EMA, etc.) are another, but are they credible?
Social networks are a useful tool for fake news and other non-verified information
There is no sanction to fear, no filtering; even in reference publications pseudonyms are accepted. Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook…it is the law of the jungle, the law of the strongest. And who is the strongest? He or she who knows how best to use the system. In other words, public opinion’s perception of the message is linked not to its accuracy or falseness, but to the simple ability of the sender to utilize the new tools of electronic communication.
Currently, the governance of the European Union excludes any cultural dimension. We remember the “Carrefours de l’Europe”, those thematic meetings where Jacque Delors welcomed thinkers from around the world. Where are the “European thinkers” today, the people conceiving the policies of tomorrow? They are drowned by constraints: first, the excessive number of Member States. Second, the finances. The ECB releases € 4.000 billion of liquidities, but we quibble over a few billion for the budget. Other constraints: the procedural complexity of the EU which needs to be simplified as soon as possible, and the EU’s drift towards texts that are ever more bureaucratic, technical and divisive.
The less culture we have, the more divisive and intolerant we are
This is the heart of the matter: the less culture we have, the more divisive we are. The less we know, the more intolerant we are. Something to fear in the years ahead is the hardening of relations between European actors. Member States and a Parliament battling for supremacy at the expense of the common interest. A bureaucracy that seizes power and reduces ambition to the lowest common denominator. Stakeholders who either are ignorant or attack each other.
Today we cannot say that the European Union lacks a grand project. With the Green Deal we have a considerable challenge. But if this legitimate ambition is not sufficiently grounded in the budget, a reinvigorated governance system and a civil society capable of having dialogue and finding fair solutions. It is therefore vital that we learn again how to speak to each other, how to think, how to analyse critically. In short, we have to start again with the culture.