Different ‘Europes’ are possible. Latest research shows how complex it is today to be European

The following insights by Miloš Hroch from Charles University are related to the academic article “Bridging the Discursive and Material Dimensions of Europeanity and Europeanisation“, published on March 20, 2023 in Observatorio (OBS*), Vol. 17 No. 1 (2023).

More details are available here.

Events with far-reaching political and social consequences, such as the migration crisis, global pandemics, or the rise of illiberalism and populism weaponised with fake news, pose a whole set of questions for Europe and European identity. In this context of a post-pandemic age of neo-globalisation, this research asked the question what does it mean to be or become European? Even everyday popular media practices, such as streaming from digital media platforms and watching Netflix or HBO can have consequences for how we experience Europe, particularly as we consider that most of the platforms‘ content is produced by global cultural powerhouses. Since the use of the most popular, globally-owned digital media platforms has become second nature for most Europeans, it is crucial to reflect on how little European culture is present and how poorly it is represented on these platforms. Our understanding of Europe is constantly in flux under the pressure of various conflating crises and global platform capitalism. But how is platformization impacting Europeans today?

So-called platformization refers to the process of changes in the architecture of the Internet, which has led to greater centralisation of power and content. Therefore, a team of researchers led by Professor Nico Carpentier, which was part of the EU-funded project “European Media Platforms: Assessing Positive and Negative Externalities for European Culture” (EUMEPLAT), captured these media dynamics and cultural complexities in their new article ‘Bridging the Discursive and Material Dimensions of Europeanity and Europeanisation: A Participatory Semantic Map Approach’. The article was published in the academic journal Observatorio (OBS*), and presented no less than 19, inter-related approaches to understanding the meaning of “what it means to be European”, and of Europeanisation, referring to “how we can become better and more European”.

As specialists in communication and media theory theory, the team of authors – Nico Carpentier, Miloš Hroch, Sara Cannizzaro, Andrea Miconi, and Vaia Doudaki – focussed particularly, though not exclusively, on the European public sphere, European audiences and European public service media. They employed a multidisciplinary approach to grasp the diversity of approaches ordered around three main theoretical axes (the difference between discursive and material approaches, between essentialist and relativist approaches, and between politico/spatial and socio/spatial axes approaches).

To cope with the diversity of Europeanity and Europeanisation, the article uses methods related to semantic mapping. Given the complexity of this effort, the team developed a participatory theory-building method, activating the strength of the entire EUMEPLAT research consortium, drawing from different geographies and cultural contexts and involving 12 research teams from ten countries in Europe and beyond – from Italy and Spain to Germany and the Czech Republic to Belgium, Sweden and Turkey. Such cooperation allowed researchers to share knowledge about contemporary, multicultural and changing understandings of Europe and of its media.

On the one hand, Europe is sometimes defined as an unchangeable essence, based on essential European values or the so-called European spirit. One example of this approach is the work of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, according to whom being European concerned “an immeasurable wealth of spirit, morality, faith”. But Europe can also be constructed in a relativist and non-essentialist way through its culture(s) – media, history, food – even more so through its relationship to what is external to Europe, and to what Europe is supposedly not. This relationship is always fluid, dynamic and always in dialogue with otherness. In addition, Europe can also be conceptualised through socio-spatial approaches, by looking at its people or territory, a land mass of the European continent that strived to be protected and designated by borders. Finally, Europe is also a space for political action that is implemented in a top-down way, by European institutions or performed from below, by grassroots social movements.

The article shows that a different Europe, or indeed, ’different ‘Europes’ are possible, in an endless set of combinations and balances. For example, we can have a Europe from above and/or from below. We can have a Europe of discourses in combination or opposition to material practices and structures. We can have a Europe defined by the EU institutions, and/or by broader geography. And we can have a Europe with rigid and fixed identities, and/or a Europe that sees itself as contingent and always in becoming. All these theoretical possibilities are political choices, and (thus) object of intense and prolonged discursive struggle. But the authors of this article also acknowledge that these semantic maps are always living entities and require constant updates to capture the ever-changing diversity of meanings. The article is, therefore, also an invitation to reflect on the dimensions, choices and changes that are expected to occur in the meaning of both Europeanity and Europeanisation, “in being European and becoming European, which are—we should add—both, in the end, constructed forms of becoming”.