Theory

EUROSPHERE identifies the factors that facilitate or obstruct the articulation of an inclusive European Public Sphere. The expected impact of its findings is a set of possible solutions to the problems related with the lack of communication between citizens, various social/political actors, diverse sub-European spheres, and European institutions. EUROSPHERE develops a new set of approaches to the European Public Sphere, which we term with the label “diversity perspective”. This perspective is expected to produce novel angles to the communication between the European institutions and the citizens, based on fresh and context-sensitive notion of the public sphere. The outcomes of EUROSPHERE thus constitute a novel perspective and a reliable knowledge base for political action and interaction towards creating a common European public sphere.

EUROSPHERE first puts diversity as an alternative to the perspectives of difference at the very foundation of a major comparative research effort. One advantage of the diversity perspective is that it provides a multi-theoretical richness and conceptual diversity, thus enabling this project to capture the particularities of different European contexts that cannot be captured with a singular theoretical approach. This requires an integrated and comparative research design that takes into account the relationships between sub-European public spaces, different social and political actors, citizens’ involvement and the emerging European public sphere. The research design, therefore, is based on responses to policy issues of theoretical relevance, which take account of (1) the relationship between European integration and social cohesion across different identities, across different types of citizenship, and the European public sphere and (2) the boundaries of Europe.
Earlier research on the European Public Sphere (EPS) has shown us that, under current conditions, it is difficult to realize a common EPS in the foreseeable future, but that there are traces of a EPS in the making on some policy issues. Most importantly, it has drawn our attention to the integrative, democratizing, legitimizing, and meaning-creating roles of the public sphere. The focus on EPS as a means of achieving democratic legitimacy at the European level can easily be justified normatively, but, has not been substantiated empirically. Further, earlier research teaches us little about how the public sphere can be inclusive in the European context of deep and complex diversities. Existence of a near-perfect procedural or deliberative democracy, including a public sphere where citizens freely exercise their rights of free speech, assembly, critique, deliberation, opposition, etc in order to form the public will is a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. If we accept that any notion of state legitimacy produces a corresponding notion of legitimacy of individuals, it is important to inquire into what forms of public sphere include/exclude which groups, to what degree, and on which matters.

In this sense, the EUROSPHERE project takes a complementary normative starting point with a focus on inclusion/exclusion in and at the boundaries of public spheres. It is urgent to investigate whether the existing focus on democratic legitimacy in EPS studies has inadvertently led to emergence of new criteria for defining who the legitimate participants of the public sphere are or should be. Indeed, it has been empirically shown in numerous sociological and social anthropological studies of national public spaces that, in contexts of diversity, such standards can be discriminatory, marginalizing, and excluding. As a supplement to the contributions made by the democratic legitimacy debate in empirical EPS studies, EUROSPHERE conceptualizes the European Public Sphere as a means of inclusion for democracy. Thereby, the project both contests and complements the existing academic work on the EPS with the following overall research question:

Are inclusive European public spheres (EPS) possible under conditions of complex diversity; national path dependencies of polity forms, institutions and policies; multilevel governance; and shifting boundaries within and of the EU?

The word “inclusive”, combined with the project’s sub-title “towards a citizens’ Europe” is a manifestation of our overall normative orientation towards inclusion and accommodation of diversity in the public spheres of liberal democracies. At the same time, this is also an empirical research orientation posited against the tendency of earlier European research to focus primarily on the procedures, mechanisms, and legitimizing and democratizing functions of public spheres. This focus has left the substantial question of “what kind of diversity and openness are allowed in public spheres” – i.e., the main normative question posed to earlier public sphere research by many diversity, gender, minority, race, sexuality, disability, and marginalization researchers – mostly unanswered in the existing research on a EPS. EUROSPHERE is thus an attempt to remedy this.

The project, therefore, explores whether there are prospects for devising an inclusive European public sphere that is feasible and sustainable in diverse European contexts. EUROSPHERE opts for a research design capable to achieve these two objectives. We set up context-sensitive theoretical and analytical approaches and methodology to assure that our results have sufficient grounding, considering contemporary realities and the research on the European public sphere. EUROSPHERE comparatively assesses the features of social/political actors and of sub-European communicative public spaces that promote or hinder development of various types of European belongings and citizens’ involvement in European policy making. Think tanks, political parties, social movements/citizens’ initiatives are, in this respect, treated as both sub-spaces and actors.

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