From Pipedream to Reality – Democracy & the European Public Sphere

Tuesday, 17 September 2019, Orangerie Sanssouci, An der Orangerie 3-5, 14469 Potsdam


On its 15th anniversary, the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium focuses on the future of the European public sphere. This topic has been playing the central role in various public discussions since the establishment of the European Union with the Maastricht Treaties.

At the first conference “Quo Vadis Europa?” in September 2005 journalists and media makers remained optimistic about the future of the European integration project. EU enlargement seemed to signal a new era of the EU’s development. Shortly before Jacques Derrida and Jürgen Habermas had declared the Europe-wide protest against the US intervention in Iraq as the birth of “a new European public”.

15 years later, the existence of the European project seems at stake and it has become abundantly clear that the European unification process is not a one-way street. Far from being an “ever closer Union”, the EU is faced with the spectre of disintegration.

This is also due to the fact that the public discourse in and about Europe lags behind the accomplished facts of European integration. The media systems of the EU member states are still shaped on national levels. This makes cross-border debates from the European perspective rarely possible. Thanks to the common currency, the Erasmus education project and the Schengen zone the European citizens have been increasing their awareness for Europe and the relevance of the European unification process. However, the transfer of the EU — as a political and at its core democratic system — is functioning only to a limited extent.

At the same time, the question of the public sphere and journalism in the supranational context has assumed a new relevance. Digital communication flows do not stop at national borders. Moreover, learning algorithms, artificial intelligence, the increasing power of intermediaries and the US or Chinese actors are also affecting the development of media and the processes of opinion forming and freedom of opinion, consequently increasing the concerns on the growing possibilities of manipulating of public opinion through false reports and disinformation campaigns. In view of these challenges, it is becoming increasingly difficult for media organisations, which in many cases are struggling with economic pressure, to live up to the diversity of expectations directed at them. Although professional, independent journalism is regarded as the central achievement and the core prerequisite of any modern democracy, it does not mean that we can continue to take its existence for granted.

Nonetheless, there are also some positive tendencies. Within the last years, a variety of initiatives have emerged aiming at promoting the trans-European discussions and European network of media, cultural and political exchange, as well as at facilitating innovations in journalism. However, these attempts for lack of scale often remain unnoticed by the large players of the industry and the national public.

In light of these developments, preoccupation with media and the public sphere in a European context is not merely a topic for naïve Europhiles, but an economic, geopolitical and also democratic necessity. But while there is a growing recognition that the upheavals in our communication landscapes brought about by digitalisation requires a European approach, to date, despite some Brussels initiatives, media policy still has not gained the required level of interest.

What conclusions can we draw from the drastic developments since the inception of the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium 15 years ago? What is the state of the European public sphere? What opportunities does the Internet open up for the European public? How can Europe respond to the dominance of US corporations in the digital world? Does the EU currently offer opportunities and structures for its citizens and their representatives to discuss, reconsider and review problems of direct public and societal relevance? And if so, does this have relevant implications for the political process of the EU? And what media system do we want to live in?

Bringing together thought leaders from the worlds of media, politics, and academia, the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium 2019 will discuss the general state of the EU’s public sphere as well as concrete options for action for the future of European media policy. In the framework of the following presentation of the M100 Media Award, the M100 Sanssouci Colloquium invites its guests to a final gala dinner in the historical “Neue Kammern” of the Park Sanssouci.

M100 is an initiative of Potsdam Media International e.V. and is mainly financed by the State Capital of Potsdam. Other supporters include the Federal Foreign Office, medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, Federal Press Office, Friedrich Naumann Foundation and the National Endowment for Democracy. United Europe e.V. is our partner and the cooperation partners include the Stiftung Preussische Schlösser und Gärten, Reporters without Borders and the Verband Deutscher Zeitschriftenverleger e.V. (VDZ).