Can segmented publics foster a general public sphere in the EU? An example from the consultation practices of the European Commission.

Luis Bouza García

Abstract


This paper discusses if and how deliberative practices may spill over from EU specialised and strong publics, in which deliberation is intense but with little reflection in general debates, to the general publics of the European Union.
The distinction between different sectors of the public sphere pays attention to deliberative practices in “sectors” such as the dialogue between the institutions and civil society associations or “comitology committees” that are usually overlooked in debates on the EU public sphere. The extent to which practices in these areas constitute a form of deliberation has been discussed with different judgements. This paper considers such debate and tries to discuss deliberative practices as a way of extension of European general publics.

The analytical framework of this paper is the burgeoning recent literature on the role of organised civil society in the democratic development of the EU. The paper builds on the theoretical framework on the role of European civil society in the legitimacy of the EU. This paper intends to offer an answer to the question “Can specialised publics deliberation increase awareness and debate on EU issues among the general public in Europe?” by analysing policy oriented deliberation in epistemic communities and in the relationships between the institutions of the EU and European civil society. The hypothesis is that this process is possible but unlikely, since the relation of the EU Institutions with each “sector” of the public sphere produces different kind of legitimacies. The method for testing such hypothesis involves a comparison of the outcome of consultations in different policy sectors.

The notion of an EU public sphere divided in different sectors with different kind of orientations is analysed firstly. Next, the paper raises the issue of the possible contradiction in the behaviour and aims of the civil society actors engaging in specialised publics, paying particular attention to consultation practices. Then follows a discussion about deliberative practices taking place in the EU publics, an example being epistemic communities formed by EU officials and civil society associations; Finally, the possible extension of deliberation and the role that strong publics can play on it are discussed.

The main finding is that the extension of deliberative practices to general publics is unlikely in the present situation, because 1. Deliberation in epistemic communities is rather an exception 2. The Commission still sees specialised and general publics as pertaining to different forms of legitimacy 3. The topics addressed in specialised publics are of great concern for civil society actors but they are difficult to communicate to general publics since they belong to “low politics” 4. Civil society actors could play a very important role in linking both spheres, but this challenges their practices in specialised publics.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.15847/obsOBS322009274