|European Parliament Hemicycle (Brussels)|
The European Parliament Hemicycle in Brussels is not only the beating heart of democracy at European level, for one day it was also a place of Civil Society discussion. The organizers of the Pan-European Forum on Media Pluralism and New Media have succeeded in creating a debate on new trends in media between media professionals, politicians, and European citizens.
The line-up of speakers was impressive. Of all the topnotch participants that took part in the event, three left the most memorable impression. Both the Flemish Minister of Media Ingrid Lieten and the Vice-President of the Commission Neelie Kroes stressed that government regulation of the media sector should only be used as a last resort in guaranteeing media pluralism. The government should however take an active role when it comes to monitoring the media landscape. Media pluralism also emerged as a key theme in the speech of Hugh Grant. According to Mr. Grant, avoiding media concentration is key in guaranteeing an informed citizenship. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise that a heated discussion broke out between Mr. Grant and a board member of the Italian company 'Mediaset'. It was striking that media industry representatives in general believed that a certain degree of concentration actually safeguards media pluralism.
Another point of discussion during the debate was related to the question of whether New Media are able to contribute to the empowerment of the citizenry. The European Union itself is said to be dealing with a democratic deficit. Proof of an empowered citizenry could therefore contribute to the legitimacy of European politics with regard to media. Neelie Kroes argued that Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) will soon be legislating in the field of the Internet. Whether this prediction will become reality can be met with skepticism. MEPs are only able to legislate when the ordinary legislative procedure (called co-decision pre-Lisbon) is applied. This is not yet the case in the field of media and it seems unlikely that it ever will, which is due to the subsidiarity principle. Furthermore (and I quote from the European Parliament website), "the EP has emphasized that the EU should stimulate the growth and competitiveness of the audiovisual sector whilst at the same time recognizing its wider significance in safeguarding cultural diversity." (Nogueira, 2011, p. 4) This underlines that media products still occupy a somewhat peculiar position in the European Single Market.
During the Conference, two key elements were identified as future potential threats to the European Media Industry. First, wide consensus emerged among the panelists that nation states have to be cautious not to be lured into the temptation of wanting to control the media. This threat seems to become reality in Hungary, where policy makers adapted legislation that is in violation with Art. 7 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Possibly even more worrisome is a state controlled by the Media, as is to a large extent the case in Italy where the tentacles of the Berlusconi media empire reach (if not control) the upper layers of the political system. A second threat that should be countered is the dominance of foreign (mostly U.S.) companies in the Internet sphere. European industry has been able to secure a strong position in a fair amount of media domains, but seems to be losing the Internet race against mega-corporations like Facebook and Google.
To conclude, the Pan-European forum on media pluralism and new media can rightfully be called a success. The debate it has set in motion is possibly only the start of a broader movement towards closer cooperation across borders in the field of media and communication technology. The forum also proved that Civil Society can be mobilized where vital societal interests are concerned. The future of European media industries is closely intertwined with the survival of the European project as a whole. Both seem to be clearly building on a key strength of Europeans, to be 'United in Diversity'.