A European Republic, or how to empower European citizens

We had a long discussion with political thinker Professor Ulrike Guérot, who shared her thoughts on the idea of a European Republic, EU citizenship and Brexit, among other topics.

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In this episode of the podcast, we have a discussion with author and political thinker Professor Ulrike Guérot, who also is the head of the Department for European Policy and the Study of Democracy at the Danube University Krems. We talked about Europe as a Republic (5:14) as argued both in the ‘Manifesto for a European Republic’ that she co-signed and her book ‘Why Europe Must Become a Republic! A Political Utopia’. She also expanded on what true European citizenship would look like (10:14), the challenges ahead for European institutions (23:06), Brexit and its impact on the EU (26:56), her work with the European Democracy Lab and beyond (30:44), and more.

You can find the full episode on Spotify, click the link below. Find us also on Apple PodcastGoogle PodcastsAudioboom, on Soundcloud, on Stitcher and on Podcasts.com

Professor Guérot, you are a political thinker and expert in European affairs, political theory and the future of democracy, you are the founder of the European Democracy Lab, and you also head the Department for European Politics and the Study of Democracy at the Danube University Krems. First of all, I’d like to ask What experience, what book, what moment shaped your mind towards Europe when you were younger?

Pr. Ulrike Guérot:I shall say that what probably marked me most is a word from my grandma when I was five years old: she told me ‘you have to learn French’; she was from Poland. And when I was five, she told me you have to learn French because that’s the language of love and music. So I learned French. When learning French, you start doing franco-german things, and when you do franco-german things you end up in Europe. And that’s why basically, when I was finished with my studies, having been in Paris, I started to work in the city, in the CDU group at the German Bundestag Parliament. From there, I moved to the Jacques Delors [Institute]. So the whole 90s, in the making of the Maastricht Treaty, I basically spent in a Franco-German environment. And at that time, the Franco-German time, it was just really the motor of Europe, in great difference to today. So I learned a lot because I had these prestigious masters like Jacques Delors. And when I left Jacques Delors to enter university, to go to faculty in the United States, he told me in French “Tu devras porter le flambeau” ‘you will have to carry the fire’, you know like in the Olympic Games, when you give the fire from one runner to the other. Delors taught me this. And I just kept the sentence as a gift.

I love that you started here with a very emotional point because I feel that for many of us Europeans and people beyond Europe who look towards Europe, the emotional factor is very important.

The emotional factor is very important, because emotions are driving us. But just to continue on the sentence that Delors gave me: when I then saw the banking crisis coming, the 2008/2009/2010 moment, this sort of rising German nationalism, this whatever you know and then austerity policy, I mean this big moment in 2011 or 2012 when I personally felt like we lost Europe that moment. I felt reminded of the sentence that Jacques Delors gave me. You need to carry ‘le flambeau, (the fire)’. That was the moment when I founded the EDL (European Democracy Lab), when I started to rethink Europe, when I wrote the book about the European Republic because Jacques Delors taught me ‘you cannot fall in love with a single market’. And so it was a moment of emotions, where I felt like we spent 20 years thinking about Europe, and European policy integration, the single market, foreign policy and all these things. But if we cannot make it better, more emotional, more democratic, and more social for the citizens, then it’s not a good adventure. And that’s the moment when the emotions, in a way, took over and when I felt the need to give an emotional underpinning to Europe, and change my thinking about it. And place the citizens in the midst of the thinking.

And on this note actually you wrote in April 2013, if I’m not mistaken, a manifesto for a European Republic. And you later expanded on the idea in your book ‘Why Europe Must Become a Republic! A Political Utopia’. So what is the idea of a European Republic and where does this idea come from?

Well, it leads perfectly over the last question, which is the moment you realize in the midst of the crisis that we basically made Europe while forgetting the citizens. And the citizens as sovereign, the European citizens as those who should decide. Because we have this trilogy: yes, we vote for a Parliament, yes the Parliament has great powers, and not denying it. Obviously the Parliament is legitimate but it’s a different Parliament than we have in national democracies. But you know we have this through trilogy, the Parliament co-decides with the Council, in the Council meetings, the Council is the real decision maker in the European Union for the big themes. But for the austerity policy, who pays the bailout packages? That’s the Council who drives the big things. There was quite a lot about forgetting the citizens and their say, I am truly not the only one saying this.

There is a very very good book by Etienne Balibar, the French philosopher, who already in 2003, when we had the first constitutional moment in Europe, wrote a marvelous book, which I just discovered recently again: “Are we European citizens?”. And he argued already in 2003, look, now we have the euro, we are entering a monetary union, but are we citizens? Can we say that as citizens of Europe we share that currency? And what would it mean to be citizens. And from that book you know there is another book which I would like to quote to the listeners, a social historian at Humboldt University, and he just wrote a book “The citizens, the forgotten entity of European Integration”.

All of this pointed me to the European Republic because a Republic is what? ‘Res publica’ which means two things: the management of the common good, which is quite a different thing than a single market. A single market does not need to take care of citizens, but a republic takes care of citizens. And second, the citizens decide, citizens are the sovereign.

So all political theory starting from Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Rousseau, Kant is always about the Republic when it comes to organizing a political endeavor. And that’s the paradigm shift I wanted to succeed in. Because when you see the United States of Europe it always sounds, I mean apart from the fact that it sounds like an imitation of the US, and we do not want this necessarily in Europe. But apart from that, the Republic is the word when it comes to organize political organization. I wanted to basically catch that wisdom of political theory in Europe for the European project itself. I wanted to realize with the reframing of the endeavor from United States of Europe to European Republic, I wanted to put the project of Europe again in the lap of the citizens. So that we cannot say ‘look there are the states and the heads of states, who are meeting sometimes and then they’re doing some sort of integration, but it doesn’t touch me’. I wanted to say, look the European Republic is about you, me and the others as European citizens. So it’s our project, and then the Republic says whilst we have division of power, we have the sovereign, and very importantly, republic in the definition of Cicero means ‘everybody is equal in front of the law’. And that is also a very important point because in the EU as it is, we are still at the end citizens of the UK, Finland, of Slovenia, of Portugal or of Germany.

But if you reason in terms of European Republic, you would need to meet the condition that the citizens being in that political project they are equal in front of the law. And equal in front of the law that does not mean benefiting for instance from some of the EU hybrid regulations but it means that the equality of law should touch the basic points of citizenship which are voting, fiscal and social. This is what Pierre Rosanvallon, the French sociologist called ‘le sacre du citoyen’, the [coronation] of the citizen. So when I said Europe should become a republic, a political utopia, I’m basically saying we European citizens should all be equal in front of the law, period. Essentially that’s the main message.

You mentioned and you touched upon the idea of the United States of Europe, which Martin Schulz called for in late 2017. Beyond semantics, what do you see as the main differences between. Mr Schulz’s call for a US of E, the United States of Europe, and the European Republic as you define it?

Look I do not want to do hair splitting and that’s not the issue. Because we dealt with the United States of Europe for 60 years, and for reason. That was how we entitled the project and it was good because ‘Chaque chose en son temps’, everything in its time. So it was good that we had the states who created a single market. It was good that we had the states that created a common currency, a single currency. But now we need a common democracy. The common democracy in Europe is above the citizens. If you want a political project, and the democratic political project there is one basic though not sufficient condition which is precisely that the citizens which embark into this political adventure are equal in front of the law. So that we have a sort of ‘citizen-stateness’, a European citizenship. We do not have a European citizenship, because at the end of the day we may benefit from what we call Unionsbürgerschaft, a Union citizenship. Which is that, for instance if I as a German I’m in Zimbabwe and I can’t go to a German consulate, then I can go to a French consulate. So we share some rights as European citizens, but we do not share the essential rights which are about a citizenship, and that is voting, that is the social aspect, access to social help, and fiscal. What we have in the current structure of the EU is that we do have a social and economic competition of the member states and they do a race to the bottom when it comes to taxation or they do a race to the bottom when it comes to social things. What do we have within the European Union is that we put citizens into competition. That creates distortions, economic distortions in the Eurozone, but also beyond the Eurozone which then translate into populism, to make that point perhaps a little bit clearer. But we have a lot of industries, for instance in Hungary, because it’s cheap labor and lower taxes. So that might be good for Hungary, but it is probably not so good for the Hungarian workers. So what at the end of the day is happening, is that you put citizens against citizens, in this case German citizens against Hungarian citizens into competition about wages and the social. And that might be economically nice. The thing is if you do it, you cannot be in the same political union, because in a political union or in one democracy the citizens need to be equal and treated in an equal way. And I think this the real paradigm shift from the idea that we integrate states and that these states do something, but at the end of the day it’s their states and their economy against another economy in the same political union of Europe. And the idea is of a European Republic which puts citizens in the middle, and equal rights of the citizens in the middle of the endeavor because that is the basis for democracy.

Within your thinking and the idea of the European Republic you put forth the idea of reforming the EU under the umbrella of a European Republic, with a European Senate, a European House of Representatives, and a European president. Could you expand on this model, and also how do you think it would impact the democratic participation and perhaps address the democratic deficit?

I wrote a book in 2016, and that’s what I should perhaps say in advance, it has the subtitle ‘a Political Utopia’. The very interesting thing is that precisely three years later the idea of a European Republic entered several party programs ahead of the European elections which we just had. The Greens have been discussing about the European republic. Volt has been doing so, and a couple of others. So the wording tripled into the discourse arena. You also saw a book at the Italian book fair in Torino, “La Repubblica d’Europa”, you see articles in French now coming out, “Pour une République Européenne”. So in terms of paradigm shift away from United States of Europe to European Republic, I think it was quite successful. And in that sense it’s no longer a utopia, unless we say that a party program is a utopia. But if party programs are real things we are discussing and we are negotiating as political bargains, then the European Republic idea I think is now on the table. And what I would like to say in terms of first difference to United States of Europe but how I could imagine the whole thing. We need to go back to what the founding fathers of Europe wanted. If you go back to the Manifesto of Ventotene, the antifascist manifesto of 1941. They envisaged basically a federal European Republic, it was precisely the thing I was pointing to, which is that the citizens are equal in front of the law and no more distinction between nationalities. It didn’t come across, because then Cold War started and basically the European endeavor needed the nation states as they existed by then to build the European Union that we know now, like the Rome treaty. But Jean Monnet by then already said ‘Europe is not about integrating states, but about uniting people’. It’s a very different thing whether you integrate states, economically as we did, monetarily as we did, or if you want to unite people in a democracy. It’s just a different step, or another step. I think that explains the reframing exercise.

So now, how could this work. Many people are scared, I wouldn’t say it but you know like there’s always this sentence ‘do we overcome the nation state?’. And then people get in anxiety, ‘oh I need my nation, I need my nation state’, right? But the idea of the European Republic has nothing to do with the loss of nation state. It has to do with legal equality. And legal equality for citizens does not mean centralism, that I must put very clearly. So imagine a political model in which we are five hundred million European citizens on the continent and we have a one vote-one person system. We would do a sort of European General Assembly: one person-one vote. We don’t have this today, because today we have a European Parliament, and there is a vetted vote system. We don’t have one person-one vote. So we don’t have voting equality, which is very important that we don’t have this. Second, Then you would think about a second chamber. We could say that we can take the existing nations of today, and we go from Germany down to Malta, from a very big nation state to a very very small nation state. We could very plausibly also say Is this wise? Is it wise to have such different nations representing us in a second chamber or can we further deconstruct? And then if you deconstruct the idea of the nation state and what it is today you will easily find that today Spain is basically built on four kingdoms.

Now post-European elections, what are for you the main takeaways of the results, and how Europeans voted?

I think there are a couple of takeaways, and I still have not made up my mind whether at the end of the day it’s more positive or more negative. Let’s start with the positive things. We could basically lift voters turnout, and we’re at 50-something percentage of people who went to vote, which is better than 2014 where we had 42 percent in average. But then you can say 50 percent, is that really good. If you look at the country by country result, you see a lot of countries like Slovenia or Slovakia where voter turnout is still low at 24, 26 or 31 percent. So, really not a lot. And if you then measure that we add enormous money spent for voter mobilization, so that we really had a huge effort for these European elections. Then you may wonder whether the 50 percent in comparison to the amount of money and energy we spent for more voter mobilization, whether that’s a good turnout.

Secondly we can say that we succeeded in the Spitzenkadidanten process, we had four Spitzenkandidaten candidates. But now that we see that it is, I wouldn’t say likely but possible that none of the Spitzenkandidaten becomes actually the President of the Commission. There is something true in the question: what did we vote for? Because if at the end of the day the European Parliament elections are what people want, and they give a decision on program, parties and men or women that they want to see, and then these men or women are not taken into account for the job of the EU President, then there is a flaw system in the European Union. At the end of the day that EU Council decides, and so the Parliament has no say. And that is a problem. Especially if we tried hard to teach people that in 2014, 2019 their vote matters, and that we go with the Spitzenkandidaten process. On the positive side, you can put into the basket that now that the old coalition scheme between the People’s Party and the European Social Democrats is no longer enough, and that there will need to be a coalition between the Greens, the Liberals, the People’s Party and the Social Democrats. So we will have a huge overarching big coalition which has a steady flow of legislative process in the European Union. That’s certainly for the good because it will force for more programmatic ‘souplesse’ in a way, because you will need to have four party coalition programming and everybody will need to make concessions. So probably there is a healthier mixture of political positioning in the legislative floor, which is probably on the good side of the takeaways. And then obviously we could avoid this big breakthrough of populist parties who stuck around a quarter of the seats, which is a quarter of voting. And that is a little less than not expected, but some were worried that they would break through the 30 percent threshold.

On the other hand, what is in my opinion not yet sufficiently looked at is, is the Parliament the carrier for an in-depth institutional reform project? Who is voicing this? I only heard Frans Timmermans basically saying that we need to fundamentally lift and shift the institutions of the European Union to make it function again. But whether that would be followed is still up in the skies and it will depend on who is the next President of the Commission. And then if we are fearful about the erosion of democracy and about the populist increase, I think it’s not enough to look at the Parliament and what is happening at the Parliament. But it will also be important to look at who will be the Commissioners entering from the countries who are governed by populists, say Poland, Hungary: who will they sent to the European Commission? Who is in the Council? What is the Council doing? And will there be a sort of erosion from the inside? So it may well be that the Parliament is off of these say negative tendencies, but it does not mean that the tendencies are stopped. It may mean that the tendencies, these erosion and disintegration tendencies go to other points of the institutional system of the European Union.

What are the main challenges facing the European Union now? And what are the most important topics European institutions need to tackle in the next few months?

I think there is already a big discrepancy between a talk about institutions which is not sexy, as citizens are not interested in talking institutions, it’s sort of a dry topic, and the big desire that Europe solves a lot of problems. There is this expectation on climate, Fridays for Future. On the digital agenda, look on the European GAFA, innovation, health, prosperity, all these things. But also say protection, European champions: Alstom, Siemens. Competition with China, the Trump agenda. All these things, there is a huge expectation that Europe in the way will not solve the problem, but contribute to unity and that together we can solve these problems better. That is the expectation.

On the other hand, this expectation is not matched because at the end of the day if you go down all these topics be that climate, be that CO2 emissions, be that the Foreign and Security Policy, you will find in any of these big ‘dossiers’ deep cleavages between the European member states. And these members, these cleavages are not new. I mean we know that Poland is reluctant to renounce on carbon and on coal production. Even Germany is reluctant. We know that there cleavages about nuclear energy, yes or no. We know that there are cleavages with regard to the Middle East agenda; how to deal with China and so on and so forth. On the big topics the expectations are huge. But the decisive power of the European Union is rather not so intense and it always comes to the question that we do not know who at the end decides in the European Union. In the sense of Max Webber, that any political entity needs to know who is the sovereign, who holds the power, who has the legitimate monopoly of power. And this question isn’t answered in the European Union. And this is why very often the European Union can’t be tough and cannot sanction. And that is in many of the dossiers, it is a problem.

There are dossiers in which there is less of a problem. The European Union can do a lot of things in the say ‘soft issues’. It can spend money on rural development, it can spend money on digital infrastructure and it does. It can do a lot on gender policies, promoting women, doing soft projects, digitalization projects, education projects and so forth. And there the European Union is very often invisible, but very strong in all these say more societal topics. But then the credit is not necessarily given to the European Union. The credit is basically overlooked because the European Union does this without much of self advertisement. But in the big dossiers, where people are looking at sort of ‘Where’s the unity of Europe when it comes to Syria, Trump, China, European Champions, digital or Fridays for Future? Then, unfortunately Europe always or often, looks not so good. And it has something to do with the floor of the institutional mechanisms, but then which nobody wants to touch upon.

Also when we talk about what is ahead for Europe, for European Union, institutions, for anyone around Europe, there is the ongoing question mark that is Brexit. What are your thoughts on the topic and what might unfold over the next few months, and the impact on the rest of Europe?

Well, Brexit is still very, very complex theme. We still do not know what will happen. We even do not know whether the31 of October this year is really the deadline of the deadline of the deadline, and whether if there is no deal there is really this hard Brexit that some are now fearful, and even Mr. Johnson seems to be more fearful to really slip into a hard Brexit as he says now. So nobody has a crystal ball to say what will happen but this Brexit talk has been affecting the European Union for two years. It affects not only the UK because it affects the way that the European Union in its totality radiates into the world. And what it sends as signals is first we are not united, we are not in unity, we have a big fight about Brexit and now we are also starting to blackmail each other. I mean the UK starts basically blackmailing that it would not pay back the money, this you know sort of rendering the money it owes the European Union. So there are first signs of blackmailing, but there are many other signs of blackmailing. If you look at the Trump visit to the UK and then Trump says look if you want a trade deal with the US then you need to open the National Health Service. So there is blackmailing from all sides. And blackmailing means also disintegration, means less unity, and I think on a very emotional, on a very soul-based way, that has affected the European Union for quite a long time.

So I don’t have a crystal ball but if that is not sorted out properly I would just argue that although the European Union stuck pretty well together, because no other country wants to experience what the UK is experiencing. This deep division of the country. And so seeing the process in the UK has made that many societies, even Hungarians or the Polish may think a lot about the European Union but at the end of the day, say whatever we want but we do not want this. We do not want to leave. So there had been that element of glue, of sticking together. But on the other hand sticking together out of fear is not yet a conviction about what we want to construct together. And my fear is that although that has been said a lot of times, that the British people were not, or the British government were never the most constructive in the European Union years and now that they are out there should be this new coming together, new renaissance of Europe. Look a little at what Macron is doing. But my fear is that they won’t happen. That despite the fact that the UK is leaving and despite the fact that the UK in many respects was the black sheep in the whole structure, and the black sheep is now leaving, that the other say ‘white sheep’ do not find the big unity and do not do the big steps of progress. Like in the banking union or in the institutional set up. So that we waste a crisis, in a way. That the Brexit crisis does not promote that impulse for more deepening that we could have expected.

You are the founder of the European Democracy Lab, which states in its mission, I quote ‘The core issue of the Lab is to develop a transnational paradigm and explore alternative conceptions of the European polity’. Could you elaborate on the meaning and impact of this issue?

Yes I can and I also would like to point out that I’m working on a transnational paradigm. The European Democracy Lab is not the only institution that does it. I’d like to point to those who are listening also to European Alternatives, which is a think tank, which is even older than the European Democracy Lab and which has the paradigm of democracy crowd share beyond the nation states. So there is increasingly a young generation out there who does project itself into what I tried to explain earlier, into that form of a European citizenship in which it doesn’t matter whether you travel from Warsaw to Barcelona and then to Lyon, and you work in these three places but your pension fund is always following you. And your social system is always following you. And if you are unemployed the question is not whether the Polish, the French or the Spanish unemployment service helps you, but there is a European unemployment scheme. And that would be thinking Europe to an end in terms or for the benefit of European citizens. That is basically this paradigm of transnationalism which is that the citizens are European, they are behaving and working and manoeuvring transnationally, and the systems, the bureaucracy systems, the citizenship questions would need to follow the mobility of the citizens which are already intertwined.

There is a lot of research done which is called ‘The aspects of Europeanization’, the Europeanization of society. You can say that, for instance if we look at what the euro did over 20 years ago, the euro is not necessarily a good thing — the euro is very fine, it has a stable exchange rate, it is a very valid currency, I do not want to speak against the euro — but it would be unfair not to mention that the euro was for some parts of society better than for others. If you look at the price of the financial crisis, and then for instance this low interest rate policy which was harmful to small savers. We had societal groups which were more affected by the way that the crisis was managed than others. What I want to say is that if we are in a transnational paradigm, we do no longer look at whether the euro benefited to the Germans and did not benefit to the Greeks. But we look at the shares and parts of citizens to whom the euro did benefit and to whom it did not. Meaning that the cleavages that the euro produced were more cleavages between urban regions and rural regions, between poor and rich, or between young and old. So the euro created divisions in European societies in all European societies but it created these divisions across national borders. The problem of the way we managed the crisis was not that it was better for the Germans and not so good for the Greeks, but it was better for those who had capital it was better for those who were old and who didn’t want inflation. It was not so good for those who were young and who wanted to work and who could have accepted a little bit more inflation.

The euro created new divisions. But these new divisions if you want to model them or you want to measure them, you can no longer aggregate them into national data, you would need to look at them in aggregated data and then you could see. There’s a super book out there “Les Classes Sociales Européennes” [The European Social Classes], which is a new book of 2017 published by the CNRS Paris. There are researchers who took this data, and the finding is that through the currency union and the new divisions we created we now have a European upper class, we have a European middle class, and we have a European say, lower class. But the classes are no longer within one national country. It’s no longer the German upper class, the German middle class, the German lower class. But you have in Germany, as much as in Greece, as much as in Finland or Spain, the ‘winner takes it all’ sort of beneficiaries from the euro crisis and those who were the losers. But the cleavage is across the continent. And if that is true then the transnational paradigm starts precisely here. If that is true and we need to fix these new problems of divisions, we need to find new transnational policy answers. These policy answers can no longer be that again the Greek have no unemployment scheme, or that the Italians have no basic income scheme, because there is no such thing than ‘the Italians’. ‘The Italians’ are perfectly split in in the same way than the Germans are split today, between the wealthier and the non-wealthier, the rural and urban, the older, flexible, educated and the less, flexible, not educated people. I think looking at this aggregated data pushes into a transnational paradigm because we need to find new policy solutions which can only be European policy solution treating all European citizens on an equal footing, which will help us out of these new divisions.

Finally I’d like to ask you one last question. Could you tell us, and for anyone who’s listening who cares about Europe, if you have a book or resource specifically about Europe that you would recommend for all of us to read right now?

Yes there is a book which has just brought out by a French group of authors: Thomas Piketty, Antoine Vaucher, Guillaume Sacriste and Stephanie Hennette, the group TDem, “Pour un Traité de Démocratisation de l’Europe”. The book has been published in English by Harvard University Press, and it’s about the democratization of Europe. It’s a compilation of many very famous authors for instance, you’ll find Calypso Nicolaidis from Oxford. So I can truly recommend that book. For those who are into French reading, I would recommend again “Les Classes Sociales Européennes” which is a book that again points to the transnational dimension of Europeanization of society, and how we need to find policy answers beyond the nation state, beyond today’s nation state. And for those who read German and I would recommend up Dirk Jörke who just published a book which is called “Die Größe der Demokratie”, [“The Size of Democracy”] he sort of counter argues against the European public. So in a way he is my intellectual challenger. But yes, I like challenges and he argues that the European Union in terms of territory and diversity would be much too big to do what I claim for, which is treating the citizens on an equal footing. And so I think there is a nice intellectual dispute out there because I certainly do not want to monopolize the discussion and I’m very happy to get intellectually challenge and to discuss these things. Because obviously the size and diversity aspect has a lot of truth, but I think my arguments have a lot of truth too. And somewhere in between there must be the solution. And the solution I think, and I think I agree with Mr. Jörke on this is, that the big federation of Europe as a European Republic would need to have many small federations as carriers. Because the real democracy of tomorrow I think, is a small size area in which citizens are much more in control through participatory methods, where there auto control a certain local or regional space. And the only interesting thought that we need to develop as academics is how then could we create, assuming that we have lots of little territories in which active European citizens participate in their regional outreach, functions of control of the democracy, how we could interconnect these little federations so as to have an umbrella structure, and that umbrella structure only would be the European Republic which grants equal rights for European citizens.

Great. So for anyone listening wanting to get more information on what you do, head to www.ulrike-guerot.eu or to the European Democracy lab website

They can go to the Danube University of Krems website, which is alittle town in Austria nearby Vienna. Here you’ll find the department for European Policy and the Study of Democracy, where are also a lot of policy papers on regionalism, on how to restructure the European territories and so forth.

Professor Guérot, thank you very much

I have to thank you. I was very pleased to have this opportunity to have so much place and space to expose these ideas which I just offer for discussion.

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Thank you to Finn Schmidt for editing this podcast.


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