European nations and their Union are more important in international politics than they have been for decades. With wars and sanctions in the Middle East, growing influence in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and a eurozone crisis that threatens the global economic recovery itself, understanding European politics is as important as ever for commentators and observers of world affairs.
But how can one understand this diverse continent, with its incredibly complex institutions and its divisions of culture and language? How to sift through the information overload characteristic of the web today, with the media’s overreliance on opinion and rehashed syndicated (or stolen) content?
To address these problems, the following is the shortlist what I consider to be the five best sources on European politics and EU affairs available in the English language. If you subscribe only to these you will already be well-served with a range of news, opinion and analysis from across the geographical and political spectra.
1. Presseurop: “The best of the European press”
If you’ve only got time for a single source, go with this one. Presseurop is simply exceptional. The concept is simple: translations of articles from media across Europe. The arduousness of the translation process means they only publish a manageable amount of content. The selection means you get stuff of high quality or which is notable in some way.
Nowhere else can you get a feel for what is being said across the European continent, and therefore, of the divisions of public opinion that often underpin disagreements between European governments. You also get a taste of political events all around. In addition to full translations, you get daily summaries of cover stories of various EU newspapers.
Alongside English, there are translations of all articles into 9 other European languages. Comments on a given article can be displayed for all languages. Presseurop is the only pan-EU news site who has been able to draw a mass audience, many articles getting as many comments as a major national news site. Some, such as articles eurozone federalization or German theories on southern economic failure get hundreds of comments. This means it is perhaps the only place where there is genuine cross-border European debate, the beginnings of that famously necessary “European public sphere”.
Paris-based Presseurop was founded by a coalition of European magazines led by France’s Courrier international. It is partly subsidized by the European Commission, but this has apparently not hindered the site’s ability to post large amounts of critical content.
2. Open Europe: Champion eurowonks
European affairs are dominated by issues international, multilingual, economic and legal. Which is to say they’re effing hard for the common mortal to understand. In this context, Open Europe has established itself as the reference for understanding EU policy developments. It is particularly strong on the eurozone and its blog posts are the surest way of making sense of the latest invariably hyped/complex/misleading events in that area. They are perhaps the best at cutting through the layers of euro-BS from EU institutions and national leaders.
The London-based think-tank also produces an excellent daily press summary which distills the relevant news from an impressive variety of sources. This includes the Anglo-American financial press (Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg), which, contrary to French claims, is usually very good on the eurozone, and often-overlooked German and Italian media.
Open Europe defines itself as moderate eurosceptic. They navigate a difficult path between little Englander europhobic hysteria (which blames the 1% of GDP EU budget and typically toothless EU social and environmental regulation for the failures of the British economy) and very sensible skepticism on the euro. Ideally, they would see the UK opt out of all EU budget policies and regulations except the single market, but keep voting rights (hahaha). Their non-eurozone analyses, whether on regulation, cohesion or farm policy, must be read with this in mind.
Its sources of funding are not entirely clear, but it is supported by a good swathe of the British ruling class, with heavy representation of business interests.
3. EUobserver: The Brussels gadfly
The market for coverage of the EU is at once too small (Joe Average don’t care) and too fractured (national/language divisions) to support strong EU-exclusive media, as might exist for other political capitals. What we have almost invariably has rather odd business models, either being heavily subsidized/sponsored or very reliant on one set of readers (typically Eurocrats, pols and lobbyists). The result is that these media tend, like many a small town’s only newspaper, to be pretty tame and non-confrontational towards power.
EUobserver is an online-only Brussels-based media which gets around this by having virtually zero costs besides its employees. It reports on what you’d imagine a confrontational, public-spirited media would report. This has included lobbying by anti-gay activists, the hiring of a top Brussels PR firm by Ukraine’s ruling party or perennially-inadequate reforms to the EU’s “voluntary” lobby register. It has a sharp eye for the authoritarian tendencies of the European ruling class, such as when Prime Minister of Luxembourg (and chairman of eurozone finance minister meetings) Jean-Claude Juncker declared that eurozone policy should be determined by “secret, dark debates” between governments.
EUobserver’s content is a mix of aggregated daily news (including one-paragraph “ticker” updates) and original reporting. The latter includes sponsored content (most of the “focus” section) and also truly unique reportage, as when it dispatched one of its journalists the Democratic Republic on the Congo (an extremely poor and often dangerous country) to examine EU funds and operations there. It also reliably combs through WikiLeaks for EU-related news and scandal.
In an often stiflingly boring, verbose and uninformative EU communication, PR and news environment, EUobserver consistently provides both a steady roundup of EU-related news and coverage of simply interesting developments.
The website was founded in 2000 as a non-profit and is run by Lisbeth Kirk, the wife of a eurosceptic former Danish MEP. It relies on advertising, sponsored content, book sales and donations for revenue.
4. Der Spiegel International: Germany’s finest
Der Spiegel is the only magazine on this list. It has a long history of investigative journalism within Germany and has a circulation of 1 million. This, I believe, makes it the highbrow weekly most read by Europeans (The Economist has a circulation of circa 1.5 million but about half of that is North American readership).
Spiegel Online International is the Hamburg-based magazine’s English edition. It provides a steady but manageable stream of translations from the print edition, original content, commentary and German press reviews under the title “the World from Berlin”. Relatively few people speak German as a foreign language (I don’t) and even Eurocrats don’t read German media. But these days, it is more important than ever to understand Germany if one is to understand Europe. Spiegel has offered us one way of doing just that.
The magazine’s style is superficially modelled on Time, but it is much less parochial and middlebrow. Spiegel, at least the stuff I can read, offers good overviews of developments much like The Economist would, but it is far less ideological. In fact, I cannot discern an overt ideological or even national bias. For example, almost all the op-eds on the eurozone from other German media that I read (in English via Presseurop, Open Europe or Project Syndicate) are really, really bad. Spiegel International is much readier to acknowledge the realities that foreign media (from Anglo-Saxon financial to leftist radical) report.
I only subscribe to Spiegel International’s “Europe” section but it also covers other regions.
5. Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog: The complicated made easy
Finally, there is the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog”. This is an extremely prolific blog maintained by liberal writer Ezra Klein and his team. The ambition appears to be to give a digestible presentation of every new study, chart and every map that could be of relevance to policy people. While U.S.-focused (healthcare, taxes…), there is also plenty on global or European developments.
The real strength is in making complicated facts and statistics intelligible to the non-expert (as opposed to the impressionistic, often misleading, über-short-term, anecdotal reporting typical of traditional media). Wonkblog is particularly strong on the eurozone, such as on the reality of austerity or the cost of energy to the economy. Klein’s video description of the eurozone crisis as a “bank-country run” is the best explanation for a mass, layman audience I have yet seen. (Better than anything I’ve seen in any European mass media on the topic!)
The geographical and policy breadth of Wonkblog is pretty astounding, covering environment, economics and politics. For those seeking to understand big policy issues today – of the U.S., Europe and the world – it is mandatory reading.