Unsupervised Europe: a research question

Back in 2008, two historians in Strasbourg (and a larger and interdisciplinary team with them, that included sociologists, for instance) started a research project, made of a series of academic conferences on anti-europeanism, euroscepticism and alter-europeanism. We were then three years after the rejection by referendum in France and the Netherlands of the European Constitutional Treaty. Almost two decades after political sciences, historians started to study this subject, beyond the failure of the European Defence Community (EDC) in 1954. This research program ended up by the edition of two books (with chapters in French, English and German):

  • Wassenberg Birte, Clavert Frédéric et Hamman Philippe, Contre L’europe? Anti-europeisme, Euroscepticisme Et Alter-europeisme Dans La Construction Europeenne De 1945 a Nos Jours: les concepts: Contributions … de l’homme d’Alsace MISHA, 1. Aufl., Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden GmbH, 2010.
  • Găinar Maria et Libera Martia, Contre l’Europe? / anti-européisme, euroscepticisme et alter-européisme dans la construction européenne de 1945 à nos jours. (Volume 2): Acteurs institutionnels, milieux politiques et société civile : contributions au « Programme Junior 2009-2010 » de la Maison interuniversitaire des sciences de l’homme – Alsace (MISHA), 2013.

All the conferences were recorded and are still on-line and the same team also published a third book in 2016 (Libera Martial, Schirmann Sylvain et Wassenberg Birte (éds.), Abstentionnisme, euroscepticisme et anti-européisme dans les élections européennes de 1979 à nos jours, Stuttgart, Franz Steiner Verlag, 2016).

The example of this research program – which was of course not the only one about this subject – shows that we know much more about anti-europeanism, euroscepticism and alter-europeanism today than 10 years ago. It is still, nevertheless, a research field where lots of elements remain unclear. One of those elements – and considering our media configuration today as well as the experience of the Brexit referendum, an important one – is what is going on online.

On the 14th of July 2004, Jacques Chirac, then president of the French Republic, announced that he would ask his fellow citizen to accept or reject the ratification of this Treaty by referendum. Following this announcement, the debates were heavy on the European Constitutional Treaty on French-speaking Usenet newsgroups1. What was then striking was the many differences between online debates and the more traditional campaign on mainstream media (TV, radio and press). Ideas, interpretations of the treaty, people were different – Usenet, the Web were still media margins in France.

What is often said about «new technologies», is that they are progressively removing the need for Gatekeepers, including information gatekeepers, ie journalists, experts, and in some ways academics. What happened in 2004-2005 on Francophone newsgroups was a good illustration of that: they were citizens2 speaking directly with each others, suggesting interpretation of the treaty directly and not passively online, etc. There was obviously an influence of those debates on the campaign at some points and it might have influenced the final results – the rejection of the treaty – though it is hard to measure this influence and is, of course, far from being the only cause of the «no» vote.

The idea of the UNSURE project is not only to get back to the 2005 French referendum and not only to study oppositions / resistances to the EEC/EU but it was born from a reflection about 2005. The UNSURE project will hence investigate the influence of online «unsupervised» (ie without gatekeepers, or at least without the «traditional» information gatekeepers)3 debates, before and after 2005, on European integration’s subject in national politics, in the media system, in at least three countries (France, UK, Germany). Did those debates change the agenda setting of a political campaign linked to European issues and since when? Did it change our (= European citizens) views on the European Union?

Those questions will be confronted to several historiographies: media history, memory studies (can we see artifacts of the past, traces of collective memories in those debates?4), European integration history and, in some ways, science and technology studies.

  1. Usenet Newsgroups were (are still but are much less used today) discussions forums that were hosted on a network created in 1980 called Usenet. It is somehow similar to today’s web-based forum or groups like Google Groups. The Usenet archive were imported to Google Groups. []
  2. Non representative of the whole population: we will address that in some methodological blogposts. []
  3. I took the term «unsupervised» because it derives from machine and deep learning, AI methods that I plan to use in this project that will have a big data approach: I will discuss that in another methodological blogpost. []
  4. I will particularly but not only look at collective memory of monetary events as the time period covers the introduction of the Euro in two of the three studied countries []

Frédéric Clavert

Docteur en histoire contemporaine, Frédéric Clavert a étudié les sciences politiques et l'histoire contemporaine à Strasbourg et à Leeds. Ses recherches touchent aujourd'hui de plus en plus aux sources de l'historien.ne à l'ère numérique. Passé par Strasbourg, Paris-Sorbonne et Lausanne, il est désormais chercheur au Center for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH) de l'Université du Luxembourg.

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