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Communicating the EU through debate: opportunity structures for transformation

Lars Hoffmann, Elizabeth Monaghan

The language of 'debate' has emerged over the past decade to become a characteristic feature of political discourse in the EU. National governments - either individually or in the Council, the European Commission, and the European Parliament have all emphasised the importance of having a specific expert or general public debate, firstly on a range of issues (whether matters of everyday policy-making or more history-making decisions about the intended direction and underlying purpose of the Union), and secondly for a range of apparent purposes (whether to enhance popular participation in decision-making, to identify the options for further integration, or to legitimise decisions in the face of increasing public scepticism vis-à-vis the European project). Behind much of the rhetoric on the importance of debate in and on the EU is an assumption of transformation: that people's opinions and preferences regarding the future shape and direction might be transformed through the process of debate. However, this paper argues that the extent to which this transformative potential is realised, the existence of opportunity structures for transformation (OSTs), varies significantly. Norms of appropriateness, the presence or absence of a shared normative agenda, and the degrees of inclusiveness and formality shape OSTs and in turn the efficacy of debate as a political tool.

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