On a warm evening earlier this fall, Brussels felt almost like it did before the pandemic. Over wine and tapas, journalists and diplomats mingled outside a bar on Place Jourdan, a stone’s throw from the European Parliament. For some, the soirée hosted by the German mission was their first gathering of the kind the main seat of the European Union is known for — the club-like atmosphere of the “Brussels bubble,” where reporters casually rub shoulders with officials and lobbyists. “So nice to finally meet people in person,” gushed one journalist who had arrived in town during lockdown last winter.
But the brief respite from the pandemic did not last. Amid a rise in infections and hospitalizations, Belgium has once again restricted public events. E.U. officials are back to working from home, most press conferences are again held online-only, and in-person meetings remain restricted for the foreseeable future.
Amid the surging pandemic, journalists and officials in Brussels have been arguing about rules for press access to the E.U. institutions — and, indirectly, what it really means to be a 21st century correspondent.
The main cause of the controversy is a proposal floated by Eric Mamer, the commission’s chief spokesperson, to open background briefings by officials, already held online since the pandemic, to journalists outside of Brussels. Attending off-the-record briefings has historically been the preserve of accredited Brussels-based correspondents. But under the proposal, journalists anywhere would be granted equal access and be allowed to ask questions. The potential change threatens to upend the old way of doing business in which important information — gathered by being in close physical proximity to power at briefings, official events, and yes, even swanky parties — is disseminated by the relative few who just happen to work within the roughly 13 square miles of this capital city.
Even though the commission’s daily press conferences have been available online since 2004, this potential change has many journalists here worried that job cuts would follow. (Since the 2008 financial crisis, about 100 E.U. correspondent positions have been eliminated. Today, there are about 870 journalists covering the organization from Brussels, according to the International Press Association, which is around two dozen less than before the Covid-19 outbreak.) The background briefings will be less useful, they argue, because the move would dilute the expertise in the video chat, leaving less time for questions that could help more knowledgeable journalists break news.
The democratization of access to information, however, is not something we can — or should even want — to stop. It’s unlikely that the morsels of information gleaned from these background briefings will be the deciding factor for an ailing media outlet assessing whether it can keep a correspondent.
But what this change could do is give newsrooms that don’t have the financial resources to send someone to cover the E.U. in person a better understanding of policy decisions. Smaller countries like Ireland, the Baltic states, and Cyprus — each of which have three or fewer journalists accredited with the E.U. — are hardly represented in Brussels. Maltese newsrooms have none. To give journalists from outside Brussels access would not necessarily be a game-changer for them, but at least would give them additional resources for reporting in a media landscape dominated by scarcity. As Hungarian journalist András Pethő notes, it’s not always easy for outsiders to access relevant information such as inquiries by E.U. agencies and audit reports on how European funds are spent in member states. Sharing access will not kill the Brussels correspondent but help to share the burden of reporting the E.U. with a wider base of journalists across the continent and beyond.
Reporting on notoriously complex issues such as the haggling over E.U.’s trillion-dollar, multi-year budget requires knowledge of how European policy-making works. Reporters must navigate a political system where executive power is split between the European Commission and 27 member states, with the 705-member European Parliament weighing in on law-making. The key to navigating all of this is not proximity, but experience. For reporters like Sara Johansson, a Swedish journalist who covers E.U. agricultural policy, being able to attend virtual briefings on a case-by-case basis during the pandemic gave her more access than ever before. “I understand if they want to have some kind of accreditation, some form of vetting, but I don’t see why that wouldn’t be possible for journalists who are not Brussels-based,” she says. “It’s not as if people were rushing to attend technical briefings on the Common Agricultural Policy as it is.”
While nothing has officially been decided yet, the E.U. commission has strongly indicated that it intends to go forward with the proposal. Journalists need to adapt to the changing environment regardless of whether they live in Brussels or elsewhere, says media scholar Hans-jörg Trenz, who teaches at Scuola Normale Superiore in Italy. In the old days, correspondents based in Brussels would cover every policy area of the E.U. as well as Belgium and the Netherlands. The notion of the correspondent who gathers information only by background briefing or meeting insiders in bars in the E.U. quarter is quaint, Trenz argues. Instead, journalists who want to keep their jobs need expertise in certain policy areas. “If you are specialized in agricultural policy, whether the person is based in Berlin or in Brussels, it doesn’t make that much difference anymore,” says Trenz.
Brussels correspondents who are resisting these changes should take note.
Alexander Fanta is a journalist at netzpolitik.org, a German news site that covers digital rights issues. He writes about technology and digital policy-making in the European Union and is co-author of the study “Google, the media patron” (Otto Brenner Stiftung, 2020). He splits his time between Brussels and Vienna.