In the depth of the financial and economic crisis that was causing misery across much of southern Europe, particularly in 2011, I set off on a reporting trip that contained the germ of what, nearly a decade later, would find expression in This is Europe.
A significant new commitment to deepen the Guardian’s coverage of Europe, This is Europe is a new editorial strand aiming to explore the challenges confronting the continent, that respect no national borders, and how countries are responding to them.
Europe on the Breadline, a four-country road trip in search of some of the human stories behind the impersonal data of the eurozone crisis, took me from food banks and protest marches in Lisbon to the birth of a national citizens’ movement in Málaga.
In Naples I met a youth worker whose projects with children in difficulty had been hammered by austerity; in Thessaloniki, a professor whose research budget had been slashed by 60% – and a young start-upper determined to succeed regardless.
That series, which led to a second one, this time confined to Greece, talking to those Greeks who were organising to help themselves, was an early attempt at the kind of transnational reporting implied in my current job title – and which This is Europe now aims to take a good deal further.
The whole idea of transnational reporting (journalisme sans frontières, anyone?) recognises that media organisations tend to report the EU from the institutions in Brussels, and from member states in isolation.
Only occasionally have we tried to make sense of issues across Europe – from the climate crisis to data security, migration to the rise of the far right, the working poor to caring for an ageing population, tax avoidance to the urban/rural divide.
It is an issue I have always been aware of, and tried to address before the paper created the role of roving Europe correspondent in 2016.
In 2013, I went back to Thessaloniki and Málaga – with a stop-off in Bologna – to talk to members of southern Europe’s “lost generation”: the 59%, 56% and 40% of under-25s who were then out of work in, respectively, Greece, Spain and in Italy.
In 2014 I made a tour of the populist, Eurosceptic and mainly far-right parties in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Finland that were looking to make major gains in the run-up to the European parliamentary elections of that year.
In 2015, we tried a different approach: for an article published on international labour day, 1 May, about workers taking over their factories, I reported from southern France and Greece, and Guardian colleagues contributed pieces from Spain and Turkey.
In similar efforts, for packages in 2018 and this year on the far-reaching impact of the rise of short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb, and overtourism in general, on Europe’s most historic cities, I wrote about Amsterdam and colleagues covered Berlin, Barcelona, Florence and Prague.
But all of this has really only been a taster of what we could accomplish, and, over the past three years, my time – and that of many of our correspondents – has been massively taken up by Brexit, leaving precious little bandwidth to think of much else. This is Europe aims to rectify that.
Why is it transnational reporting important? Because it is only when you start comparing and contrasting how different countries are experiencing the same challenges, and how they are addressing them, that you start to see who is doing well, who has developed best practice.
It allows you, for example, to discover that perhaps surprisingly, Finland leads the way in tackling both fake news and homelessness. That France has a hugely successful consumers’ cooperative that is beginning to ensure farmers get paid a fair price for the food they produce.
And that while it may represent a potentially existential challenge to winemakers in Bordeaux, global heating represents a startling opportunity for their colleagues – and, in the not too distant future, rivals – in Scandinavia.
This is Europe: a new Guardian series
This is Europe is a new stream of Guardian journalism that investigates the big challenges that transcend national boundaries, and seeks out the solutions that could benefit us all. These are testing times, and crises are not limited by national borders. But then neither are we.
Migration, climate, populism and contagious diseases are continent-wide problems. When we report on them through a pan-European lens, we not only understand the challenges better but can tease out solutions wherever they crop up: health in Denmark, for example, or teenage wellbeing in the Netherlands.
We’ve been talking about something similar to This is Europe for years at the Guardian, and now we’re doing it.
It’s a shame Brexit had to happen first, of course. But if we can now report Europe as Europe – as a continent rising (we hope) individually and collectively to the cross-border challenges it faces – more concretely and more informatively, that will be a small consolation.