Advocates of European integration have long bemoaned the lack of a robust, pan-European public sphere. Could American streaming company Netflix be their unlikely savior?
If the success of Netflix original series Tribes of Europa is any sign, this proposition might not be so far-fetched. After debuting last weekend, Tribes of Europa became the second-most watched series on Netflix worldwide, and the most popular in multiple European countries. The show follows three siblings who fight for survival in a post-apocalyptic Europe that has been balkanized into dozens of warring factions—with echoes of The 100 and The Hunger Games.
Though the show has a German production company and predominantly German cast, it contains a heavily pan-European tilt. The dialog switches seamlessly between German and English, which has remained Europe’s lingua franca even after the apocalypse. One of the show’s major factions—the Crimson—is a direct descendent of the Eurocorps, and its members still espouse the EU ethos of “unity in diversity.” Both the Crimson and the Crows, their biggest rival, desire to unite Europe under one banner. In fact, even if they belong to different tribes, the show’s characters all seem to agree that they are European.
All this is intentional. Tribes of Europa had the European project in mind from its very conception. In an interview with Variety, show creator Philip Koch explained that he first thought of the series in the wake of 2016’s Brexit referendum. For Koch, what started as a show about “the end of Europe” became one “about the new beginning of Europe.”
However, while Tribes of Europa might’ve been borne from European politics, it doesn’t require any knowledge of, or even interest in, Brussels’ inner workings. It’s an unabashedly mainstream show, with the same action-heavy and academia-light tone of Marvel movies. The show’s relative popularity should be music to European integrationists’ ears.
Despite these integrationists’ best efforts, there’s still no widely appealing mass media that offers a transnational, pan-European perspective. Especially given the role that it played in cultivating Eurosceptic sentiments that led to Brexit, news media has been the main focus of attention. American media company Politico made a big splash when it partnered with Axel Springer to launch a European edition in 2015, following existing institutions like Euronews in trying to make coverage of EU politics less nationalistic and more engaging.
However, both Politico and Euronews have trouble appealing beyond an economic elite who are probably already bought into the European project. While news media may be the most tempting place to strengthen Europe’s public sphere, perhaps it is not the most effective starting point. Mass media must cater to the masses—and that’s where Netflix comes in.
Hungry for international subscribers, Netflix has demonstrated a huge appetite for unabashedly mainstream content that’s meant to attract audiences across national borders. There’s a huge commercial incentive for Netflix to foster pan-European content—why pay for a series that only appeals to 11.5 million Belgians when you can have something that 450 million people across the EU will like?
Netflix’s nature as a digital platform is also a huge asset. There have already been attempts at EU-centric television like the Franco-German-Belgian comedy Parlement and the Dutch drama Brussels—but they’ve enjoyed limited viewership due to the national nature of traditional television networks, and their narrow targeting of political junkies. On the other hand, Netflix’s profit-driven juggernaut necessitates broad distribution and content that transcends niches.
In this regard, Tribes of Europa isn’t just a one-off. Netflix has already invested in other shows of a pan-European nature, most notably 2020’s Into the Night, which features a transnational cast of characters on a plane departing Brussels amidst an apocalyptic event. Into the Night contains scenes in NATO headquarters, and even a subplot about abandoning unsavory Britons on the tarmac—but is otherwise the kind of guilty pleasure binge content you’d expect from a streaming company that wants to increase its stock price.
When Politico first entered Europe, The Guardian wrote that the company wanted to not only reflect back to Europeans their own fractiousness, but also “build a market that will buy a story about its own integration.” While Politico might have made some inroads, Netflix might actually be the American company that does a better job at creating that market.
With content that appeals to the masses, Netflix has the ability to inspire a larger, unconverted population to reflect upon what it means to be European. Just as Eurovision builds soft power that might eventually get people interested in Euronews, shows like Tribes of Europa can provide an accessible gateway to a pan-European public sphere. Perhaps Europe’s integrationists can take note and consider how they might leverage the American streaming giant accordingly.
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Tribes of Europa is streaming on Netflix.