by Viola Kiel
There are many different kinds of voices in Europe. There are loud ones and quiet ones, shrill ones and softer ones. Together, they undoubtedly have the potential of uniting into something greater, something more complete – a choir even. How, though – and this is perhaps one of the core problems facing European society – is that supposed to happen when national discourses and discussions seldom reach beyond national borders? When citizens of one country constantly bicker only among themselves?
On the afternoon of Saturday, May 11, thousands of Europeans met up in pairs – either via video chat or in person – to talk and to listen.
They were all part of Europe Talks, an initiative from ZEIT ONLINE in cooperation with 15 media partners from around Europe that brought together European neighbors holding political views as divergent from each other as possible on issues such as: Does the EU improve the lives of its citizens? Should European countries increase taxes on gas to save the climate? And: Are there too many immigrants in Europe? An algorithm paired up more than 16,200 participants to take part in face-to-face debates, all at the same time.
"What is happening today never happened in the history of Europe. Today, thousands of people from 33 countries will meet a stranger from another country – from the very north of Norway to La Gomera," said Jochen Wegner, editor-in-chief of ZEIT ONLINE, at the kick-off event in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. He recounted how the project got started – as a kind of political Tinder that first resulted in Germany Talks in 2017. Then came a larger repeat of that event in 2018, along with spin-off events in countries around Europe. There have been 13 My Country Talks national events thus far. And then came this year's pan-European experiment, Europe Talks, held on the eve of elections for the European Parliament, which take place from May 23-26.
"You have an interesting date today," Michelle Müntefering, the next to speak, told the 500 participants present in Brussels. Müntefering is minister of state for culture and education at the German Federal Foreign Office and a member of the center-left Social Democrats. And after warning of "destructive antagonists" who are keen to steal Europe's future, she said something that could perhaps be seen as the leitmotif of the entire format: National answers are no longer enough.
The fact that such purely national responses might be reduced by an event such as this one is something also hinted at by the British journalist Jeremy Cliffe. The head of the Economist's Brussels bureau, he referred to Europe Talks as a "phenomenal democratic exercise."
"We're not together because of our history, but because of our future."
Jeremy Cliffe, journalist with the Economist
Cliffe was also critical of many pro-Europeans for their constant appeals to the common history of the continent. Europe has been shaped by its common history, he noted, but recent crises cannot be solved by referring to tradition. It is something else that unifies Europe: "It is hard reality that keeps Europe together, the challenges we share," he said. "We're not together because of our history, but because of our future."
"I Am, We Are, Europe's History"
Who, though, might be part of this history despite not being sufficiently recognized as such? Yasmine Ouirhrane asked at the very beginning of her speech whether she looked like a European – a question that pointed to a problem in European society: the fact that the children and grandchildren of migrants are still discriminated against merely because of their appearances. Ouirhrane, who was recently honored as the Young European of the Year by Schwarzkopf Foundation Young Europe, is the daughter of Italian-Moroccan parents.
She completed her university studies in France and is an activist on behalf of women and migrants in Europe. The 23-year-old, who proudly refers to herself as a European of African descent, says that young people, women and minorities are often ignored in the discussion of European history. "Today, we represent the unity in diversity of Europe. We, People of Color, daughters and sons of immigrants, we belong."
The Belgian philosopher Philippe Van Parijs, professor emeritus at the Université Louvain in Belgium, also spoke of cooperation – and about practical measures to achieve it: a shared language. An instrument for cross-border communication, he said, is a fundamental precondition for the preservation of an "imperfect but amazing" system, such as Europe. And this instrument exists, he said: English. The English language, Van Parijs said, is "a continental European language" with influences from German and French. And in speaking with this European voice, it is in no way embarrassing to speak English with a clear local accent, Van Parijs said. Like all speakers on Saturday afternoon, he delivered his comments in English.
"Let us give to the world the gift of a strong Europe in which European values play an important role in shaping the future of humanity in this beautiful small spaceship Earth that we inhabit."
Samantha Cristoforetti, ESA astronaut
For Samantha Cristoforetti, the final keynote speaker at the BOZAR, a shared language was a matter of survival over the course of several months. In 2014, the Italian astronaut traveled on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA) to the ISS, the "outpost of humanity," as Cristoforetti referred to the space station.
"Having spent quite some time of my life outside of Europe, even outside of the planet," she said, "I can say it is a continent that enjoys great admiration." Europe, she says, is home to huge amounts of potential when it comes to talent, passion, creativity and, not least, financial resources. As such, it is possible together to find technological solutions to the problems facing the world - from global health to the climate crisis. "We should honestly acknowledge problems, we should be willing to change course as needed, but let us continue to pursue the dream. Let us give to the world the gift of a strong Europe in which European values play an important role in shaping the future of humanity in this beautiful small spaceship Earth that we inhabit."
How, though, is it possible to launch a conversation on a small scale that is able to make shared dreams possible? Especially when we have competing views on questions central to our cooperation?
That's something that three debate pairs, all of whom took part in events that preceded Europe Talks, discussed in Brussels on Saturday before the discussions got started.
Enrico Verno and Anna Albanese, who were matched up in Italy as part of the national event L'Italia si parla, experienced something that tends to characterize the discussions held as part of this political Tinder – something that, as Verno described it, is different than "what happens on your mobile phone screen." They discovered during their meeting that there were many areas where their views overlapped.
Anne Helgers and Anno Mühlhoff took part in the very first version of the format, Germany Talks, back in 2017, a time when the country was embroiled in a discussion about gay marriage. Did their debate have a lasting effect? "I think more about communication, about how I talk about things, especially when involved in a discussion where my position is really diametrically opposed to that of the person I am speaking with. I'm no longer afraid of such discussions. I used to be brave. And now I am again," said Helgers. At the time, she was living in a domestic partnership and, according to Mühlhoff, had prepared meticulously for their debate. He said she managed to "soften" the rather inflexible opinions he had held previously.
Jussi Ruotsalainen and Paula Plysjik of Finland met up as part of Suomi puhuu and found themselves primarily in disagreement on the question as to humanity's responsibility for climate change. Paula Plysjik's conviction that humanity, in this world made by a Creator, was too insignificant to actually change the climate was met with scientific arguments presented by Jussi Ruotsalainen. Neither of them abandoned their positions in the course of their debate, but Ruotsalainen said: "I am able to respect views that I don't share, views that I didn't even previously know existed."