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European Encounters: “There Hasn’t Been Enough Reflection”

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Is it the right time for the EU to move ahead when it’s already struggling to reach its citizens? LOUISA SLAVKOVA, executive director of Sofia Platform, and DANIEL KRUSE, co-founder of Open State, have their doubts.

Artwork: © Arnaud Dechiron

We’d like to kick off with a recent speech by EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in which he outlined a vision for a European Union of the future. Was there anything in this speech that spoke to you?
Louisa Slavkova: There were quite a few interesting points. However, there was also some wishful thinking when it comes to the role of the non-governmental sector in Europe. The Commission would like to be in a more intense conversation with the NGOs, but this is something we’ve heard before – just like the commission says it would love to be closer to the citizens, which on a structural level isn’t really happening.
You could argue that national politicians are the ones who have to start a dialogue with citizens about the future of Europe, or members of the European parliament should be having these conversations when they go back home. But while these conversations do happen, they happen in a very small circle, so that basically the nature and substance of the EU still remain quite far away from citizens, at least in Bulgaria.

How should Europe engage with its population and implement reforms? Is this top-down, or bottom-up? How can we have a process that is more transparent and more democratic?
Daniel Kruse: Well, with our Open State collective we are holding what we call “innovation camps,” which offer one model for engagement. These are rather long-term events where we try to dig deep into issues and find new ideas. We just held one on politics, which we called the Open State of Politics. It was five days in a wild former botanical theme park in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a, and we invited 20 political innovators from across the EU. We tried to make them break with their daily routine a little bit and encourage introspection.

This is slightly different than what Mr. Juncker outlined yesterday. From what you’re saying, your approach sounds more like a disruption than what is usually being done. Could you give an example of what was being discussed there?
Kruse: This camp invited “democracy innovators” who act outside of the parliamentary system and offer new approaches to politics. There were people from Liquid Democracy, people who have just founded a new party in Germany – Demokratie in Bewegung (“Democracy in Motion”) – people from the ZEIT Online project “#D17” who traveled around the country to meet and connect with people in rural areas. It was a highly diverse group, and we looked for something that they all shared, that all these different people cherished. We’re just having our first evaluation meeting today, so it’s very fresh.
But the question is how these innovators have an impact, or how these innovations become policies, at least in the mid- to long-term.

Did you come up with any ideas about to how to bring the EU closer to its citizens?
Kruse: There’s a couple of things. For example, we heard the story of a very active online hate commentator. When a journalist finally met him and interviewed him, he found out that this guy had kids, two cars, was voting for the Greens – he was a very settled employee in an IT company, and yet he felt completely left out by what happens in the EU. He can vote every four years for his own national government, but he has no influence at all on the EU level and doesn’t know what’s happening.

What’s it like in Bulgaria, Louisa? Is there also this feeling of being completely detached from what the EU does?
Slavkova: Well, you have to keep in mind that our country is still considered one of the new member states, so the whole narrative about why we are part of the EU is kind of in its first generation. The older generation, the one that was part of the conversation in the nineties about which direction we wanted to take – not East, but rather West – and that we wanted to become part of NATO and the EU, they know why they’re part of the Union, more or less. And when you travel around the country, you see these big signs all over the place that tell you “This project is supported by the cohesion fund” or “That project is supported by the structural fund,” so on that level the EU is visually present.
On top of that, a lot of people realize that the region in which we live is quite challenging, and one of the main sources of investment actually comes from various EU funds. So there is a very strong positive attitude.
On the other hand, we just had a democracy camp for young people in the South. When they speak about their future vision for democracy in this country, the EU does not come up. That is quite interesting, because this is the generation that was born way after 1989, and for them the EU is a given. For them, free travel and all the other added values of membership are a given. I was a student in Germany and had to renew my visa every three months, but for them that’s ancient history.
Engaging them in a conversation about the European Union when they actually don’t feel that they need to is quite a challenge.

Kruse: A main issue is that the EU was defined in its beginnings as an economic partnership, and was then elaborated by politicians and in contracts and in structures. There was less talk about soft issues, like the cultures of the EU and exchanges among people – real-world meetings of people so you really get to know your fellow Europeans. So we’re left with just this national identity, and really don’t know what the others are like.
People are only now starting to work on that. Threats like populism and the refugee crisis demand that we stick together, and unfortunately people are pointing fingers instead. Martin Schulz, the SPD’s candidate in the recent German elections, emphasized this, saying that we need to distribute this pressure on the shoulders of the many in the EU, rather than allow some countries to say we cannot take any more refugees. Only now is the EU defining itself, in response to pressure from the outside.
I think one of the main reasons that voters in rural areas voted for right-wing parties is because they lack the positive experiences of Europe – of traveling, of studying abroad, of meeting people. Maybe they’ve occasionally spent holidays in Italy, but that’s not really getting to know what it means to be European. Personally, I only really figured out how much I loved being European when I did a trip through Latin America; I felt it was very different, and I realized I actually like being European. It’s really only in opposition to other things that you get to know your identity.

You’ve both looked at civic participation with the government and the EU, albeit on different levels. Daniel, you co-founded reCampaign, which started as a side event to re:publica and now is one of Europe’s most important meetings on digitalized society; Louisa, you co-founded the Sofia Platform. Is there a way that governments can connect with these new ways in which citizens are using the internet?
Kruse: I’m always in favor of sectors talking to each other and learning from each other instead of seeing themselves as completely separate. If you look at the last re:publica conference, there was a big booth and a big publication from the German Ministry of Labor on “Work 4.0.” They had a huge brochure, and presented an alternative idea to basic income. The impetus to do that came from the digital side, where everyone was talking about basic income; the ministry’s initiative was a reaction to that.
Obviously there are bridges between the two camps, and politics can benefit from working with the digital community, including the world of start-ups, agile working, and non-hierarchical participation. Sometimes in the internet bubble people are really ahead of the curve. They’re thinking about building up alternative everyday lives where they circumvent failed state policies, where they have their own decision models, where it’s mostly about solidarity and not paying taxes to anywhere. That’s two steps ahead of where politics is.
I think that the people who visited our camp, who all have great potential, intentionally avoid the classic political system because they aim to be more radical and bolder, or work on their own smaller communities. They don’t really want to operate on a national or EU level anymore because it’s so far away and so hard to change.

Speaking of European identity, you said that you felt the most European when you were traveling abroad. How can the internet be something that promotes European identity – or do we need to do that offline?
Kruse: Tough question! It really depends on what is digital and what is the internet, that’s really a huge space. Even all these digital people eventually do conferences and offline meetings.

Juncker touched on the idea of transnational MEPs, meaning you’d be able to vote not just for a Bulgarian or a German MEP, but for someone from another member state. Is this something that has an appeal?
Slavkova: Sure. This all has to do with the basic question: how close is the EU to the European citizenry, and how much do they understand the impact that the EU has on their daily life? So it all boils down to education.
I know this sounds like a cliché, but if people do not know how the EU impacts their life, there is very little incentive to go and vote for members of parliament from your own national context, let alone for someone from a different country. It’s like Daniel said: there is a notion of travel and the so-called Easyjet or ERASMUS generation, those who have the experience of having been real EU citizens. They were born here, studied there, then had a job maybe somewhere else. Maybe they would be the target group of a transnational list, or even a new party. I know that there is currently a new party in the making called Vox which is kind of based on that idea.
However, while I admire the great optimism of Juncker, I don’t think we’re done with the reflection phase. A lot of politicians think that because we didn’t choose a far-right government in the Netherlands, or a far-right president in Austria, or Le Pen in France, that we’re basically done with that. But the underlying dynamics of what we now call “populism” and citizens’ disenchantment with politics have been there for a while. People were protesting before they voted for populists.
It’s too early to immediately think of solutions. I would rather we had time to reflect and include the citizens in this conversation to see if they are really tired of hearing the same things from both left and right and not getting any of the results they wanted. And they should feel empowered to become part of the discussion. I think it’s too early to talk about pan-European lists for the EUP.

Couldn’t it be that the EU doesn’t take this chance to really get moving, maybe next time round populists will win in other countries?
Slavkova: Basically, democracies really fail when they want too little of their citizens. That’s both a subjective and an objective observation from my work. I really think that it’s the right time to engage in a conversation with citizens. And I know that this is not easy because I’m doing it! But it has to be done.

Who would organize or spur these processes?
Slavkova: In terms of the EU funds for the non-governmental sector, there is hardly any support for democracy programs within its borders. As an organization that does democracy support and works for the sake of democracy consolidation, there is no way for me to get support from the EU unless I twist the organization to fit the criteria.
This is a problem. For way too long we’ve thought that democracy is consolidated in the EU member states, both old and new. That’s always been the narrative – once you gain access to the club, you’re a democracy. But as we’ve seen over the past few years, this is not the case. And if there’s no support for this type of work, especially in the non-governmental sector, what are we supposed to do? I know there are trendy topics, different digital tools and instruments and ways to enrich democracy through that, but we can’t all do the same thing; if refugees are now the topic of the day, we can’t all start doing this. There is a need to get in touch with people, to talk to them on a very basic, local level.

You’re talking about the role the EU can play in local education – what responsibility do national governments have to contribute to that?
Slavkova: I think as big a responsibility, if not bigger. If you make a division of labor, maybe the EU should focus on engaging people in a conversation about the EU itself, whereas national capitals can engage with their citizens both on that topic and the role of the member states in the EU, and also why democracy is best.

Is democracy so safely anchored in Germany and maybe other western European nations that we don’t have that problem?
Slavkova: Oh, I think that we have problems everywhere. If we did not, we wouldn’t have parties like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), for instance, or Le Pen, or others. As I was saying, the fact that Macron won in France does not mean that the underlying dynamics that made people vote for Le Pen are gone.
And it’s also wrong to think about these things in the old schemes of rural vs. urban, or well-educated vs. uneducated, or blue-collar vs. white-collar. You see this among the voters of the AfD; they’re not only in Eastern Germany, as we had originally thought, but they’re also in Western Germany, in rather wealthy regions. That’s what I was saying; I admire the job of Juncker, but when you listen to him saying, “It’s been enough reflection, it’s time for action,” I don’t think there’s been enough reflection at all. I can’t advocate enough for conversations with the citizens.

Kruse: I’m still thinking about the question three questions before, about transnational voting. On a structural level I would say “Of course,” because it seems that the EU decisions impact every citizen, on the national level as well. So on the one hand, sure, people should be able to vote more directly on transnational MEPs.
But the underlying problem is that politics is about distributing your power to people you barely know. I always find it a bit weird that when an election is coming up and local candidates pop up on the streets, and I hardly known any of them, and I wonder why I’m not in touch with these people the rest of the year. Why don’t they do marketing? Why do I know everything about Merkel, who I never reach and can never influence, and hardly anything about these local guys?
So on the one hand it’s important that we see these international talking heads and have the chance to vote for them, but I think a lot of opportunity lies in more local politics and being proactive about that, giving people back a sense of influence. Influencing their neighborhood, their small towns, or their districts in larger cities like Berlin, where I’m living. That’s under the radar I think.

So I take it you agree with Louisa, basically – this is a time for more reflection, not actually the time for rushing ahead.
Kruse: Yeah; that fits the process of our camp. There are lots of new pro-European “democracy startups,” meetings, round tables, and such, so everyone’s talking about it. The threat has made many more people talk about the EU and its future. But it’s maybe not the best thing to immediately leap into action, anxiety, stress, and panic. Now that we have this “democratic buffer” with Macron in France, instead of Le Pen, we might take some time to deepen the dialogue and really figure out how to get better at this participation process, and what politics really means to us.
Slavkova: Yes! Nothing better than consensus.