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“We Should Create More Spaces for People’s Participation”


These days passion seems to be on the side of those who oppose the EU. In our new series “European Encounters,” SÉBASTIEN VANNIER of cafebabel.com and STELIOS VOULGARIS, co-founder of the non-profit COMM’ON, discuss how to better engage people.

Artwork: Arnaud Dechiron

Welcome to you both. When we look back at the Brexit campaign, it seems that the “leave” camp in the United Kingdom didn’t necessarily have the more rational arguments, but they had passion on their side. Do you think this applies to the whole of Europe, and if so, how do you get people more passionate about Europe?
Stelios Voulgaris: It’s a very complex phenomenon. We should not underestimate the fact that the financial crisis, poverty, and the extreme challenge of taking in so many refugees created uncertainty and fear. Of course, some politicians take advantage of these feelings and if we try to explain this passion, I’m not sure it is the passion for Brexit or for these politics itself – I think it is a more instinctive reaction to the fear they feel, to the easy promises they’re hearing. It is a movement against a system that does not seem to function as it once did; it cannot fulfill the promises it has given. And we should also talk about why the existing system – at least in the Western world – does not function anymore for people.

Could it also simply be that the fearmongers are louder, their voices drown out the others?
Sébastien Vannier: I think it depends on how you look at the question. I do not completely agree with you when you say there is no passion on the pro-European side. There is passion, as we see in Germany with the new candidate from the Social Democrats, Martin Schulz. He is Mr. Europe, he is pro-Europe, and we saw a lot of passion now when he announced his candidacy. It is the same with Emmanuel Macron in France; there is also a movement behind him and I think we can use the term passion when it comes to his pro-European message. Last example: the recent “Pulse of Europe” demonstrations show that those willing to defend European values are now turning to the streets to show their engagement. But it is true that in a political campaign, it is much easier to score with anti-Europe arguments. Europe is very complex; the EU has positive and negative aspects, and it is always very difficult to generate passion for it. The real problem is that there is little dialogue between the two sides. Both are living in what we call filter bubbles. Pro-European people work, discuss, and live among themselves, and the anti-European side does the same.

Isn’t it also the fact that the anti-Europeans, the populists, are so much better in using new forms of communication? And would you copy their strategies in a way, would that help get around the problem of all of us living in filter bubbles, as you called them? How do you overcome this Catch-22?
Vannier: I think it is too easy to say anti-European populists – it is far more complex. There are valid criticisms of Europe. Many people on both sides are critical of Europe. I am critical of Europe too, but I don’t think I’m a populist because of it.

But you don’t want to leave the EU, do you?
Vannier: No. And it is important to be allowed to say: No, I don’t want to leave the EU, but yes, there are some aspects that have to be changed.

To be clear, we don’t mean to say that the EU should never be criticized. When we talk about populists, maybe it’s better to say those who would rather like to see the EU fall apart, or at least a strong re-nationalization. These people are very sophisticated in creating filter bubbles. How can you break through them? How can you communicate into these bubbles?
Voulgaris: Studying or trying to understand the populist methods is very important and, as Sébastien said, the bubbles on both sides have not allowed themselves to really understand one another yet. In Greece the anti-European movement has been politically expressed through extreme parties. I had the chance to live for a few years in a refugee neighborhood in Athens where the far-right Golden Dawn was actually very active. So I had the chance to witness up close and personal what they are doing, to learn their methodologies. I think some of the things they are doing are remarkable: Golden Dawn organizes in a very local, very decentralized way, with local offices everywhere. They understand local needs. They have an excellent mapping system of who needs what and how they can offer it in order to network on a very small-scale base. There are aspects of their methodology that I admire and I wish the existing political system could also employ such tactics. I understand why people, at least in my neighborhood, felt that this party was closer to their needs and was present when they needed help. Secondly, though I obviously don’t agree at all with the content of their propaganda, the way they speak is clear. People understand their message, even though you might not agree with it. Still, their official policies are not very clear: Populists usually talk about destroying something but often do not offer a real alternative for policy-making or what the system should be the next day.
Vannier: I think that last point is very interesting – it is always easier to say, “Everything is bad and what the government before me did was bad and all of what Europe is doing is bad,” but they have no realistic program to replace it. That is how the populists work, and of course it is easier to be destructive than constructive. You asked the question: Should we adopt the populists’ methods? It’s a very hard time for journalists to defend their position, and what we are trying to do is guarantee quality of information. It’s the first answer that we can deliver as journalists.

But returning to the million-dollar question: How do you burst the filter bubble? How do you get beyond your usual readers? How do you leave your own comfort zone and get into territory where you really have to argue and make your point?
Vannier: My answer is still: quality of information and to go out and report firsthand. I hope that people are attracted to and excited by quality of information. And what we are trying to do at cafebabel.com is, we try to understand and explain the lives of young Europeans in every country from Belarus to Spain, from Serbia to Ireland. I think, I hope, it is interesting for everyone, even beyond our own filter bubbles. Over the last few years there has been a gap between institutions and the daily lives of Europeans, and we hope we can reach everyone again by focusing on the latter.

Mr. Voulgaris, you have experience dealing with very different groups in Greece, so how do you reach out to them?
Voulgaris: In Greece, as you all know well, the existing social, financial, and public systems have collapsed completely, and that has created a huge gap that spurred people to participate in different ways. The people who go for the populist messages are still people who leave their houses to be active, hoping to somehow have a social impact, even if I don’t agree with their orientation. At the same time there is also a vibrant civic society in Athens. People are very much motivated to do something; they have the need to participate in things. I think we should try to create more spaces and platforms for people’s participation and collaboration. There should be a way that people can bring their input into policy-making. They want to feel that they have an impact in social life and if the official mechanisms could offer more possibilities for people actually to collaborate, create new solutions, and come up with new methodologies, people would feel they are actually participating in shaping society. If people feel they are heard by their community, their government, the EU, they don’t need to seek more extreme solutions to take their fate, the fate of their family, their city, and their country into their own hands.

And what needs to be done to engage young Europeans better?
Vannier: Young people are getting engaged, but not in the political system – they are not voting for the traditional political parties anymore, as we see in France. I think it’s a question of trust in both sides. I spoke with a lot of friends in France and Germany who don’t trust the political system anymore. In Germany, you could say that there is no point in voting anymore as you will end up with the same grand coalition [of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats]. The issue of democratic engagement is an interesting question, and just to blame them for not voting is not the right answer. In France it’s the same, even if Emmanuel Macron styles himself as a newcomer and outsider. We have a lot of young people who won’t have voted. Maybe we have to rethink how we go about political engagement.
Voulgaris: My observation is that younger people have the need to participate more actively. Older people are used to voting as a means to participate in the system, but younger people need to be involved in the everyday implementing of policy, shaping policy. And media and technology allow us to create a more energetic and active participation. Young people are ready to participate – it is not enough for them to go vote every four or five years.

But “older people” have also been very politically engaged, gone out onto the streets, demonstrated against nuclear re-armament. And we don’t see too many young people doing that these days…
Vannier: Well, there were some demonstrations in France last year called Nuit debout to protest labor reforms, and there were a lot of young people out there, trying to find new solutions for the system. I think we see in France why people don’t trust traditional politics anymore – take what happened with the scandal around presidential candidate François Fillon. There were many people who decided not to vote or, even more problematically, to vote for Front National. Some of the political elites in France still do not understand that things have to change now. The question of course is how do we change it.

Which role does social media have in this? How can it influence political communication in our societies and how can it be influenced from the outside? Or do we need to venture out more and get in direct contact with the people?
Voulgaris: I was just thinking of those reality TV shows where people get to choose which singer they want, and you have a very clear question and a very easy way for people to just grab their phones and vote, and they feel they have an impact on what is happening. The example is very simple but in Greece, there is a lot of will to participate. People want to be involved, even in something that simple. And technology and media actually give us fantastic solutions. Younger people are very much used to using this. If we think about it, the methods of participation in our countries have essentially not changed over the last fifty, even hundred years – technology is still not really part of helping and supporting people’s participation.

Referenda are often equated with direct participation, but people then often cast their votes with other motives in mind than addressing the questions. Should we still have more referenda – on smaller questions that make a difference in people’s daily lives?
Voulgaris: I’m from a country that has a lot of experience with referenda. It’s not a very complete form of participation. The way the question is phrased and the reasons behind it are always decided at the top. A real referendum for me is a vote where you get people to participate to create the question and then to decide on an answer. Formulating questions in a very specific way, especially in crucial and tense moments, isn’t a way to get people to participate in policy-making. I believe it is a way to manipulate people.
Vannier: Social media offers tools, but in itself is not the solution. It’s a tool that we can use very well, and we can abuse it, too. But it’s just a tool. I think it’s very important to get back out on the ground and see politics as something from the bottom up and not from Paris or from Berlin. I completely agree with Stelios on the matter of referenda, too, because you can also abuse a referendum. I don’t want a choice between “Yes” and “Yes.” I want an open question, but, very importantly too, I want an open democratic process.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – May/June 2017 issue.