The European Union is in distress. On the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome this has become an ever-present issue, which the #DialogueOnEurope seeks to address. The gathering of various members of civil society aims to find new insights and solutions to the Union’s most prevalent problems.
60 years after the Treaty of Rome, and the joint European future does not look so bright. With migration, financial, and identity crises, the regional unity is in question, especially since different countries challenge joint policies and refuse to follow the European principles (take Hungary, for instance, and its newly presented refugee policy). To improve regional situations, members of civil society gathered in Paris during the #DialogueOnEurope project to develop policy recommendations.
The project, initiated by a Berlin-based think tank, Das Progressive Zentrum, aims to bring together activists from five countries – Portugal, Italy, France, Spain, and Greece. The choice of countries was dictated by their current challenges – such as financial crisis, worsening relations with other EU members, and the experience of dealing with large migration flows. “By involving and engaging civil society in a dialogue about Europe, we want to learn from the activists what the problems are, and how they can contribute to their solution,” says Philipp Sälhoff, project lead of the initiative, “The goal is to develop policy recommendations to foster the European project and strengthen civil society networks by connecting initiatives in different countries.”
The German Federal Foreign Office supported the idea financially, enabling the project’s initiation. “No single issue of the 21st century can be solved by a national state,” says Andreas Görgen, Director-General for Culture and Communication of the German Federal Office. He adds: the suggestions, developed during the project, are important for the German government and may be used to change national policies; and that is the initial reason the authorities decided to support the initiative. “Foreign policy is too important to be left to the state, but rather, it should help society by being an open communication space,” Görgen concludes.
The initiative kicked off with local meetings in five countries, focusing on four main topics: populism, migration & integration, social cohesion, and sustainable growth. The activists got to meet each other during the first two Thinking Lab Summits in Lisbon in Paris. Controversial policies in Poland and Brexit led to the enlargement of the project, adding two more countries – and local civil society organizations – to the discussion. Currently, the activists are working on policy recommendations, and this process will last until late 2017. The main goal is to turn the suggestions into real policies on the EU level as well as make the network of international activists work.
Orange has spoken with Philipp Sälhoff about the background of the initiative, its applicability, and the biggest insights of the dialogue.
How did you develop the idea behind #DialogueOnEurope?
Civil society is a bridge between people, that channels necessary policy making on the political level. We did not want to play the “blame game” of what each government had to do, but to know how different organizations can act and make European project more successful. The idea was to get to know people who were not the “usual suspects”, and that’s why we had town hall meetings to meet with the local activists, who wanted to work with us, and later joined us in Paris.
We see that decision making in Europe is still focused on the national state and national interests. We want to break this approach by getting different perspectives in one group, which enables developing practical recommendations. This reality check is not the case when we have the national perspective only. We also succeeded in connecting civil society within and between the countries involved. To me, the most satisfying experience was that the people actually met at town hall meetings. At first, I thought they already knew each other, but it turned out that many didn’t, so they encountered and decided to do some projects together.
What is the applicability of the initiative?
The results of the project can be applied to any other country, although there are local differences. We see how in each region, the organizations we work with have different definitions for civil society and their activities. We want to make the process sustainable and see where to extend and prolong it. Establishing a dialogue with people who are not involved with politics on a daily basis is the idea to improve Europe. When we go to the country, it is not us telling them what to do; we invite them so we can learn from their experience.
What are the next steps?
After we get policy recommendations, we want to share them with the public. We do not want to make a white paper only, but have it considered and implemented. We will try to get the recommendations included in the political process and use our network to start the dialogue about it. We are looking for feedback on our ideas from political decision makers. At the same time, we focus on building a network. We consider ourselves some sort of a hub, that aims to connect ideas and initiatives throughout Europe; and we can do it on another level because we have better knowledge about the abilities of the organizations to connect them.
You are expanding to Eastern Europe now. Why, do you think, the region experiences negative developments?
The situation in Eastern Europe is a topic we need to talk about, especially with civil society. I think what happened with Eastern Europe is that, when they joined the EU, they accepted some of its values, but not all. So, people, who want growth and strong defense, do not necessarily share other European principles such as tolerance, pluralism, and freedom of speech. This means we need to differentiate the values. In Hungary, for example, there is an economic desire that led to joining the EU. On the other hand, the ruling parties are clearly against core European values. This can be explained by cultural backlash against liberalization, and the necessity to find a scapegoat for people who are left behind economically.
When you work with likeminded people, how do you overcome the bubble of becoming inclusive?
Likeminded people have a common understanding of different things, and for this purpose, we selected likeminded people in favor of the European project and integration. An important point is how we deal with the people with different values. In my mind, this requires a different project and another approach. We want to work on realistic and pragmatic policy recommendations, and that does not happen when half of the group questions the fundamentals of what we are talking about. I hope we can work on proposals that help shaping the EU so people against the idea can see a change and better relate to it. You can call it Europe 2.0. Reaching to those who don’t leave their home country or don’t speak a foreign language is another challenge. It is also a question of seeing the causes for some political results, and public opinion, shaped by the media phenomena.
What has been your biggest insight?
One was the comparison between the attitude toward right-wing populism in Eastern Europe, and Western and Central Europe. I found it very interesting that there are no significant right wing populist powers in Spain or Portugal. Another insight is seeing how Italy has been dealing with refugees for a long time, but after the issue has affected Germany, it received more political negotiations and awareness. So, people begin to talk why they did not receive help while they were fighting with a problem for years. This is an issue for the EU because it centers on a national perspective, and this is not an idea of solidarity.
(by Anna Romandash and Demetrios Pogkas)
This story was published by Orange Magazine, which has been created by the European Youth Press (EYP) to provide journalistic education and to support young journalists by giving them room to explore media and current affairs. For more information about this edition, please visit: http://www.