Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Perpetually Re-Connecting Europe

Perpetually Re-Connecting Europe

The "Re-Connecting Europe" Project

Over the course of the past year, the transnational “Re-Connecting Europe” project brought together people from different European countries, from East and West, from North and South and from inside and outside of the European Union in five transnational workshop meetings, to get to know each other’s perspectives on what it means to grow up European today and explore the commonalities and differences on some of the main contemporary topics through discussion and joint actions.

Why this project now?

“Re-Connecting Europe” – reading the title of the project, one might at first think that it is redundant to re-connect Europe. After all Europe and in particular the European Union member states have, especially over the last three decades, become increasingly connected in terms of flows of goods, services, capital and people as well as the accompanying infrastructure. Endless rows of trucks criss-crossing the continent and jets taking off every minute transporting people between European cities illustrate this reality. Especially the EU has become so intensely connected on many levels that many of its citizens are taking the freedoms the EU grants them, such as the freedom of movement, as a given. And it is precisely because the intense economic and infrastructural interconnectedness of the European Union appears to be increasingly contrasted and even undermined by its political divergence and fractiousness, that this project hit a real nerve.


Discrepancy between economic integration and political disintegration

An increasing polarization of views can be observed in the European Union not just between competing political camps but also between public opinions in different EU-member states. This manifests itself through increasingly antagonistic debates on central issues such as political integration and enlargement of the EU and approaches to managing third-country migration in EU-member states. It becomes apparent that the economic integration process of the European Union has not been accompanied by the emergence of an EU “space” of public discourse with significant reach, where such issues could be discussed and negotiated directly and constructively amongst European citizens.


National vs. transnational discourses

Instead, more than 35 years after the founding of the European Union, it appears that it is still nationally focussed discourses rather than European debates that dominate the formulation of public opinion and policies in EU-member states. While this might be historically and logistically understandable, more often than not the lack of such a well-functioning public sphere perpetuates prejudices and antagonisms between the populations of EU-member states. The dominant nationally focussed discourses neglect the daily realities of shared lives and experiences amongst Europeans. It is no surprise then that proposals by the EU institutions to solving common issues together are rarely received positively and increasingly, a question mark appears even over the very continuation of the European Union[1].


Maintaining personal connections and exchange vs. social media discord

Amongst the multitude of reasons for these developments, particularly relevant to point out here are on the one hand the different economic and political trajectories which EU-member states find themselves on. Another important factor in this development has been the impact of digital and particularly social media platforms becoming dominant forums for debate and sources of information to a majority of EU citizens. But rather than go into further detail about the possible reasons for these developments, I want to discuss the potential solutions, which the experience of the “Re-Connecting Europe” project points to.

Because it is against this darkening backdrop, that the “Re-Connecting Europe” project could not be more timely and its mission not more urgent. By bringing together Europeans of different backgrounds to get to know each other through discussion, exchange and collaboration, the project aimed to counter-balance those divisive tendencies and it worked like a charm. Already in the very first meeting, the German and the Polish project groups discussed some of the attention-seeking tabloid headlines from Germany portraying the Polish government as a “banana republic”. In the context of personal encounter and debate, those destructive words immediately receded into the background and we focussed on understanding each other’s perspective. 

Other personal examples for me were the witnessing of homeless refugees in Belgrade receiving emergency medical care from volunteers while hoping to find a way into the EU as well as the discussion amongst project participants about the question whether Germany’s refugee policy in 2015 had a positive or negative impact on the European Union. These experiences made it plainly clear that, despite all the political rhetoric to the contrary, there is an ongoing effort across Europe, amongst European citizens at least, to manage migration humanely. “Re-Connecting Europe” was full of such moments and experiences and I want to elaborate on the personal insights that took away from them.


Insights from "Re-Connecting Europe" for the wider European integration process

Based on the experiences during my part of the journey of the Re-Connecting Europe project, I draw several conclusions for how the process of re-connecting Europe on a wider scale could be implemented:

  • EU-citizens might have grown accustomed to taking the freedom of travelling, working and living across the continent visa and hassle-free as a given and they are of course right to do so. However, meeting, working together and exchanging thoughts, experiences and perspectives with fellow Europeans is still something extraordinary rather than part of daily life for too many people in the EU. How come? If the citizens of the European Union and especially its young people, are to be able to make the most of the opportunities of this Union, they need to be supported and equipped to do so not just as part of temporary projects but in a structural, continuous way, for example in the context of European exchanges as mandatory parts of school curricula. Given the demographic trend in ageing European societies more such exchange programmes are needed for older people too.
  • This project demonstrated manifold that, given the opportunity and enough time to get to know and understand each other, we European citizens can negotiate our different viewpoints and perspectives and (re-)discover the many values we share in common as well as respecting our differences. In the context of the divisive dynamics of nationalistic politics and social media echo chambers, which continually erode those personal connections and trust, European citizens need time and opportunities to come together and re-build those connections and that trust. If this can happen in personal meetings that is fantastic, but it also needs more effective digital infrastructure, networks and campaigns to support the initiation and continuation of such interpersonal connections online.
  • Even if all the opportunities and infrastructure are there - when we do come together, we need to be truly curious and open to listening and learning from each other beyond preconceptions and stereotypes. Perpetuating old political or economic hierarchies within Europe continues to be a barrier to re-connecting Europe.
  • While we as Europeans do need to talk more about what connects us, we also need to address some of the hard topics where opinions diverge in order to start formulating new consensus on the important topics that concern us all which we do not seem to be able to agree on so far. Whether it is about contentious topics such as Germany’s recent refugee policy, Italy’s annual budget deficit, how to react to climate change or Poland’s judicial reforms, having such discussions on a transnational level can be very challenging. However, engaging in this type of exchange means accepting our interconnectedness. It also means accepting that the opinions of other Europeans matter in the national policy debates. And, in the process, it helps us get to know each other better and look for joint solutions to issues that affect us all.



Why should we even bother?

These might seem like a lot of normative demands and requests and one might ask why anybody should even bother considering such recommendations. The first answer to that is: Because there is nothing inevitable about the existence and the continued development of the European Union as an agent of progress and enlightenment. The achievements of the EU need to be fought and argued for over and over again, otherwise they might easily become history. 

And the second answer is: because the EU needs help with re-formulating its vision. While the European Union progressed ever further in its economic integration, it neglected further developing its vision for the future. So, while the EU’s economic integration provides tangible benefits to EU-member states and many citizens every day, it has not provided a compelling vision for the European Union’s future development. As a result, there is a worrying lack of inspiring answers or ideas on how to deal with the rising number of challenges to the very existence the European Union itself.

In order to give European citizens good reasons to stand up for the European Union and to re-connect with each other, a new and more compelling story needs to be told of why and for what reasons the European Union exists and why anybody should be excited and proud to be a part of it. 

Only I would say, a big part of that story is out there already, in the daily realities of families living their lives, of young people studying together, of old friends meeting again after many years: it’s stories of Europeans constantly connecting and re-connecting – it’s time to tell that story loud and clear.