On Saturday, May 11, a Greek mathematician jumped into his car and drove to Sandanski, a town in southern Bulgaria, a journey of around two hours. Upon arrival, he met up with a Bulgarian clerical assistant from just outside of Sofia to talk about the European Union. Specifically, whether the EU improves the lives of Europeans. The Greek mathematician's answer was a clear: "No."
At around the same time, a business consultant from Prague headed for the German border. His destination: a café on a slight rise from which you can almost see into Germany. He was there to have a cup of coffee with a retired woman from Saxony. In contrast to him, she is strictly opposed to the reintroduction of border controls in Europe.
In the Netherlands, a young engineer jumped on the train for a meeting in Eindhoven with a university student from Belgium. In Italy, a retired man drove to a place near the Gotthard Tunnel to meet with a man from Switzerland.
A woman from Latvia traveled to Helsinki. A British man headed for provincial part of France. And a Hungarian traveled to the Austrian border.
Thousands of Debates Across European Borders
They all took part in an experiment that had never before taken place in Europe in this form. It's called Europe Talks, and the idea was to get thousands of Europeans to meet up either via video chat or in person for a face-to-face discussion about Europe.
ZEIT ONLINE called on readers to participate in Europe Talks along with 15 partner media outlets, including the Financial Times in Britain, the Greek paper Efsyn and the Finnish daily Helsingin Sanomat, among others. Each partner asked their readers to answer seven controversial yes-or-no questions about current political issues. Readers were then asked if they wanted to talk about those issues with other Europeans.
More than 21,000 people from 33 countries registered, with around 16,200 of them supplying all of the details necessary to be matched up with a debate partner. An algorithm developed by ZEIT ONLINE then paired each registrant with a partner holding as divergent views as possible. Each pair included two Europeans who live in neighboring countries and who hold different views on as many of the seven questions as possible. We were able to match up almost 14,700 people with a debate partner. The remaining registrations either contained errors or were otherwise invalid.
16,227 participants 8,113 possible debate pairs
Who are these Europeans? And what are their views of some of the most pressing questions currently threatening to divide Europe? To answer that question, we have anonymized and analyzed the data provided by Europe Talks participants.
Who Are the Participants in "Europe Talks"?
Participants from 33 countries registered for the event, more countries than belong to the European Union. Two of those who took part are from Iceland, two from Russia and one from Liechtenstein. The greatest number, though, were from Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Britain and Finland. Half of all participants came from those six countries.
The average age was 42.7 years, slightly younger than the average age of all EU member states. The youngest participants were 18 and the oldest was 91. Around 30 percent of the participants were women and 70 percent men.
42.7 years average age
69.4 % men
29.2 % women
1.1 percent did not enter a gender
What Did Participants in "Europe Talks" Argue About?
Many of the questions we asked are the subject of significant controversy in the countries of the EU. Should all European countries reintroduce strict border controls? Has Europe accepted too many migrants? Is it necessary to raise the gas tax to save the climate?
Europe Talks participants were largely in agreement on many of the questions we asked: Only 19 percent answered that they were in favor of stricter border controls and only 25 percent believed there are too many migrants in Europe. A large majority of 91 percent believed that the EU improves the lives of its citizens and around 80 percent would exchange their national passport for a European one. The participants, in other words, tended to be pro-EU and generally held liberal views on domestic political issues.
But other issues were controversial. Every third participant was opposed to a higher fuel tax to protect the climate. And almost half of those participating in the discussions believed that the EU should tighten its relationship with Russia. Indeed, the question about EU-Russian relations was the most controversial Europe Talks question.
Did All Countries Answer the Same?
On some questions, there was significant disparity on how different countries answered the questions. In Italy, for example, around 40 percent of the participants indicated they were in favor of stricter national border controls, a result that was higher than in other countries.
In Greece, almost all of those who registered said they felt that richer EU member states should support poorer ones, independent of whether they held liberal or conservative positions on the other questions. In other countries, almost all conservative participants answered the question with "no." Greece was also notable on another question: Only half of Greek participants were of the opinion that the EU improves the lives of its citizens. In all other countries, more than 80 percent held that view.
Participants in the non-EU country of Norway were much more resistant to the idea of exchanging their national passports for an EU one. Half of all respondents indicated they weren't prepared to do so. In almost all other countries, a significant majority answered that question with "yes."
Among the countries participating in Europe Talks, the most significant difference had to do with relations with Russia. In Greece, Norway, Finland and Germany, a relatively large number of people indicated a belief that Europe should strive for closer ties with Russia. In countries formerly under the Soviet sphere of influence, like Poland, the Czech Republic and Latvia, a majority of participants rejected that notion.
In almost all countries, the participants could be divided into three camps. In the first and second camp, they were cosmopolitan, in favor of European solidarity and supportive of a climate tax. They were only divided on the issue of Russia, with one camp showing support for closer ties and the other opposed. Most participants, though, belonged to the third camp. This group was characterized by a wide variety of different answers – such as a "yes" to more solidarity within the EU and a "yes" to stricter border controls.
Latvians and Greeks Revealed the Greatest Disparity
Ahead of Europe Talks, our algorithm linked together thousands of participants from these three groups. At 3 p.m. on Saturday, these European debate partners met up: the Greek mathematician with the Bulgarian clerical assistant; the young engineer from the Netherlands with the university student from Belgium. Their debates may ultimately end up changing Europe. Question by question.
Talks received generous support from the German Federal Foreign Office, the
European Cultural Foundation, the Allianz Cultural Foundation, the Stiftung
Mercator and the Evens Foundation. In the coming days, we will be launching
more stories about the Europe Talks event.
Translated by Charles Hawley