Would you exchange your national passport for a European one? That is one of seven questions posed to the participants of Europe Talks. Based on their responses, an algorithm matched up pairs of Europeans holding maximally divergent political views, and on Saturday, the almost 6,000 resulting duos met up for a debate. At Europe Talks kick-off event in Brussels, we dragged 10 of them in front of the camera.
Geoff Renyard 🇬🇧 & Willem Noë 🇳🇱, Difference: 2
Geoff Renyard, 62, is from Britain, meaning he likely won't be a citizen of the European Union for much longer. Willem Noë, a 60-year-old from the Netherlands, works for the European Commission. When Willem learned who his partner was, he was a bit afraid. (The number above indicates how many of the seven questions the two partners answered differently.)
Willem: My first reaction was: Uh oh, a Brit. Hopefully he's not a hardcore Brexiteer. I was worried that I would be matched up with someone who is totally against what the EU stands for. When Geoff told me he voted in favor of remain, it was a pleasant surprise. I had almost developed a prejudice: If you're from the UK, then you don't want to be in the EU. It is really nice to see that there are people from Britain who don't think like that.
Geoff: I was happy to be matched up with someone who works in the heart of the European project. In an email, I wrote him that it makes me quite sad that most people from my country see the EU differently than I do. In 1975, I voted in favor of Britain remaining in the European Community. These days, the EU is taken for granted, a bit like a piece of furniture. And yet, it's still fragile because it's still so young.
Alessandro Romolo 🇮🇹 & Balma Heras Perea 🇪🇸, Difference: 4
Alessandro Romolo, 30, is from Italy, but has lived in Spain and recently moved to France. Balma Heras Perea, 23, works for a European city development project in Barcelona. Prior to their meeting, Balma said to Alessandro: "Sorry that I have different opinions. I don't want to make you angry."
Joanna Popiołek 🇵🇱 & Christof Gernhardt 🇩🇪, Difference: 6
Joanna Popiołek, 47, showed up to her discussion wearing a backpack. She had woken up that morning in Gdansk at 3 a.m. Christof Gernhardt, 34, was born in East Berlin and has visited Gdansk twice. The two disagree on several questions, including: Should Europe have closer ties to Russia?
Joanna: We have to distinguish normal Russians from Russian politics. I love Russia, I love the people. But I hate their politics.
Christof: As a German, I fully understand that Poland is extremely sensitive about Russia and, of course, about Germany. But I tend to think we must grow together as Europeans and find a common position on Russia. Not like now with the Nordstream II pipeline ...
Joanna: ... exactly! The pipeline completely circumvents Poland!
Christof: That's not a European approach. It is Germany thinking only about itself and its energy security. We shouldn't take such an approach. We still think: We are the West, we are Europe, and the Eastern Europeans are the newcomers. That's not right. We have to develop common positions.
Joanna: We understand that. We respect our neighbors and no longer reproach Germany or Russia. But I still remember what it was like to live under communism. I hated having to wait in line just to buy oranges and I didn't even know what sweets were. I don't want to go back to those times. I've been to Russia, where the facades are beautiful, but there's nothing behind them.
Christof: What's that called again? Potemkin villages.
Joanna: Yeah, I was in St. Petersburg, Putin's hometown. It's beautiful there, at first glance. And then comes the Middle Ages.
Christof: Would you want to have closer relations with Russia if we in Europe could agree on a common position?
Joanna: The point is that the levers of power are of different length. I don't trust my government to keep us from falling back to where we used to be.
Juhani Tanayama 🇫🇮 & Yavor Ivanov 🇧🇬, Difference: 6
Juhani Tanayama, 48, is from Finland, a country that contributes more money to the EU than it receives in benefits. Yavor Ivanov, 29, lives in one of the poorest countries in the EU: Bulgaria. Where do they stand on the question as to whether richer EU member states should support the poorer ones?
Juhani: I think it is very important for the EU to invest money in education, in infrastructure, in everything necessary to boost the economy. But that shouldn't be unconditional. If governments in the different member states don't adhere to European principles and values, or if they misuse EU funds, there have to be consequences. EU funds shouldn't be a blank check.
Yavor: I am in favor of the EU supporting poorer countries, but the funding has resulted in an increase in corruption in Bulgaria. Yes, infrastructure is built using EU money, but the quality isn't good because something like half of the money doesn't even make it to the project, and instead ends up in the pockets of a few oligarchs. If you support the poorest, and they grow, then the entire EU market grows as well. But it shouldn't be the case that the EU simply hands out a certain amount of money and then doesn't pay attention anymore.
Alli Palojärvi 🇫🇮 & Modris Matisāns 🇱🇻, Difference: 6
Modris Matisāns, 34, has sailed around the world. In response to the question as to whether he would exchange his Latvian passport for a European one, he answered yes. Alli Polojärvi, 24, grew up in Lapland and studied in Asia. She says: I want to hold on to my passport. How are they different?
Sanni Rautanen 🇫🇮 & Andrea Tamagnini 🇮🇹, Difference: 2
Should European countries increase taxes on gas to save the climate? Sanni Rautanen, 28, is from Finland and is in favor of such a tax even though she drives herself. Andrea Tamagnini, 66, is from Italy and he says: No. Why?
Andrea: Gas has always been heavily taxed in Italy, making it expensive already. When I saw the question, I thought to myself: Oh no, not another gas tax!
Sanni: Taxes are a simple way to guide us toward a more environmentally friendly future. If you as an Italian aren't in favor, I can understand. But I would say: Then introduce it in small steps.
Andrea: Paying taxes to protect the environment is something I support. And it is true that it should probably be a tax on gas, since driving creates problems for the environment. I am prepared to change my opinion. But then Italy has to reform its fuel policies.
Mieke Everaert 🇧🇪 & Reiner Siebert 🇩🇪, Difference: 7
Mieke Everaert is 61, Reiner Siebert is 58. Mieke was a teacher. Reiner is still teaching and works a lot with refugees. She says there are too many migrants in the EU. What is his view?
Reiner: I understand that people feel overwhelmed by the problems that are all cropping up at the same time. But it is a political question. We can't blame the migrants, who just want a better life.
Mieke: The people themselves aren't a problem, but all the things that come with it. Many of them are here illegally. In Brussels, for example, they are living in the Nordbahnhof train station, and now buses no longer want to stop there. And nobody is doing anything about it.
Reiner: I agree, there are a lot of difficulties. But they are only as bad as they are because there are no real answers. Politicians act as though we could solve the problem by closing European borders so that no one else can come in. That is an illusion. We live in an interconnected world; we can't simply close the borders.
Mieke: But I've read that EU countries can close their borders for a certain amount of time.
Reiner: Maybe for one day, but not forever. We have to face up to the problem. When there are people sleeping in the train stations, then politicians have to come up with a way of providing shelter for them.
Mieke: Yes, we have to solve the problem. But how? I can't solve it and the politicians don't want to solve it, neither here in Belgium nor in many other countries.
Reiner: Maybe we can agree on something that we could then propose to our political leaders.
Peter Auwerx 🇧🇪 & Peter Fitzsimons 🇮🇪, Difference: 6
Peter Auwerx, 58, is from Belgium but lives in Britain. Peter Fitzsimmons, 42, is Irish. The two disagree on several questions, including whether they would exchange their national passports for an EU passport. The Belgian says no while the Irishman says yes. Why?
Peter Auwerx: The EU is becoming a superstate that replaces all of the individual countries. I am Belgian, but in the future, everyone will just be European. Like in the U.S. They used to be Texans, Californians. Now, they're all just Americans. I'm proud to be Belgian. It would be better if the EU were more of a federation of states.
Peter Fitzsimmons: I am very much in favor of the EU. It has brought us peace and prosperity. I believe that my family and my children have a better future inside the union. I'm not too worried about my Irish identity. I am proud to call myself a European.
Edoardo Passeggi 🇮🇹 & Michael Deyaert 🇧🇪, Difference: 5
Edoardo Passeggi, 34, is Italian and has lived in Paris and London. Michael Deyaert, 52, was born in Belgium and lives in France. He also has French citizenship. Despite being a migrant himself, he still feels that there are too many migrants in Europe. Edoardo wonders how such a thing is possible.
Michael: When you have a personal relationship to somebody who migrated here, it is naturally very difficult to say: You have to go. That is inhuman. But I also think that we can't give everyone the living standard that we in our society have worked for. We have to be open to people, but we can't solve the entire problem. I think that many are envious of our social system and health-care system. We should consider how we can improve life in the places where these people come from so that they don't have to come in the first place.
Edoardo: I always wonder: What does "too many" mean? It's true that we can't take everybody, but our fear of people who arrive here from Africa by boat is irrational. The majority of people who immigrate to Europe are from Eastern European countries. They come by car or by train. Simply allowing people to die in the Mediterranean because we want to close the borders makes no sense.
Vassilis Rizos 🇬🇷 & Dario Fritschi 🇩🇪, Difference: 1
Vassilis Rizos, 57, is from Greece. For him, the discussion with his partner Dario Fritschi, 22, from Germany, provides an opportunity to address a few misunderstandings about his country.
Dario: I'm not going to lie: my image of Greece is shaped by the financial crisis. I would like to hear how a Greek person experienced the crisis.
Vassilis: It wasn't a financial crisis, it was a cultural crisis: The political system in Greece is shaped by clientelism and weak institutions. We introduced the euro – a strong currency – without having strong public institutions. The EU helped us in this. That is why I believe that we have profited from the EU. It helped us organize things that we hadn't organized well ourselves.
Text: Sophia Schirmer, Hannes Schrader
Editing: Till Schwarze
Translation: Charles Hawley
Photography: Meiko Herrmann; Assistant: Sascha Defohrt
Photo Editing: Michael Pfister, Andreas Prost, Norbert Bayer
Makeup Artist: Nadine Thoma
Design and Technical Implementation: Christoph Rauscher, Julian Stahnke, Julius Tröger