There are many different kinds of voices in Europe. There are loud ones and quiet ones, shrill ones and softer ones. Together, they undoubtedly have the potential of uniting into something greater, something more complete – a choir even. How, though – and this is perhaps one of the core problems facing European society – is that supposed to happen when national discourses and discussions seldom reach beyond national borders? When citizens of one country constantly bicker only among themselves?
On the afternoon of Saturday, May 11, thousands of Europeans met up in pairs – either via video chat or in person – to talk and to listen.
They were all part of Europe Talks, an initiative from ZEIT ONLINE in cooperation with 15 media partners from around Europe that brought together European neighbors holding political views as divergent from each other as possible on issues such as: Does the EU improve the lives of its citizens? Should European countries increase taxes on gas to save the climate? And: Are there too many immigrants in Europe? An algorithm paired up more than 16,200 participants to take part in face-to-face debates, all at the same time.
"What is happening today never happened in the history of Europe. Today, thousands of people from 33 countries will meet a stranger from another country – from the very north of Norway to La Gomera," said Jochen Wegner, editor-in-chief of ZEIT ONLINE, at the kick-off event in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. He recounted how the project got started – as a kind of political Tinder that first resulted in Germany Talks in 2017. Then came a larger repeat of that event in 2018, along with spin-off events in countries around Europe. There have been 13 My Country Talks national events thus far. And then came this year's pan-European experiment, Europe Talks, held on the eve of elections for the European Parliament, which take place from May 23-26.
"You have an interesting date today," Michelle Müntefering, the next to speak, told the 500 participants present in Brussels. Müntefering is minister of state for culture and education at the German Federal Foreign Office and a member of the center-left Social Democrats. And after warning of "destructive antagonists" who are keen to steal Europe's future, she said something that could perhaps be seen as the leitmotif of the entire format: National answers are no longer enough.
The fact that such purely national responses might be reduced by an event such as this one is something also hinted at by the British journalist Jeremy Cliffe. The head of the Economist's Brussels bureau, he referred to Europe Talks as a "phenomenal democratic exercise."
Cliffe was also critical of many pro-Europeans for their constant appeals to the common history of the continent. Europe has been shaped by its common history, he noted, but recent crises cannot be solved by referring to tradition. It is something else that unifies Europe: "It is hard reality that keeps Europe together, the challenges we share," he said. "We're not together because of our history, but because of our future."
"I Am, We Are, Europe's History"
Who, though, might be part of this history despite not being sufficiently recognized as such? Yasmine Ouirhrane asked at the very beginning of her speech whether she looked like a European – a question that pointed to a problem in European society: the fact that the children and grandchildren of migrants are still discriminated against merely because of their appearances. Ouirhrane, who was recently honored as the Young European of the Year awarded by Schwarzkopf Foundation Young Europe, is the daughter of Italian-Moroccan parents. She completed her university studies in France and is an activist on behalf of women and migrants in Europe. The 23-year-old, who proudly refers to herself as a European of African descent, says that young people, women and minorities are often ignored in the discussion of European history. "Today, we represent the unity in diversity of Europe. We, People of Color, daughters and sons of immigrants, we belong."