Assuming citizens’ responsibility

Maria Skóra, Das Progressive Zentrum

Das Progressive Zentrum: “Dialogue on Europe

The last few years were not easy for the European Union. Unsolved problems had piled up, resulting in an unexpected identity crisis. The feelings of alienation, mistrust and lack of understanding of European politics made many of its citizens doubt the idea of a united Europe. Apathy started growing within societies, also among the youngest generations. As a result, the accumulated problems of the European community have become too profound to be addressed by high-ranking politicians attending closed-door summits only.

A series of European crises

Firstly, the economic crisis weakened the belief in the Community as a strong, united market player. Especially the Greek crisis, with its political, economic and sociocultural consequences, was a sad example of the Member States’ increasing alienation and detachment. Moreover, the consequences of financial turmoil turned out to be a tangible memento of persisting inequalities between and within European societies. Little did we know that this North-South cleavage would soon be followed by an emerging East-West tension. The attempts to tackle the migration challenge collectively were blocked by the Visegrad Group, which vetoed the refugee relocation quotas proposed by the European Commission and broke the idea of solidaristic Europe. As a result, the unprecedented influx of refugees from Africa and the Middle East challenged not only European solidarity towards the “gateway” countries, like Greece and Italy, but also revealed how fragile liberal democracies can be. On top of that, the rise of populist right-wing parties, like Front Nationale or Alternative für Deutschland, catastrophic results of the Brexit-referendum, and suspicious conduct of some Member States regarding the implementation of the rule of law undermined united European identity, bringing about an overwhelming political crisis.

Civil (dis)engagement

Crises can become catalysts for mobilising citizens for self-help and solidarity. For example, many grass-root initiatives rushed to help refugees in the most turbulent moments. Unfortunately, disaffection with politicians and frustration with the ongoing economic malaise constitute a double edged sword. The deteriorating general condition of civil engagement is often raised.

On the one hand, citizens withdraw from voluntary, collective engagement to the private sphere. “Public agoraphobia” is diagnosed increasingly. There is certain fatigue to be sensed among the civil society organisations, which are forced to compete in constant struggle to secure their financial basis through countless grant applications.

On the other hand, radicalisation of the political discourse progresses, which helps radical citizen movements enter the mainstream and destructively influence the political debate. As a result, we are facing a bizarre distinction between the “good” and the “bad” actors of civil society, depending on their approach to the Western model of liberal democracy: supporting or questioning it. But can one censor civil engagement in response to its critical approach to European values? This question is a sensitive one in times, when there are serious concerns over the “shrinking spaces” — limiting the activity of independent, non-governmental organisations in some countries, like Hungary or Turkey.

Assuming citizens’ responsibility

Recent disintegrative developments have taken their toll on the concept of European integration and revealed a deep misunderstanding of what core European values are. All above mentioned topics are on the agenda both in Brussels and in the Member States, however official political summits rarely impact them. Non-governmental initiatives are needed to involve real actors of change in Europe: civil society and its extensive networks. More than ever Europe needs strong social engagement to enhance civil participation in reforming the European project. Only sustainable networks of thinkers and practitioners are able to deliver innovative policy recommendations: thinking out-of-the-box can contribute to a bottom-up reintegration of Europe.

Thus, there is need to overcome apathy and build Europe-wide bridges between engaged individuals and organisations in core policy areas: sustainable development and cohesion, political education, migration and integration. Their energy, multiplied by exchange of knowledge and experience, could result in developing more customised and adequate policies.

Moreover, there is a good chance that including the citizens in the policy-making process will improve its transparency and rebuild trust in the policy makers’ intentions.

Dialogue on Europe

Reviving civic engagement, meaningful interest in politics and the feeling of European ownership is urgently needed. Sustainable solutions can best be achieved with the support of a strong and well-connected European civil society. In order to reach these goals, in 2015 Das Progressive Zentrum launched “DIALOGUE ON EUROPE — Rebuilding trust and redefining Europe in tough times” in cooperation with the German Federal Foreign Office. The project initiated a two-year-long transnational dialogue process with young, promising thinkers from European countries, such as France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Germany. In order to initiate it, 5 Town Hall Meetings, subsequently held in Athens, Lisbon, Rome, Marseilles and Madrid were organised to gather the “movers and shakers” of national and local levels in one place. More than 500 young, dedicated people from civil society, the media, politics, academia and business joined the events, which featured not only lively workshop debates, but also public discussions with Michael Roth, Minister of State for Europe at the German Federal Foreign Office, giving the opportunity to openly ask questions about the most pressing European challenges.

Almost 100 contributors and partners formerly engaged in the Town Hall Meetings are currently developing genuinely European policy recommendations in four Thinking Labs focused on Populism, Social Cohesion, Migration & Integration, and Sustainable Growth. These working groups benefit from the exchange of ideas and experiences of people based all over Europe.

Geographical distances are no barriers as most of the work is done virtually. Through cooperation of those international teams, DIALOGUE ON EUROPE strives not only to deliver concrete policy recommendations answering the most pressing challenges for Europe, but also to contribute to civil engagement across the European Union. We believe that international and transdisciplinary synergies between our contributors will be a chance not only to understand the roots of the latest dissatisfaction with the European Union, but also a point of departure for its effective relaunch.

Join the DIALOGUE ON EUROPE Workshop in November!

During the “A Soul for Europe Conference”, scheduled for 10–11 November, 2017 in Berlin, we will be presenting the preliminary results reached so far within our project. Policy recommendations and solutions in core thematic areas of Populism, Social Cohesion, Migration & Integration, and Sustainable Growth will be presented and left open for discussion. Be the first reviewers of our ideas — test them and help us improve their quality before we disseminate them among key decision makers, opinion leaders and citizen networks in Europe. Remember: the strength is in synergies!

Das Progressive Zentrum is an independent and non-profit Berlin-based think tank, founded in 2007. Our goal is to bring innovative ideas on politics into the public debate and onto the political agenda. We are involved in creating new, cross-party, transnational networks of progressive actors. We aim to achieve a majority appeal for politics in favour of social, economic and environmental progress. Therefore, we engage with young and responsible thought leaders and decision makers from Germany and across Europe.