Over the course of three days, 100 people from Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Lithuania discussed how one might achieve a more democratic, greener and digital Europe. The EU Commissioners Margrethe Vestager and Virginijus Sinkevičius were not the only ones very impressed with the outcome. The first European digital citizens' dialogue was a success— repetition guaranteed.
Fred is nervous. It’s his first video conference ever. He switched his camera on, and the microphone, too. And now? “Where it says 'end meeting' at the bottom right, should I just click on it?” he asks. “No, the interpreter function is on the left,” comes the quick response from the digital support. That is good; otherwise, the transnational, multilingual citizens’ dialogue would have ended prematurely for Fred. The video newcomer takes a deep breath. Problem solved. That's why Fred is now chatting jovially. “I come from the part of Germany that is black and yellow,” he says. “Black and yellow like Borussia.” Fred is from Dortmund. And he’s a football fan. But this week he's a European.
To be more precise, he is one of the 100 randomly selected Europeans, who will be discussing the future of the European Union in the course of three days between 27 – 30 October. The Bertelsmann Stiftung, together with the European Commission, has invited citizens to take part in the Digital European Citizens' Dialogue. Young, old, male, female, people from both rural and urban areas, and with different education backgrounds—the diversity is as colourful as Europe is. The participants are from Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Lithuania. And they talk non-stop about the three hot topics: how to create a greener, more digital and more democratic Europe.
“We are the mechanics at the pit stop”
Europeans are gathering virtually in small and large groups, at tables, in thematic groups and in the plenary. They discuss in their mother tongues, while simultaneous interpreters ensure that everyone understands what is going on. This is the big challenge for the translators, but for the participants it is pure luxury.
The procedure is complex, difficult, and sometimes shaky. But it works. “We will run you through this,” promises moderator Dominik Hierlemann. Together with Anna Renkamp, he heads the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s “Democracy and Participation in Europe”, project. “If this were a Formula 1 race, we would be the mechanics at the pit stop.”
A completely new digital European dialogue format
That is of course an understatement. After all, Hierlemann, Renkamp and their team are indeed the pioneers of an innovative form of the citizen dialogue format. “The citizens meet in 13 different digital spaces. Zoom was combined with a special interpreting feature. In this way everyone can work together. 13 moderators, 25 interpreters and 12 technicians support us and the citizens,” explains Anna Renkamp.
In the end, the organisers are very satisfied. “We have developed a completely new European format and we have proven that it works,” says a delighted Hierlemann. And Joachim Ott, co-organiser from the European Commission, promises all participants: “This will not be the last event of its kind”. This means that at least one of the three objectives will be almost certainly be achieved. “Making Europe more digital”. There are, of course, a few reasons why the other objectives may not be fulfilled.
Committed, focused and having fun
And if this happens, it would not be because of the participants. They worked together for three days and showed commitment, concentration and above all the had fun. And in the end, not only the moderators were impressed, but above all Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice-President of the EU Commission and Virginijus Sinkevičius, EU Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries were too. For one hour, they joined in from the Brussels studio at the end of the discussion marathon—directly, attentively and competently. So not true that “those in Brussels are far away”.
(Video: https://audiovisual.ec.europa.eu/en/video/I-198296 )
The demands are concrete. “Ambassadors of the European people” is what the Round Table wants, so that Europe becomes more democratic. The Members of the European Parliament alone are not enough. “We need European citizens in every council and committee of the EU.” Vestager, Vice-President of the EU Commission, adds. “Get involved”, she encourages, “discuss with us. Even if you feel you don't know it all.” Her colleague Sinkevičius, Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, admits that the EU’s decision-making processes are complex. There is no other way. “We are setting ourselves ambitious but realistic goals,” he says. On the subject of greenhouse gases, for example, there was initially considerable resistance. "Now we know: It is feasible, we are making a fair transition and no one is left by the wayside.”
And while all participants want a digital Europe, they also want control. The big tech groups from Facebook to Google need European regulators, including experts and ordinary users. “Good timing”, praises Vestager. The EU is in the process of creating realistic guidelines to be implemented. The suggestion that ordinary citizens should also sit on the supervisory boards is on her to-do list.
“The carrot-and-stick approach is needed.”
Europe must become greener, and this finds general consensus across the board. Everyone must have access to affordable organic food, demands one of the working groups. Another point of criticism is that food is being sold at low prices in special offer promotions often resulting in people buying more than they need. And finally, the EU must ensure that partner countries outside the EU also have climate protection in mind. Those who do not stick to the agreements should have to face consequences. “The carrot-and-stick approach is needed”.
“I am not an advocate of sanctions”, states Sinkevičius. The important thing is to achieve “what will benefit us in the long run”. The best laws would be useless if they are not implemented. What is much more important to him: “The EU can take the lead in climate protection. At first many people laughed at the European goal of climate neutrality. But now Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea are following suit. Even China is catching up —albeit only with a target date of 2060: “We see that it is working. The EU’s Green Deal is moving forward. Climate policy is not directed toward just anyone, but it is for the people. “And with your support at our side, we have another argument moving forward.”
It is logical that the people of Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Lithuania are happy to hear this praise at the end of three European days together. This is true for Fred—who was so insecure at the beginning—and for most of the others, too. Yes, officially they are Europeans, but now they also feel like Europeans.