European Public Sphere Bridges Gap Between Citizens and Leaders

The Maastricht Edition European Public Sphere

By Jessica Nath

What is your vision for the future of Europe?

Admittedly, that’s a pretty hefty question.

But that query fueled hours of constructive discussions under a wooden dome in Maastricht’s Boekhandel Dominicanen on Friday, April 5, 2019.

Cologne-based NGO Democracy International hosted the conversations as part of its European Public Sphere project.

The title of the first talk was “What brings us together as an EU and what divides us?” The second discussion – in collaboration with the Maastricht Dialogue Foundation – focused on positive dialogue about the EU.

Anne Hardt, Democracy International’s Fundraising and Campaigning Manager, said the goal of the project is to encourage open conversation, citizen participation and co-decision making.

“We want people to be more involved into politics and not just politicians to decide after they’ve been elected,” Hardt said.

According to Hardt, the project originated with the realization that there was no real public sphere in Europe to gather and talk about issues that concern all European citizens.

She said many passersby are hesitant to participate at first, thinking they do not have much to add to the conversation. However, upon entering the dome, most realize they do have valuable input to contribute to the discussion.

“It’s very difficult to get involved, but at the same time, Europe needs new ideas. Europe needs new approaches to really solve the problem – or the problems – that we’re all facing,” Hardt said.

While the project aims to open discussion between European citizens, it also works to bridge the gap between citizens and politicians.

With the permission of participants, Democracy International videoed the conversations and plans to create a catalogue complete with analyses of the talks to present to the European Parliament.

The Maastricht Edition European Public Sphere“It’s also the aim of the project to contribute to a new European Convention, and the Parliament is the actor that can kick it off with Article 48, so we’re also working towards that,” Hardt said. “And then also, this process towards the new Convention needs to be inclusive, needs to have citizens engaged at every step.”

The European Parliament elections are taking place from May 23rd to May 26th of this year. Hardt said they are working to create the first catalogue by November 2019, right around when the new Commission is set to take office.

The European Public Sphere tour kicked off about a year and a half ago. Since then, the dome has been constructed and dismantled at more than 20 stops, each with at least two conversations per day.

The Maastricht discussions – which were conducted in Dutch – focused on topics such as climate change and migration. Democracy International Intern and Moderator Mirte van Hout said these two topics were especially, areas of interest, during their latest stop in Belgium.

“Once we started talking about Europe, there was often really these ideas of more solidarity, we need less racism,” van Hout said. “The people we mainly ask really have these ideas that Europe has to become more one thing, to say – grow together, grow closer together. I found that very interesting.”

She said she has experienced discussions that got heated, but usually they stay civil.

“I’ve never had that people got mad at each other or something, it’s always [a] very respectful discussion still, I would say,” van Hout explained, “In that sense, we try to make sure everyone gets [their] time to talk, but we don’t interfere so to say in the discussion or try to guide the discussion in certain directions. It’s important that everyone can say what [he or she] wants, but that [he or she] gets the chance, of course, to speak out.”

Hardt agreed and said the basic rule of the dome is that participants are entitled to their opinions, but the conversations must be respectful, open and equal.

The Maastricht Edition European Public SphereWhile the dome is the meeting place for the talks, it also holds a deeper meaning. At 3.5 meters tall, it includes more than 150 wooden beams of various lengths and colors. Hardt said this design was deliberate.

“Europe is very diverse culturally, language-wise, and so many different ways,” Hardt said. “But still, you need every person – every beam – for the cohesion of the whole. So symbolically it really stands for Europe, the European Union.”

Participants were garnered from within the Boekhandel Dominicanen as well as off the streets.

“We’re trying to gather people, organizations, actually everyone,” Hardt said. “So it can be people that we meet on the streets, but it can also be invited organizations working on different topics.”

On Friday, Democracy International invited André Rojer and Mine Stemkens from the Maastricht Dialogue Foundation to help lead the second talk, which was done using what Rojer referred to as the “principles of appreciative conversation.”

According to Rojer, this conversation method focuses on a topic in an appreciative way instead of a critical way, which is often how discussions are approached.

“But relatively recently [it’s been] discovered that you can look in an appreciate way and find all kinds of new ideas and inspiration and much, much more, in a much greater intensity than when you use the critical approach,” Rojer said.

The Maastricht Dialogue Foundation aims to develop and further a new type of conversation that Rojer said is asked for by the future. It focuses on how people connect and communicate as well as meet in a more creative and productive way.

He said he believes appreciative conversation will become the new standard of discussion in a continually modernizing and globalizing world.

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