In search of a common ground: How debate is bringing Europeans together

Anna Mulrine Grobe

On the eve of the twice-a-decade European parliamentary elections, a group of Euro-optimists gathered in the continent’s capital for a speed-dating session of sorts.

Most of the 500-plus attendees have road-tripped or flown more than 500 miles to get here – and dozens traveled more than 1,000 miles – after being matched via the internet with debate partners from different countries to have in-person chats about the future of Europe.

The event, Europe Talks, is the brainchild of editors at the German newspaper Die Zeit, who hatched the plan over a pingpong table in their newsroom. Their goal: to get people to step outside their own “filter bubbles” and connect – in person – with fellow Europeans of different political persuasions.

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In the first, national version of the experiment, “We expected 100 to 200 people to sign up, but 12,000 registered” throughout Germany, says Editor-in-Chief Jochen Wegner. They decided to repeat the challenge internationally. “What is happening today,” he adds, “has never happened before in the history of Europe.”

As they wait for the welcome program to begin, conversational sparring partners Juhani Tanayama from Helsinki, Finland, and Yavor Ivanov, from Sofia, Bulgaria, chat animatedly.

They have been matched based on their responses to a handful of questions including, “Does the European Union improve the lives of its citizens?” (90% said yes), “Should the EU increase gas taxes to help save the environment?” (72% said yes), and “Are there too many migrants in Europe?” (76% said no).

“We tried to invent divisive questions, but it didn’t work too well,” Mr. Wegner says.

Mr. Ivanov, a technology specialist who describes himself as passionate about Mars and cycling, hopped on a plane to Brussels because he wanted to speak about the common problems of Europe in person. “I’m very happy that Bulgaria is part of the European Union,” he says.

Bulgaria is one of the poorest nations in the EU, and Mr. Tanayama’s home country, Finland, is one of the richest. They disagreed over the question, “Should richer European countries support poorer ones?” (88% of participants here said yes.)

Though the EU should invest some money in education and infrastructure, such funds should be conditional, Mr. Tanayama says, adding that there must be consequences if countries misuse EU money, or don’t adhere to EU values.

Mr. Ivanov would like to see more financial support for poorer EU nations, but acknowledges that EU funding has increased corruption in Bulgaria. “We’re building infrastructure with EU money, but the quality isn’t good because half the money flows into the pockets of oligarchs.”

Mr. Tanayama nods vigorously – even before the debate officially begins, they are in agreement. “The important thing is to find common ground,” he says.

At the formal welcome program, Anne Helgers, an engineer, and Anno Muhlhöff, a policeman, both from Cologne, Germany, discuss their first meeting at a cafe.

“We felt like neither one of us had a very distinct opinion on some of the topics, so I said, ‘Well, there is one thing I have a very strong feeling about,’” Ms. Helgers says. “I live with a woman.” Mr. Muhlhöff is not a supporter of gay marriage.

Yet the discussion “softened my strong opinion on it – mainly because I placed my argument in a way that hurt Anne’s feelings. She was kind enough to accept my apology,” Mr. Muhlhöff says, tearing up. “It turned the whole thing into something personal.”

“For me, I think a lot more about communication now,” Ms. Helgers says. “I would like to convince the entire world that people like me, we are wonderful – but even thinking we’re not so bad is a good step.”

“I never thought you were bad,” Mr. Muhlhöff quickly interjects.

Outside in the hallway, debate partners are settling into the nooks and crannies of the Centre for Fine Arts, known as BOZAR and the site for these discussions. Host to a celebration of European democracy today, the center was shaped in the late 1920s by decidedly undemocratic forces: It was built mostly underground, so as not to obstruct the king’s view of the city from his palace above.

Leaning against the coat-check counter in a tailored suit and glasses that might best be described as “very Italian,” Giulio Anichini of Rome, Italy, is talking with Anastasia Weirich, sitting cross-legged on the counter in Doc Martens.

Ms. Weirich road-tripped in from Aachen, Germany, this morning. Mr. Anichini took the train down from London, where he is working. Their professions are the same – they’re both physicians – but they disagree on what proved to be one of the conference’s most controversial questions, “Should Europe have closer ties with Russia?” (53% said yes, 46% said no.)

“I didn’t like the invasion of Crimea,” Mr. Anichini says. “And I don’t have an objective perspective,” Ms. Weirich acknowledges, noting that she comes from Russia. “My family still lives there – I want more cooperation.”

As the debate ends, participants continue their conversations, spilling out onto the streets to grab coffees and beers just outside the BOZAR Restaurant, which has earned a Michelin star for democratic fare like pork pie and its rejection of “pointlessly complicated dishes.”

Christian Schroller from Hamburg, Germany, and Kurt Strand of Copenhagen, Denmark, who have been debating for the better part of the afternoon, have just discovered that they disagree on the question of, “Would you give up your national passport for a European one?” (80% said yes.)

“I would love to leave a German identity behind, and have a Euro citizenship,” Mr. Schroller says.

Mr. Strand, pulling out his Danish passport, said he would like to hold on to it. But pointing to the Danish royal crown crest, he says agreeably, “We could put Euro stars here, and maybe Denmark in smaller letters? When I travel to the U.S., I actually describe myself as a European.”

“Our disagreements – they aren’t huge,” Mr. Schroller says, adding that he was expecting, perhaps even craving, more raucous debate. “But I realize that in this setting, I can discuss calmly and really listen. I’d do it every week if I could.”

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