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Europe Talks

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The powers that be in Brussels are always going on about giving the citizens a voice. With nearly 500 million of us, it’s not surprising that this hasn’t quite happened yet. Last Thursday in Berlin’s European House, however, some 200 of us finally got the chance to speak out.

by Anna Patton and Sébastien Vannier

Organised by the Representation of the European Commission in Berlin and the European Parliament’s Information Office, “Mitreden über Europa” (Talk about Europe) was conceived as a “citizens’ forum”. Responding to questions were MEPs from Germany’s five main parties (Bündnis 90/Grünen, CDU, SPD, the Left Party and the FDP) as well as the head of the European Commission in Berlin.

Compared to the usual debates on Europe, where the “experts” speak and the punters listen, and where the subject matter is theoretical and academic, this time it was up to the public to lead the debate. And the Berliners took that invitation seriously. It was one of the liveliest, loudest Europe discussions we’d ever witnessed, with all manner of heckling, cheering and interrupting going on. There was a tangible sense of satisfaction in the air when someone at the back shouted out loud what we’ve all, at some point or another, longed to say to politicians: “Hang on – you haven’t answered the question yet!”

Question Time

The questions focused above all on energy and the environment, and on the impact of the Lisbon Treaty, recently ratified by the German Bundesrat (the upper house of parliament). The concrete effects of the Reform Treaty on people’s lives, judging by the questions raised, remain unclear, and it was up to the respondents to clarify some confusion. Berliners were also concerned by European militarization, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a Europe “of two speeds”, and energy policy.

Some of the more unusual questions included “How do you become a member of the European People’s Party?” A girl who can’t have been older than 15 stood up and demanded, admirably, “What are you going to do about our education system?” (Unfortunately, as the MEPs pointed out, education remains a national competence.) A 20-something year-old brought the discussion back to basics: “Europe is pretty rubbish, it costs a lot of money – so, tell us: what’s the alternative? What would Germany look like without the EU?” In response, each speaker was given the chance to justify EU membership; the usual answers were reeled out – peace, freedom, prosperity, open borders, environmental protection. The representative of the Left Party, tapping into the mood of the day, called for “more a Europe of the citizens, less a Europe of politicians”.

Democracy or Hypocrisy?

Yet even as this same politician was saying “We must learn to listen”, three disgruntled students in our row were being ignored. Their concerns related to the militarization of member states (the Lisbon Treaty’s obliges states to improve military capacity) were substantial. But instead of following up on the issue, the MEPs dismissed concern with the wording (“obligation”) as merely a translation issue. The same students also criticised the “hypocritical democracy” of the EU, though this was rejected by the Left Party politician, who saw the Lisbon treaty on the contrary as providing “an instrument for citizens to get directly involved”.

All six speakers were, then, more or less in agreement on most issues – even the Left politician was, unlike most of her party, pro-Lisbon Treaty. Of course, it makes sense that those invited to such events are going to be pro-Europe. Still, if there is a greater difference of opinion between the people themselves and the politicians who are supposed to represent them, than there is among a broad spectrum of politicians, one has to wonder just how representative of their constituents they really are.

The debate only touched the surface of most issues, unsurprising given the format of the event. But the discussion did show that many citizens are well-informed on European politics, and well able to challenge politicians’ platitudes. “Listening” to citizens, however, isn’t as easy as it sounds. Involving the people was all well and good, it seemed – but it had come a year too late for many of the audience. Sneaking a peek at the feedback form our neighbour was filling in, we saw he had evaluated the event as “an irrational exercise of authority”. Clearly, Brussels needs to do more than just talk about democracy – or risk losing the support of a whole generation.