Europe, Autumn 2020. Earth Speakr, the artwork produced by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson under the auspices of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU, is travelling around European member states. German diplomats and the Goethe-Institut – everywhere from Romania to Spain, Greece to Belgium and Finland to Bulgaria - are inviting local children and young people to tell politicians what they think.

What do you wish for the future of Europe, and the future of the planet? What expectations do you have of the EU’s decision makers? The children’s messages ring around Europe: Less plastic rubbish, more recycling. Fewer cars, more public transport. Look after the animals, support sustainable foods. And the politicians are listening.

German diplomatic missions in all of Europe are supporting the Earth Speakr project with both real-life events and online gatherings. We take a look at six diplomatic missions where Earth Speakr events are taking place during October and November. Senior politicians came as guests and were curious and open in their talks with the participating children. More events are planned for the coming weeks. Take a look...

What are your desires for the future? - Impressions from six countries

Bucharest: Ambassador Cord Meier-Klodt and President Klaus-Werner Johannis greet students © Deutsche Botschaft Bukarest

Bucharest, 5 October 2020 – it’s the final event for Earth Speakr, the main cultural project of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. In connection with celebrations to mark the Day of German Unity and the International Day of Education, the event is being held on the campus of the newly-opened German School of Bucharest. Romanian President Klaus-Werner Iohannis and Germany’s Ambassador Cord Meier-Klodt are in attendance, and Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has sent a video message. Up to 600 guests from the spheres of politics, culture and business are taking part virtually – including high-level politicians such as Prime Minister Orban, cabinet members, the Chair of the Constitutional Court, the President of the National Bank of Romania and intellectuals such as the author Ana Blandiana or the historian Lucian Boia.

The highpoint of the ceremony includes the projection of Earth Speakr messages onto objects that four young people present on stage: “When water is polluted, the entire ecosystem is affected,” a lake comments. “I want to be a home for people who breathe fresh air,” a high-rise building demands. “Words aren’t enough – let’s get to work,” a sign in a park urges.

140 Earth Speakr messages for Europe

The messages were written at a workshop held at Goethe-Institut Bucharest in late September. On two weekends, 33 pupils had in-person and virtual discussions with NGOs about ecology, animal welfare and urban life – and in the process recorded 140 messages with the Earth Speakr app.

Take care of nature, adults!

“It was impressive to see these young people’s enthusiasm for the project,” says co-organiser Birgit von Hellfeld. In Romania, there is not enough public awareness yet about topics such as recycling, reducing the use of plastic, animal welfare and environmental protection. “This motivated the young people who participated in the workshops to make a difference; they saw the fifth of October as the perfect opportunity to tell politicians how strongly they feel about these issues.” Ambassador Meier-Klodt commented: “It’s really special that politicians like President Iohannis are listening, and that they say how much they appreciate what young people are doing.” A pupil on stage bravely sums up what it’s all about: “We’re talking to you, grown-ups. If you don’t take care of nature today, there won’t be anything left tomorrow for us to take care of.”

Bulgaria: “Direct dialogue is democracy in action.”

Discussion with Ambassador Christoph Eichhorn (center) during the Earth Speakr workshop at the Goethe-Institut Sofia © Iliyan Ruzhin

Sofia, 15 October 2020. Some 40 pupils from grammar schools in Sofia have gathered at Goethe-Institut Sofia – socially distanced and wearing masks. They are between 12 and 15 years old, and they are not afraid to speak their mind to the decision-makers across from them – because they came well-prepared. In a first workshop, the pupils had explored environmental issues and recorded Earth Speakr messages.

Today, they are taking these messages straight to the politicians: Support local producers and seasonal produce, instead of importing fruit and vegetables from abroad. Do something about food waste. Encourage garden owners to give away their excess fruit and vegetables, rather than letting them rot. All of that’s a good idea, says Kamelia Kurkchieva, the deputy mayor of Iztok.

Promoting bicycle transport or building streets?

The conversation between the pupils and Nikolay Boris Alexandrov, district mayor of Oborishte, focuses on plastic waste, water conservation and air pollution in cities. The youths say they want more cycle paths and free public transportation. “But what will people say who don’t use public transport?” Mayor Alexandrov asks. “Wouldn’t it be better to invest more in roads instead; these will be used both by individuals and for public transport, thereby reaching more people?”

Sofia: Children record messages at the Earth Speakr workshop © Iliyan Ruzhin

Together for a clean neighbourhood

Germany’s Ambassador Christoph Eichhorn urges everyone to engage with politicians on controversial issues like this, and to make your needs known: “That’s democracy in action.” Direct dialogue with government representatives is a good way to get young people involved. Ambassador Eichhorn proposes that communities get together and spruce up their neighbourhoods: “On World Cleanup Day, we all go out and get involved – the Embassy, German-language schools, and our district of Izgrev. When everyone pitches in, we get the job done.”

Helsinki: Ambassador Arz von Straussenburg welcomes children and Minister Tytti Tuppurainen © Deutsche Botschaft Helsinki

Helsinki, 4 November. Expert guests have come to the German Embassy to talk with children about the future of Europe and the entire planet. The guests include Minister for European Affairs Tytti Tuppurainen, Petra Laiti, an activist on Sámi issues and environmental economist Miika Korja. “Earth Speakr brings the next generation together with today’s decision-makers across Europe. That’s important, because everything being discussed in Brussels today will have an impact on the world of tomorrow,” noted German Ambassador Konrad Arz von Straussenburg at the start of the event, as he welcomed four children from a fifth‑year class in Helsinki.

Impressively knowledgeable discussions

The children had already recorded several Earth Speakr messages during workshops at the Goethe-Institut, calling on politicians to do something about animal welfare, keep the environment clean, and promote electric cars. Now it was time to discuss these messages. “It was impressive to see how knowledgeably the children debated the issues with our guests,” said Nora Fritzsche, Press Desk Officer at the German Embassy in Helsinki. They talked, for example, about the difficulties involved in implementing sustainable solutions in a country like Finland that is sparsely populated but geographically large. That makes it hard to organise things like recycling efficiently. And most of the population are reliant on their cars for transport.

High school students at the Earth Speakr closing event in Helsinki © Deutsche Botschaft Helsinki

Earth Speakr messages support political work

The children and adults considered what we could do together to protect the climate. Talking about the issue was one idea – at home, with friends, in clubs and at school. Other ideas were recycling as much as possible, eating as little meat as possible, and cutting down on consumption. “Will the Earth Speakr messages actually help?” one child asked. The answer is absolutely clear. Yes, they will help a lot, because they help decision-makers keep their eyes on the goal and show them they have the people’s support. They provide fresh ideas and show that people have similar concerns all over Europe.

More than 150 followers observed the event story on Instagram, 250 watched the stream on YouTube afterwards. And for Tytti Tuppurainen, the Minister for European Affairs, the meeting at the Embassy was not the end of it. She intends to visit the children soon at their school.

Brussels: A girl records a message at the Earth Speakr event © Lillo Mendola

At the Foyer des Jeunes youth centre in Molenbeek, the children are shy to begin with. They don’t know what’s expected of them, what they are allowed to do. But then Earth Speakr pops up on their phones, they record their first trial messages – and suddenly they’re fizzing with ideas. The kids start experimenting with their statements, trying out various images to embed their messages in. They make funny faces, get the giggles, and help and encourage one another. “It was great to see how the project became a group thing,” said Marlena von Wedel, the coordinator of the EU Council Presidency cultural programme at the Goethe-Institut in Brussels.

Telephone conference with the German embassy

10 November. The final session in a set of three workshops on Earth Speakr in Brussels Molenbeek, a district with a large number of immigrants and less educated families. Eight children aged between 8 and 15 are taking part. During the first two workshops, they discussed climate change and recorded Earth Speakr messages. Today, they’re attending a telephone conference with the German Embassy. Volker Timmermann, the deputy to the German Ambassador to Belgium, is listening carefully and taking notes. “I like to cycle places, but there are too many cars,” the children complain. “Create more green spaces and forested areas in our cities.” “Stop global warming, or the animals won’t have anywhere left to live.” Timmermann’s response: “I will pass your messages on to the politicians of Europe.”

Children in Brussels share their ideas about the future with politicians © Lillo Mendola

Enthusiasm for the technical aspects of the project

Johann Baiwir, who led the workshop at the Foyer des Jeunes, shares his impressions: “The youngsters were enthused about the technological aspect of the project. Sharing video clips via social media has become a common practice among young people. Being in a position to act like the grown-ups and to see their films on the Earth Speakr website was a huge motivation. We were very surprised by how aware the kids were of the environmental problems and the fact that they had very specific ideas on the issue. They were visibly proud to be able to show their work to official government representatives.”

Athens: Video discussion at the Earth Speakr workshop with MEP Stelios Kympouropoulos © Deutsche Botschaft Athen

Athens, 14 November. A closing event as video livestream? That doesn’t sound quite as fun as an in-person event. “But there was a really lively, stimulating exchange between young people and adults,” says Sonja Bohnet, Director of the Culture and Press Department at the German embassy in Athens. The final event of Earth Speakr in Greece took place as a livestream at the invitation of the Goethe-Institut Athens in cooperation with the German embassy and lasted 90 minutes. Eight schoolchildren presented via Power Point and video livestream the ideas and Earth Speakr messages for the future of Europe and the planet that they had developed in advance in online workshops at the Goethe-Institut. They are calling upon policymakers to do more to combat the pollution of the oceans, to invest in renewable energies, to focus on recycling and to make education about environmental issues a priority in schools.

Democracy requires respectful communication

And the decision-makers are listening: The 35-year-old Greek MEP Stelios Kympouropoulos and Alexandra Mitsotaki, President of the NGO “World Human Forum” and sister of the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, are listening in. Ambassador Ernst Reichel emphasized in his video message how important it is to be receptive to young people’s concerns: “Respectful, serious and fact-based communication is the most important building block for good and democratic coexistence. Only in this way can everyone’s voice be heard in a participatory democracy.”

One of the children's messages: use less disposable packaging! © Auswärtiges Amt/Botschaft Athen

Impetus for debate about environment

“With the Earth Speakr event, we were able to give impetus to the public discussion with young people in Greece about environmental protection and Europe,” Bohnet summarises. “This is an important step because not enough attention is currently being paid to topic of sustainability.” The young people summed up their plans in one sentence: “Our goal is that our voices are heard through this project and that we motivate the world to take measures to help not only the environment but also ourselves.” Alexandra Mitsotaki is optimistic: things are changing right now. A discussion like this, she says at the end, would not have happened five years ago.

Madrid: Earth Speakr event at the place of Greta Thunberg's press conference at the World Climate Summit 2019 © José Alberto Puertas

Madrid, 18 November, 18.00. In the high atrium of the La Casa Encendida cultural centre at the heart of the Spanish capital, the seats are filling up. 45 guests settle into the chairs arranged in rows of concentric circles. There is no stage as such; the speakers and the audience alike are participating in a discussion as equals. Regardless of who is speaking, whether it is German Ambassador Wolfgang Dold, or Director of the Spanish Office for Climate Change, Valvanera Ulargui, or Deputy Head of Representation at European Commission Jochen Müller, or the around 20 schoolchildren between the ages of eight and fifteen who are present today for the final event of Earth Speakr in Spain – everyone has an equal right to speak and be heard. The image of a girl beams out from the screen at one end of the hall; only half of her face can be seen, the other half consists of a likewise smiling earth. Earth Speakr is about both fates: the future of the planet and the wishes of the children who will live on it for a very long time.

Less plastic waste, less air pollution, less CO2

At three workshops at the Goethe-Institut Madrid starting in October, the Spanish children explained what they want for the future of the earth. Their voices have been recorded and then sent around Europe using the Earth Speakr app. They want less plastic waste, less air pollution and less CO2 in the atmosphere. They want more public transport instead of cars and food that is not produced at the expense of the environment. Today in La Casa Encendida, their ideas are being discussed with representatives from politics.

“We are not heard enough yet,” says Martina di Paula from Fridays for Future Spain © José Alberto Puertas

We need to be heard a lot more

The atmosphere is casual and relaxed, the moderator Cristina Monge knows how to encourage the children to ask questions. “It is good that we are openly discussing this with politicians,” says Martina di Paula from Fridays for Future Spain, “we should actually be heard a lot more.” The participants agree: participation by children and young people is just as important as education. “The discussion was so lively that instead of one hour, we discussed for one and a half hours, the maximum time allowed for events in Spain on account of corona,” says Christoph Dorschfeldt, Head of the Cultural Department at Germany’s Madrid embassy. The event was recorded and can be viewed on YouTube in a few days.