In an increasingly divided society, in which we are isolated from one another by internet filter bubbles, it’s rare to sit down with someone whose political ideas are different to our own. The project “Europe Talks”, launched by the German news outlet ZEIT ONLINE and jointly organised by 18 European media organisations, has a simple but ambitious goal: to give people with conflicting points of view, living in different European countries, the opportunity to talk one-on-one online about current issues that are generating heated debate within Europe. The project is supported by the German Foreign Office during the German Presidency of the Council of the EU.

“We want to bring together people who don’t share the same political views, to help them break out of their bubbles and thus strengthen social cohesion in Germany and in Europe,” explains Sebastian Horn, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of ZEIT ONLINE and one of the organisers of the project.

Seven questions on controversial topics

To achieve this, ZEIT ONLINE and its European media partners have created a platform that brings together people from across the continent and across the political spectrum. The premise is simple – just reply yes or no to seven controversial questions published on the websites of the participating news outlets. For example: Should people’s health always be the top priority, even if the economy suffers as a result? Should masks be compulsory in all public spaces in Europe? Should cars be banned from city centres? Based on the answers given, the algorithm used by Europe Talks will pair up people with different views who come from different countries. At 3 p.m. on 13 December, thousands of people matched up in this way will meet virtually across Europe to debate issues such as the handling of the pandemic, climate protection and migration.

Selfie after a stimulating debate as part of Europe talks © Maria Sturm/ZEIT ONLINE

The conversations will be one-on-one, confidential, with no mediator present, and will mostly take place in English. Some participants might have reservations about using English as a language of communication in a discussion about politics. But they shouldn’t let that put them off. Most of the participants are not native speakers either. Furthermore, the organisers do not specify what language the discussions should be conducted in: If the conversation partners discover that they share other language skills, they are free to communicate as they wish.

The discussions between conversation partners will be preceded by a conference with well-known personalities from culture, politics and science. This will be broadcast as a livestream on the websites of the participating media outlets.

Strengthening social cohesion

Europe Talks is based on an initiative launched by ZEIT ONLINE over three years ago, in May 2017, called Germany Talks. Its regular national events bringing together people with differing views have been highly successful. So far, more than 60,000 people across Germany have taken part. As part of the platform My Country Talks, the idea is now being expanded across borders: supported by media companies across Europe, citizens’ discussions have already been organised in thirteen countries. Over 150,000 people have participated in these discussions. In May 2019, more than 16,000 Europeans from 33 countries registered for the Europe Talks kick-off project. Over 500 of them met at the kick-off event in Brussels, some travelling long distances to meet in person.

Participants will not be able to physically meet this time around due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Mr Horn believes that the dialogue encouraged by the project is more important than ever in the extraordinary year 2020. “Our project also aims to give Europeans a chance to discuss their experiences of the pandemic with one another,” he adds.

Initial feedback shows what these conversations can achieve. In a survey cited by ZEIT ONLINE, two thirds of participants said that they had learned something about their interlocutor’s opinions. Ninety percent said they had enjoyed the conversation. “Any time that people meet up to talk for hours without anyone else listening, they change. Our societies change, too. What’s important is that we relearn how to have a discussion with somebody we don’t know,” emphasises Jochen Wegner, Editor-In-Chief of ZEIT ONLINE.