More than 12,000 Europeans from 34 European countries have signed up this year for the “Europe talks - Europa spricht” project, which was launched for the second time across Europe by the German news magazine ZEIT ONLINE and 17 European media organisations. Tomorrow, participants will pair up – simultaneously across Europe – to exchange views in a private videoconference on such topics as coping with the Corona pandemic, climate change and migration. The project is supported by the German Foreign Office as part of Germany's EU Council Presidency.

Opening videoconference with high-ranking guests

The private debates will be preceded by an opening videoconference from 13.00 to 15.00. High-ranking guests have been invited, including the Croatian Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Democracy and Demography; the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev; the former Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski and the Italian writer Francesca Melandri. Minister of State Michael Roth will also participate with a video message. The conference livestream will be available here.

In an increasingly divided society, and at a time when we are isolated from one another by internet filter bubbles, we rarely get the chance to sit down with someone whose political ideas are different from our own. The project “Europe talks - Europa spricht” by ZEIT ONLINE has a simple but ambitious goal: people living in different European countries, who have conflicting political points of view, engage in a virtual dialogue on topics that are currently the subject of heated debate within Europe.

“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 project organisers.

Seven questions on controversial topics

To realise this goal, ZEIT ONLINE and its European media partners created a platform that brought together people from across the continent and across the political spectrum. The premise was simple: those who wanted to join simply had to reply yes or no to seven questions on controversial issues that had been 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 mandatory in all public spaces in Europe? Should cars be banned from city centres? The algorithm used by Europe Talks then partnered two people with opposing views from two different countries. From tomorrow at 15.00, the tandem partners matched up in this way will meet virtually across Europe to debate such issues as the handling of the pandemic, climate protection and migration.

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

Strengthening social cohesion

“Europe talks – Europa spricht” is based on the initiative “Germany Talks” that was launched by ZEIT ONLINE in May 2017. This highly successful project brings together people with differing points of view at regular gatherings around the country. So far, more than 60,000 people across Germany have confronted the viewpoints of their counterparts in this setting. As part of the platform “My Country Talks”, the idea is now being expanded across national borders. Supported by media organisations all over Europe, citizen dialogues have already been held in thirteen countries, drawing more than 150,000 participants. In May 2019, more than 16,000 Europeans from 33 countries registered for the inaugural “Europe talks – Europa spricht” project. Over 500 of them met at the kick-off event in Brussels, including many who travelled long distances to meet each other in person.

This year, in-person get-togethers were not possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But according to Mr Horn, these citizen dialogues are more important than ever in 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 tandem partner’s opinions. Ninety percent said they had enjoyed the conversations. “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 one-on-one discussions with somebody we don’t know,” emphasises Jochen Wegner, editor-in-chief of ZEIT ONLINE.