samedi 22 juin 2013

“Being European is being locally active”

In Berlin, Martin founded Citizens for Europe, an association which looks like him and  like all the Europeans he met during his different trips. The goal of this association is to give a meaning to the idea of European citizenship, in order to allow every person living in Europe, whatever her/his origin, to make her/his voice heard and to take responsibilities. The background idea is that the participation of numerous people and the consideration of diversity at a local level are necessary to make Europe grow.

Portraits of Europe: What is your educational background ?

Martin Wilhelm: I studied communication, political science and macro-economy. My university was in Greifswald, not far from the Baltic Sea, the area where I was born. But my studies have never been the main mover of my development.

Between 18 and 26 years old, I seized every mobility and education opportunity linked to Europe: Erasmus, European Voluntary Service, exchange programs. I did my military service in England, in an anthroposophical school. And I lived in different European countries, such as Norway, Hungary, France and Serbia, where I created a student festival, the International Student Week in Belgrade.

Because of all these trips, I started to feel more and more detached from my national identity. I became aware of what links these countries, of the reasons that gave people the will to make Europe grow. I kind of became a European citizen.  

And the more I became European, the more I became critical about the European Union. There is nearly no link between the European institutions and citizens. A lot of decisions are taken outside of the European parliament and of the national parliaments. This is the reason why there is such an important euroscepticism: citizens fear that they will not be able to control what is happening anymore.

So there is actually a contradictory movement: European mobility programs, of which I could take part, give people the possibility to switch their status from passive to active citizens. But the European Union does not know how to deal with active citizens. There are now the first European citizens' initiatives, let's see what it will become.

PoE: How did Citizens for Europe start?

MW: I had a professional experience in a foundation here in Berlin. It was a really hierarchical structure and I left it quite fast. I thought for a moment about what I wanted to do. In Berlin, one citizen out of seven does not have the right to vote. Mobility in Europe is a good thing, but there are social and political rights that one loses when one crosses a border. This is true for European citizens, and even more for non-European citizens.

With friends from Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, we decided then to create a project about political participation in the European Union. What are the current rights for participation, and how should a European citizenship look like? Our idea was to dissociate European citizenship from national citizenships. Today we are European citizens because we are French or German. We conceived a website, “Vote-Exchange”, to give to European citizens who do not live in their own country the possibility to create vote partnerships. It was thought as a tool for discussion and communication about this idea.

We got a financing from the “Youth in Action” programme and we created an association immediately afterwards. As a reference to “Europe for Citizens”, an important financing programme that aims to generate European citizenship, we called our association “Citizens for Europe”.

PoE: For Citizens of Europe, European citizenship is above all a local challenge. How many people take part in the projects conducted in Berlin?

MW: Through the projects that we conduct in Berlin, we indeed defend the idea that being European means being locally active: identify common problems, talk about it together, try to find a solution, communicate with one's neighbors, think about the way we consume...  Consumption in particular has an impact on all the segments of our society. It is actually maybe what makes Europe specific from the other continents: the idea that everyone is responsible for what is happening in one's environment.

About the number of people involved, it depends on the projects. With “Jede Stimme”, we organized fictive elections one year before the regional elections. We invited all the citizens, German or not, to vote. We worked with more than 80 associations for migrants and all in all, several thousands of people were involved.

PoE: How could you define your way of working?

MW : Our team is made of seven people. We also work with external moderators from Interactive Workshop of Europe and from Art of hosting. When we start a new project, the whole team thinks together to develop an idea. We use interactive methodologies,  like “Pro-action cafe”. It takes time because we need to communicate a lot, but the projects created out of these processes are sustainable and full of meaning.

For example we recently had to define the goals of a new project, “Diverse City”. This project deals with the problem of non-representation of immigrants in decision bodies in companies and in public institutions. We first made a “Design thinking process” among the team. Then we did again the same process with 20 external people, from some associations for migrants, administrations and firms. The idea was to gather different opinions from different points of view in order to check if we were heading in the good direction. After this encounter, the people who took part told us that they wanted to meet again. They realized one thing: we can help so much each other if we just have a smart way to talk to each other.

We would like to introduce these practices of collective intelligence in politics. This would mean to go away from hierarchical decisions in order to make collective reflections that bring out decisions. We will meet in May with different European partners to look into the Icelandic experience and to get inspiration from it to write a Convention for Europe applying the idea that citizens are actors.

PoE: So you are trying to spread a new political culture. How can this be achieved?

MW: Yes, a new political culture in which each citizen, locally, participates and takes responsibilities. This is an evolution which will need time. The main problem is that our educational system does not build active citizens but consumer citizens, people that are used to be told what to learn, what to believe, which skills they have to develop. To change our political system, it is necessary to change our educational system.

For more information, visit the website of Citizens for Europe

lundi 17 juin 2013

Solidarities crossroads in Strasbourg

As I was back in France for a few weeks, I took part in the event “Carrefour des Solidarités” (Solidarities crossroads), organized by the city of Strasbourg. This day was dedicated to debates around a topic that I particularly care about: “how could we better co-operate?”

After the musical welcome of two young flautists and the welcoming word of the mayor, Jacques Lecomte, as a supporter of positive psychology, started the day with a question: “What if cooperation could change the world?”

Two elements are particularly interesting to remember:
  • The brain regions that are activated in moments of pleasure are also activated when we show generosity: kindness is a state that fits human well.
  • Thousands of scientific studies insist on all the advantages of cooperative learning at school, in comparison to a more competitive and individualistic approach. This advantages are: increase of self-esteem, reduction of risky behaviours (addictions for example), acquisition of relational skills, reduction of discriminating and violent behaviours, increase of solidarity and of mutual aid, strengthening of the motivation to learn, increase of reasoning complexities, and – what we maybe would expect less–, improvement of pupils' results.

Two round tables followed this presentation. We had a picnic after this, and different workshops were organised in the park “Parc de l'Etoile.

I took part in one of the round tables and in a workshop, with:

  • Christophe L'Huillier, founder of the association Intemporelle (“Timeless). In Metz, this association invites children, elderly and handicapped people to collaborate in order to create artistic, cultural and sports events, such as musicals.
  • Yves Wansi, co-founder of Vue d'ensemble (“Overall view). This association offers to visually handicapped, partially sighted and sighted people the possibility to spend time together in leisure and learning activities.
  • Guy Didier, leader of our round table. Guy coordinates an Internet portal which gathers portraits of diversity and which has a really nice name: Entre-gens (“Among-people).
  • The young and dynamic team of AMSED (Association Migration Solidarity and Exchanges for Development), which took an important part in the organisation of this day. I will talk about it more in details in a following post, and particularly about Julien, a young man from Strasbourg who co-led the workshop with me.

This participation has been a good opportunity to share my experience and to tell some of my reflections. I particularly insisted on the importance of positive promotion for the process of cooperation in a project. Indeed, at every level, it is necessary to see and to insist on good news, because they give to people the strength to bring things forward. I was already convinced about it before, and my encounter with Emilie in Brussels gave me a tangible proof of the effects of what Tal Ben-Shahar calls “cultivate gratitude”.

Cooperation is motivating and efficient!” The title chosen for this debating moment triggers the idea of a virtuous circle : when the quality of the process is good, on the one hand people appreciate it, on the other hand it gives them more chances to reach the goals they set to themselves. Pleasure and efficiency: two prime movers to maintain the desire and the necessary energy to carry on.

Active participation, age diversity, talents, a lot of possible horizons and the sun: a nice day in the Alsacian and European capital!

jeudi 13 juin 2013

Cities and bridges

This spring trip to southern Europe is already well underway. I would like to be more reactive and be able to share my experiences almost simultaneously with you. I would like to introduce to you right now all the interesting persons that I have already met: Martin, Christina, Flavia, Simone, Neza, Sasa, Nina, Osvit, Nori, Marti and all the others...

The story of these encounters will come later... Meanwhile, I would like to write about a few important Balkan bridges. From different times, often rebuilt, they are the witnesses of our difficult European history, of the disasters and of the links that we try to build again. In Balkan cities, one can find nodes which are still really intermingled.

In the Slovenian capital city, the Tromostoje (Triple Bridge), built in 1842, crosses the Ljubljanica. It replaces the former medieval bridge which linked north-western Europe to the Balkans.

Designed by three Bosnians and opened in 2012, the Festina Lente connects the two shores of the Miljacka in Sarajevo. Made out of steel, glass and aluminum, in the shape of a looping, this bridge invites to a spiritual experience, in a city that already creates this kind of experience. 

Not so far from there, one can cross the Latin Bridge. It was called Princip Bridge for a while, after the name of the murderer of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914. This event, known for being the spark that triggered the cycle of alliances and thus the First World War, happened just in front of this bridge. 

In Mostar, another city victim of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Stari Most (Old Bridge) which crosses the Neretva was bombed in 1993. Once it was rebuild in 2004, this stone bridge and Mostar's old town were recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

On this hypnotic river, other bridges link the eastern part (where mainly Bosniak Muslim families live) to the western part (where mainly Croatian families live) of the city. The beautiful city of Mostar is definitely a place full of paradoxes.

At the place where it reaches Hungary and Slovakia, the majestic Danube is sometimes considered as the northern border of the Balkans. In the Hungarian capital city, nine bridges connect the hills of Buda to the plain where Pest is located. The Széchenyi Lanchid (Bridge with Chains) was demolished in 1945. It was then rebuilt and reopened four years later.

On the mount named after him, Saint Gellért tried to convert the Magyars to Christianity in the XIth century.  His statue brandishes a cross, while a pagan gets ready to push the bishop in the Danube... This scene weirdly reminds me of another cross, seen a few days before, a cross built just after the war in ex-Yugoslavia and that overhangs Mostar.

lundi 10 juin 2013

« Tell a love story about Europe »

Before leaving from Brussels, I met Quentin Martens who co-founded Plan B. This initiative, led by young French-speakers and Dutch-speakers, has several aims: learn to know each other better, interact, broaden perspectives and imagine together a future for Belgium. While drinking a mint tea, Quentin told me about his encounters, but also about European culture,  cooperation and the strength of symbols. He also explained to me how important it is to tell stories in order to better imagine and dream Europe.

Portraits of Europe: Where did you grow up ?

Quentin Martens: I grew up five minutes away from the border, in Wezembeek-Oppem, a municipality with language facilities. This little municipality belongs to Flanders. The majority of its inhabitants are French-speakers, but they have a minority status on an administrative level. This did not change anything to my life, except the fact that there were a few Flemish couples in my street to who we talked from time to time, and that I had to kindly ask in Flemish to be spoken to in French when I had to deal with administrative services.

I went to school in Boitsfort, a municipality located in the Brussels region. Like one inhabitant of Brussels out of two, I have been a scout. When I was 18, I travelled to Honduras to work with street children, who were like my cub scouts... When I came back, six months later, I studied sociology and a bit of philosophy. I studied later “humanitarian aid” and  “solving international conflicts”. All in all, I studied in five different countries: Belgium, France, Sweden, Canada and Poland.

PoE: Where does the idea of Plan B come from ?

QM: A bit more than three years ago, I was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in order to prepare the Belgian presidence of the Council of European Union. I travelled alone  on the routes of Compostela. When I came back, the Belgian government fell. We were going to have the key to the presidence of European Union, it was really embarassing... In Belgium, every party is pro-European. But is is not possible to highlight great values of European unification and federalism and to fight at the same time, or at least to be unable to talk with respect to each other.

I realised that I would never want that Belgium stops to exist, because it would mean that the cultural aspect of Europe would die at the same time. Belgium can imagine new ways to  exist, but it cannot fail in its way of living its otherness...

I wrote then a white card to explain that Being Belgian means needing the other to define oneself. We were four to sign it: me – as a Belgian from Brussels – , a Flemish Belgian, a Walloon Belgian and a German-speaking Belgian. The text was published in the Flemish newspaper De Standaard and in the French-speaking newspaper La Libre Belgique. It was translated in several languages. It was an invitation to gather instead of running away from each other. It is always possible to find reasons to split: they are easier to use, but they are also way less numerous than the reasons that bring us together.

At the same time, we realised that we, the “Erasmus generation”, know people all around Europe, but not on the other side of the linguistic border. As most of Belgians, I did not have any friend who spoke the other language before starting my working life. Because our educative systems, our universities, our media, our cultural references and the places where we go out are all different.

The idea of Plan B was to create a meeting place, a place to build bridges between us. At the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, I had a Dutch-speaking colleague, Ewout, with who I had a really good relationship. We both brought friends along, and that is how the group started.

PoE: And what is it exactly ?

QM: At the beginning, we were about fifteen young people, and we wrote a little charter to define our values and aims. Today, we are about thirty young people aged between 25 and 30 years old, French-speakers and Dutch-Speakers, some of us bilingual.

There was a long necessary phase to learn knowing each other and speaking to each other. For example, Flemish people prefer that we call them “Flemish”, but that we call their language “Dutch”. All these subtleties... We discuss about our opinion on Belgium, about our common symbols. We are still learning to know each other today.

We meet twice a month, and we organise private meetings with politicians, for example with former ministers. We are between ten and thirty people, at the place of one of us, drinking a bottle of wine. We also organise conferences on different topics, always in the two languages. For example, we had a conference about founding myths of Belgium. We also had one about the role played by media in current misunderstandings, with the editors-in-chief of Le Soir and  De Standaard.

We also organised a debate between the presidents of ten political youth associations (linked to five French-speaking and five Dutch-speaking parties). It was the first time that they met. One year after the crisis due to the lack of government, it was a strong symbol.

This kind of meeting place is not common in Belgium. With two other youth groups (Les Rapporteurs and Shame, the group that led the demonstrations in 2010), we organised a petition on the platform “Be4Democracy”, to ask the creation of a federal electoral district. We got more than 27 000 signatures, and the support of 150 cultural, economical and political figures.

PoE: How do you think that one can trigger citizens interest on Europe ?

QM: My dream would be to make a movie about Jean Monnet and another film, a fiction movie about Europe. Europe is made of people and of values. Of characters that embody the values of generosity, sharing, love, care for one another, listening, humility...

We have such a short memory... I was lucky to know my four grandparents. It gives an extraordinary strength to know the story of your great-grandparents, of your grandparents, of your parents and your own story. It locates you in time and in space, and this is something that your everyday life does not do.

Europe is 50 years old and today it is not really embodied. Does Europe still dream about itself ? We need people to tell us stories: stories for children, slovenian or portuguese stories... Everything goes through transmission. I wanted to organise a poetry contest for European civil servants, so that they would speak to their hearts... This is the reason why I want to make a fiction movie about Europe: we need to tell the love story that moves us, not something that informs us.

For more information, visit the website of Plan B