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It started with a question: what would happen if strangers from different cultures, with different world views, were connected for face-to-face conversations?
To test it, the Financial Times joined Zeit Online and 14 other news organisations across Europe for a continent-wide experiment called “Europe Talks”.
“It was refreshing to meet up with someone whom I would otherwise not have met,” said Susan McInerney, an FT reader living in Vaterstetten, Germany. She and her match for the project both drove over an hour to meet at a café in Salzburg, Austria.
“The questions on which we disagreed were complex and hard to solve. Both of us were trying to find the best way forward and agreed that, given the choice, we wouldn’t have started from here,” said Ms McInerney.
Some 1,500 FT readers signed up to participate, alongside 18,000 others. We asked our readers to answer seven yes-or-no questions on key EU issues.
They were then matched by an algorithm with Europeans from other countries who held opposing views. More than 5,000 people met in locations across Europe on Saturday to talk about these concerns.
In these conversations, liberals and conservatives alike said they were tired of the focus on the far-right and bemoaned the lack of positive agendas ahead of next week’s European parliament elections. Many expressed concern about the EU’s response to climate change.
In some ways, the project was self-selecting: nearly 91 per cent of participants agreed that the EU improves the lives of its citizens. But opinions on other subjects were more divided, for example on whether Europe should have closer ties with Russia.
Here is a snapshot of some of the conversations that took place:
Shamim Sayani and Serge Grysolle
Shamim Sayani, 62, an executive coach from London, met Serge Grysolle, 63, a retired lawyer from Brussels
“My opinion that Islam is hardly compatible with western values was challenged by Shamim’s testimonial about her Ismaili beliefs.”
Shamim Sayani and Serge Grysolle epitomised two poles of the debate on immigration when they met in Brussels.
“Serge felt that immigrants didn’t assimilate,” said Ms Sayani. “I told him I was an immigrant, and that assimilation can be complex and based on how you are welcomed. He did agree that if we were born in less lucky circumstances we would want to improve our lives.”
A self-described conservative rightwinger, Mr Grysolle said Islam is incompatible with western values. “Shamim explained that she is Muslim but from the Ismaili faith, a form of Islam that is more tolerant and more open to a modern society. That intrigued me a lot and proved that I am judging a bit too wide.”
“It was really hard not to like Serge,” said Ms Sayani. “I was worried that he would be strident, and the fact that he wasn’t was a relief. We are complex beings. He came across as a kind person.”
Carol Fraser and Matthias Vandendaele
Carol Fraser, 55, a tax lawyer from London, met Matthias Vandendaele, 29, a jobs coach from Brussels
“He comes from the humanities. I’m an empiricist. There were things we tried to agree on, but at one point I did get irritated and almost walked out.”
Matthias Vandendaele and Carol Fraser disagreed strongly on climate change when they met in London for afternoon tea.
Ms Fraser is worried that the human race is destroying resources at an unsustainable rate, while Mr Vandendaele expressed a distrust of authority. He argued that even UN-backed scientific reports could have vested interests, and that, as she remembers it, “scientists can be wrong”.
Number of readers who met for Europe Talks
Going into the meeting, Ms Fraser thought that the generational gap between her and Mr Vandendaele would be problematic. “He’s a millennial. I thought, ‘Oh we’re going to have fun, because I can’t stand millennials. Everything is in tiny little sound bites’.”
After an afternoon together which included a trip to the British Museum and the Tower of London, they enjoyed their time but did not reach full mutual agreement.
“Overall it was intellectually challenging,” said Ms Fraser. “This is all about building bridges. Sometimes you succeed, and sometimes you just can’t.”
Richard Hunt and Marko Queh
Richard Hunt, 64, a self-employed management consultant living in Prague, met Marko Queh, 25, a student from Vienna
“I am now probably going to be a lot less suspicious of people who identify as conservative libertarian before they have even started to talk.”
Just four hours apart by train, Richard Hunt and Marko Queh met for an afternoon stroll in Vienna that lasted four hours. They anticipated that their biggest disagreement would be about migration policies.
Mr Hunt admitted he was wary at first, as Mr Queh identified as a conservative libertarian. “Maybe he thought I was a hardliner before we met,” said Mr Queh. “But I actually hold centrist views.”
“When the British talk about immigration, they are as concerned about an influx of Poles as they are an influx of Syrians,” said Mr Hunt. “But hardly anybody in mainland Europe complains about free movement within the EU, and Marko certainly wasn’t going to be the first.”
Mr Queh believes that if moderate politicians had stricter border regulations, the far-right movement would not be taking over parliaments across Europe. Mr Hunt found common ground there. “I agreed that the EU external border should be strengthened, and that it seems wrong that Italy and Greece were left by the other countries to face the surge of immigrants in 2016 almost unaided.”
Stéphanie Lepczynski and Sonja Meyer
Stéphanie Lepczynski, 34, a director at a European think-tank in Brussels, met Sonja Meyer, 45, a social worker in a home for refugees in Cologne
“I learnt about the reality of working with refugees, about some German political parties, about carpentry, and mostly, I met a truly touching human being”
As they walked around Brussels, Stéphanie Lepczynski and Sonja Meyer agreed that the EU should have clearer policies on climate change.
Ms Lepczynski pointed to recent climate protests in cities across the world as evidence that pressure on politicians is working. She was happy to see that climate change is finally on EU candidates’ agenda.
Ms Meyer felt strongly that building a gas pipeline in Germany should receive EU approval first, and that Germany’s dependence on Russia for gas should be rethought. Both were upset at the rise of far-right parties, but said opponents should develop a positive vision for Europe instead of focusing on negative narratives.
“I [feel sick] thinking of Farage in the European Parliament,” said Ms Meyer.
Victor Vadaneaux and Jürgen Henrich
Victor Vadaneaux, 55, a board member on companies in London, met Jürgen Henrich, 65, a retired consultant in change management, from Hofheim am Taunus, Germany
“I appreciated his character. He jumped on a plane to meet some bloke in London because he wanted to discuss something. I could see us becoming friends.”
As they took their seats for lunch on the R.S. Hispaniola, a ship docked on the River Thames in London, Mr Henrich and Mr Vadaneaux assumed that their strongest disagreement would be about Europe’s relationship with Russia.
“In the discussion I could understand the reason why Victor seemed to not believe in a dialogue with Russia, which he explained was due to his experience as a child in a suppressed socialist eastern European country,” said Mr Henrich. “As for me, having had grandfathers fighting in the first world war, and a father in the second world war, I am a naive believer that we should do all we can in diplomatic discussions with Russia to avoid another war.”
The pair found they actually had quite a lot in common. “We are both open to immigration, me because I am an immigrant and him because he has humanity — enough to receive an Afghan refugee in his house,” said Mr Vadaneaux.
Sarah Tooze and Jürgen Gerstner
Sarah Tooze, 78, a retired publisher from Edinburgh, met Jürgen Gerstner, 40, a business consultant, from Heidelberg, Germany
“She is 78 and she cares so much about Europe that she flew to Brussels! I thought, OK, this is my once in a lifetime chance.”
Sarah Tooze was eager to speak with Jürgen Gerstner because of her distress over Brexit. “I feel myself European, and that if the UK leaves I shall be exiled,” she said.
When the pair met at Europe Talks’ main event in Brussels, they realised they agreed on quite a lot. “We were able to talk about Heidelberg, where he lives and I have lived,” said Ms Tooze. “I told him I just joined the Greens, and he said he would soon and was thinking of going into politics.”
They continued the conversation via email in the days that followed, sending each other podcast episodes on the themes from their conversation. “We both agree that climate change is something urgent that we need to solve with stronger political decisions like the CO2 tax,” said Mr Gerstner. “That’s one of the main reasons I went to the meeting, because I think Europe has to act as one . . . and fast.”
Christina Hitrova and Lutz Sparmann
Christina Hitrova, 27, a research assistant living in London, met Lutz Sparmann, 60, an IT specialist from Boblingen, Germany
“I was happy to find that, despite differences in nationalities, age, and beliefs, we could agree on some truly European fundamental values of importance — solidarity, sustainability, dignity.”
“We should co-operate with Russia when Putin is no longer there,” said Mr Sparmann, who met with Ms Hitrova in a plaza in Brussels. The pair disagreed about how involved Russia should be in Europe’s future, with Ms Hitrova believing that Vladimir Putin makes it impossible for Europe to negotiate on fair grounds.
Mr Sparmann worried after speaking to Ms Hitrova about the rise of populism in eastern European countries, possibly owing to a brain drain that Germany does not have to worry about. “If young people are leaving their home country for political and economic reasons it may lead to a situation where the remaining, possibly less educated people will tend to feel disadvantaged and be more open to populistic parties,” he said.
The pair also talked about Brexit. Ms Hitrova, who has lived in the UK for a few years, said Britain was bringing some pragmatism and simplicity to the EU that she will miss. Mr Sparmann said the UK brought a good sense of competition and efficiency in business, from which the EU could also learn.
Philip Minns and Geoff O’Neill
Geoff O’Neill, 65, a retired information systems developer from Bournemouth, met Philip Minns, 68, a retired conference interpreter from Paris
“What harm has the EU done to me? Nothing!”
Neither Mr O’Neill nor Mr Minns believe that Brexit will happen, despite the 2016 referendum. “There’s no consensus,” said Mr O’Neill from his perch on a red couch in a quiet corner of the Europe Talks event in Brussels. “A [second] referendum is the only way to solve this fairly.”
During their conversation, Mr O’Neill and Mr Minns discussed the impact the UK’s leaving the EU would have on the country, highlighting the freedom of movement they enjoy, and how easy the Euro and Schengen borders have made it for them to travel.
“Counter-intuitively, the major advances of Schengen and the Euro do not only benefit those for whom they were primarily intended but can also be enjoyed in practice by people living outside the two areas,” said Mr Minns. “A definite plus point for the EU.”
Anna Furlan and David Black
Anna Furlan, 24, a student from Cologne, met David Black, a business analyst from London
“Europe Talks was an amazing opportunity to meet with different kinds of people from all over the continent, and to exchange ideas about something that is very dear to us all: Europe”
Ms Furlan and Mr Black spent much of their meeting discussing Brexit and UK’s relationship with Europe. Mr Black voted to remain in the EU but felt the result of the referendum should be respected and that the UK should finalise a deal and leave.
Ms Furlan said that she regrets losing Britain and hoped that politicians could reverse the decision to act on the referendum and instead try to keep the union together. “When Brexit came, I was really sad,” she said.
The pair also discussed what they each have learnt from the UK-EU relationship. Mr Black found that the Erasmus student exchange programme helped him to connect with European people and languages.
“It’s a shame if Erasmus goes,” he said. “I met tons of friends that way.”
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