A microcosm of Europe

Commentary

What would happen if all of Europe were brought together in one room? This weekend an ambitious 'deliberative poll' will help us find out.

According to a recent opinion poll, 88% of Europeans have either “never” or only “just a few times” discussed EU matters with citizens from other EU countries. To understand what they would think if they actually met and talked, Tomorrow’s Europe will bring together a microcosm of all of Europe on 12-14 October.

For a couple of hours I'll be answering questions about foreign policy as a member of 'expert panel', but the truth is that my role is marginal - it is the people posting the questions who really matter: 400 citizens drawn at random from across the European Union. They will be in Brussels for a full weekend of discussions the future of Europe in part of a process known as Deliberative Polling.

The European Council on Foreign Relations is pleased to be a supporter of the project and we have high hopes for the new perspectives that will be revealed about what Europeans really think about Europe's role in the world: from issues like future enlargement of the EU to options for addressing nuclear proliferation in Iran.

But what is Deliberative Polling and how can it be made to work in a pan-European context? I asked James Fishkin, Director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, and the mastermind of the Tomorrow's Europe event, to explain:

"Suppose there were a European wide public sphere at the mass level. What would it look like? The idea of Tomorrow’s Europe is to bring it into being for a weekend-- in microcosm. Use social science to gather a representative sample and let it deliberate about the future of the EU under transparently good conditions. Might this be a vision of Europe’s future? Or is it just impractical to think of Germans and French, Danes and Portugese, Bulgarians and Irish, actually understanding each other? And weighing the elements of their common fate in real political deliberation?

There are two elements that are intentionally counterfactual about this project. First, it involves European wide discussion at the mass level—necessitating the use of translators who can cover 23 languages in small group discussion. Elites may all speak English or French but the mass publics of the 27 member states do not share a common language.  Second, the aspiration is that the citizens deliberate. Most citizens do not seem to deliberate much even within their own national public spheres, much less across the boundaries separating 27 countries. And certainly, when there is a policy or political issue about which they deliberate and become seriously more informed, it is unlikely to be about Europe. So what would a Deliberative European Wide Public Sphere look like? That is the question the weekend will attempt to answer."

The mechanics of the process are that a traditional telephone survey of 3,500 Europeans was conducted last month by TNS Sofres, a leading independent polling company. 400 of the respondents were then chosen at random to be invited to Brussels to take part in an intensive deliberation on the issues covered in the telephone survey. Most of the weekend, the participants will be in small groups of 20 and will only have themselves to talk to - with the aid of the state-of-the-art interpreting facilities at the European Parliament. Plenary sessions towards the end of the weekend give participants the chance to quiz balanced panels of experts in various policy areas (this is where I come in). At the very end of the weekend they take the original survey again. The objective is to find out if and how people's views change after they have had the chance to dig deeply into the issues - and crucially - to discuss and debate with others, in as close as it is possible to recreate a genuinely pan-European discourse.

From the people at openDemocracy comes the excellent dLiberation blog, where journalists and polling experts are discussing and debating the event and the theory and practice that lies behind it. Deliberative Polling is a relatively new discipline and just as it has its boosters, it is not without its detractors. It's a healthy debate. More information is available at Tomorrow's Europe website, including the briefing books that all 400 participants are reading to start getting to grips with the issues they'll soon be discussing.

A small group of ECFR observers will be attending the event this weekend, and we'll attempt to bring some real time reflections as the event unfolds. The initial results will be published on 18 October.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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