Europe Calling: prospects for a Demoicratic Public Sphere

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On 23 January the German-based civil society organization Europe Calling organized a hugely succesful webinar in which citizens were able to feed their questions directly to Robert Habeck, Vice-Chancellor of Germany and Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. The innovative format, which attracted the highest number of registrations ever seen at an event of this nature, offers important lessons for all those seeking to develop demoicratic public spheres.

With this post I wish to invite the EUI-STG Forum community to reflect on the achievements and future promise of the EuropeCalling (EC) webinars in light of upcoming joint ventures, and, moreover, the format’s potential to trigger a European mass (digital) public sphere. Here, I evaluate the innovative EC webinar series in terms of transnational democracy theory: specifically as representing a stepping stone towards a ‘Digital European Public Sphere.’ In view of the demoicratic innovations needed to communicatively link people and civil society across borders (i.e. not only national and EU leaders) I suggest that Europe Calling’s exemplary method can help pave the way for future EU-Citizen Assemblies that are  designed from bottom-up, and which thereby provide links to mass publics.

A best-practice webinar

To substantiate these claims, let me highlight the EC format’s most innovative aspects:

1) By using the digital device SLIDO, Europe Calling systematically engages with organized civil society in order to structure a webinar agenda for public debate. Once the organizers have identified a topic of salient public interest, they move on to target three types of participants:

  • one (or more) top political leaders/legislators with responsibility for the policy field in question, who are asked to respond to public queries;
  • an extensive range of relevant NGO’s and think tanks which come up with critical questions to the political decision-makers;
  • the general public (that is, interested lay citizens), who register for active participation in the webinar, including by voting on the questions that are ultimately put to the policy-makers.

2) EC’s method of prioritizing registered participants’ questions – via a ranked vote on SLIDO – is a smart democratic innovation that contributes towards citizens’ empowerment in terms of engagement, education and capacity-building for public debate (and even, potentially, political deliberation).

3) The 144th Europe Calling webinar of 23 January 2023 can be qualified as historic as it broke the records of all of its predecessors. Among its key features:

  • In its typical bi-lingual mode (this time German and English) it focused on a socially sensitive and highly politicised topic. To quote the event blurb: “In Germany and the EU, more is being done than ever before to protect the climate. But it’s not enough….(…). Together we want to discuss with Robert Habeck why Germany and Europe are not on the 1.5°C path and how he plans to get there – and what you think.”
  • The EC team secured the presence of Robert Habeck, the German Green Minister for the Economy and Climate Protection, who was required to account to the public regarding numerous thorny issues related to environmental policy.
  • Organized civil society responded to the call, providing some 922 questions touching on key issues of implementing the Paris Agreement targets and the ‘European Green Deal’ in Germany and beyond, including at local, regional and federal level. Participants provided more than 34,000 votes to rank these questions in terms of pertinence (see SLIDO for the ranked questions).

4) As a result of these previous elements 9,200 citizens registered for the webinar, and more than 10,000 participated via zoom and YouTube. Among them were mainstream media outlets, including a public German TV station and representatives from the press. With this performance – at least to my knowledge –  EC broke all records of pan-European webinar participation to date.

Long-term implications

Webinars of this format – i.e. one to two hour online multilingual public discussions with political leaders that are informed by civil society – should be further expanded as effective building blocks for citizens’ empowerment. During self-evaluations, EC participants regularly and reliably value such encounters as being assets for their political education, for aiding deliberation and allowing engagement with political decision-makers. They are, as such, pivotal innovations for building a demoi-cratic European public sphere. Such webinars also enhance the potential success of the numerous randomly selected, socially representative citizens’ panels across the EU member states, regions and cities (those dedicated to climate change and sustainable transition as well as a large range of other challenges). They should, as such, become formidable devices for translating the deliberations of such “mini publics,” and their policy recommendations for policy change, into the European public at large.


Note: for more detailed information on the theoretical foundations of this post see the forthcoming publication: K. Nicolaidis & U. Liebert: ‘Demoicratic Theory: Bridging positive, critical and normative approaches to European studies’ in: The Elgar Companion to the European Union, eds. S.B.H. Faure & C. Lequesne, April 2023).

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