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Democracy Needs Imagination: De Balie Back

Democracy Needs Imagination: De Balie

20 Sep 2019

In the run-up to the European elections on May 23rd 2019, De Balie organised a programme series ‘Voting for Values’ for which we invited thinkers, artists and writers to reflect on the importance of Europe, and the challenges it faces. We gave the stage to a wide variety of international speakers – from the French-German journalist & documentary maker Géraldine Schwarz, to the Britisch historian Timothy Garton Ash and spoken word artist Madi Maxwell Libby – to raise awareness and activate (young) people to go vote during the elections.

With the publication of in-depth interviews (1, 2) with Garton Ash in prominent Dutch media and a full house in De Balie, we gained a lot of attention for the first event organised on May 7th. Timothy Garton Ash presented the case for a united Europe in a compelling way, tying current political developments in with the history of the relationship between Britain and the European continent.

Madi Maxwell-Libby’s poetry, performed in interludes throughout the programme, complemented the ‘serious’ content of the evening excellently. In her spoken word performances, she channelled the frustration of Britons towards the Brexit negotiations, shedding light on a complicated political process in a playful way and described what Europe and European culture means to her. A wonderful piece of her spoken word poetry appeared a few weeks later in the Guardian.

The conclusive panel discussion with professor of European studies Paul Scheffer connected the topics of the evening with a look into the future: how could the French-German axis lead the European project, and what role would the Netherlands play in that balance?

The second programme in the series was an evening with two thinkers with opposite opinions from neighbouring countries France and Germany; the Berlin-based journalist Géraldine Schwarz and the French philosopher Raphael Enthoven. During this evening we explored the notion of European citizenship and European identity. Can we speak of a true ‘European people’? And if so, what does it look like?

With her introductory keynote, Géraldine Schwarz laid down the central topics of the evening: European identity, remembrance of the shared European history and the current-day rise of the far right and its attacks on European democracies. Enthoven pointed out that the European far-right is ironically collaborating internationally to undermine the European project, thereby bringing countries closer together. During the evening, there was a lot of room for questions by the audience and discussion with the speakers.

In each of the programmes the ‘Vote Together’ campaign that De Balie, the Forum on European Culture, Wolfgang Tillmans and Rem Koolhaas launched to encourage and increase the voter turnout in all EU member countries was a central feature.

How do you believe this contributed to a more imaginative and democratic Europe?
Raising awareness on the importance of the European elections was an important aim of this programme series. In order to protect Europe’s democratic values, we need knowledge about what’s at stake. We need knowledge presented in an attractive way in order to reach a broad audience. We believe in order to imagine Europe’s future, we need new and creative ideas. And it is exactly from artists and thinkers that we can expect to come up with new ideas, and new ways of imagining Europe’s future. Democracy needs imagination, and imagination is coming exactly from them.

The analysis of some of the most influential thinkers in Europe on the current state of our continent, increased the understanding of key European issues in the run-up to the European elections amongst both the online and offline audience. The press coverage of the programmes also added to this awareness amongst even a larger public.

At the beginning and the end of each programme, we informed the audience on the #VoteTogether campaign, and activated people to take action and go vote and make use of their democratic powers. The programmes attracted more visitors than expected, and reached more people online through Facebook and YouTube than estimated.

Of course there is a group of people that is so dissatisfied with the current political system that it is hard to reach them. However, by presenting speakers with distinctive views on the current state of Europe, we created more diversity amongst the audience.

Naturally, the Democracy Needs Imagination grant was a temporary intervention in continental struggles, how do you judge our common future after the EP elections?
After the right wing conservative party ‘Forum voor Democratie’ had become the biggest party in the Netherlands after the Provincial Council elections, many people expected that the party- which is also very critical on the EU and proposed a Nexit several times- would maybe win the EU- elections as well.

This concern was of course not only a Dutch matter. The rise of anti- EU parties and politicians was seen during national elections already in many European countries. The outcome of the elections however, showed that the percentage of right-wing parties had actually been stabilized. Surprisingly, the social democrats became the biggest party in the Netherlands.

The really good news after the elections was also the fact that voter turnout in the Netherlands for the EP elections had increased from 37,3% to 41,2%. The overall voter turnout level in all European countries was the highest in 20 years.

Of course, it is impossible to measure the direct impact of the #VoteTogether initiative and the programmes organized in De Balie, but thanks to many actions that have been undertaken all over the EU, more people than ever became aware of the importance of the elections, and I think this is really something that increases the democratic legitimacy of the EU as well.

At the same time there is of course still a lot to worry about. The fragmentation and rise of the amount of nationalist politicians in Brussels have underlined the importance to keep on investigating, debating and exploring which underlying values bind us Europeans and keep on posing challenges for the future.

What will you continue to do to bring about a more democratic, more inclusive European Union?
De Balie will keep on addressing European affairs with the most thought-provoking artists, thinkers, theatre makers and politicians in its programme’s throughout the coming year. We will end the cultural season with another spectacular edition of the Forum on European Culture.

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