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Future Dialogue

Learning from each other

Chancellor Angela Merkel invited the British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg to Berlin to take part in the discussion entitled "Learning from each other. New Approaches to the relationship between citizens and the state".

Portrait of Jens Stoltenberg, Angela Merkel and David Cameron Jens Stoltenberg, Angela Merkel and David Cameron Photo: Bundesregierung/Bergmann

More than one hundred students from twenty-four countries had the opportunity to discuss this topic with the three heads of government. "Citizens are the state – and you are the citizens" – were the opening words of Stefan Kornelius from the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, who acted as facilitator. He invited the students to "inspect the operating system known as the state". David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Jens Stoltenberg are also citizens who serve the state, he pointed out.

In contrast to the citizens’ dialogue events to date, this international discussion did not focus on the three central questions for the future, but on a vitally important sub-topic – the development of democratic culture as reflected in the relationship between citizens and the state. In a workshop held immediately prior to the discussion, the students had devised their own images of "Democracy in 2022".

The participants are all studying at universities in Berlin and Potsdam. They were selected in cooperation with the organisation responsible for Norwegians studying abroad and with the Hertie School of Governance, whose programmes the majority of participants are studying. Some of them have taken a course entitled "Citizen Participation".

New approaches to communication and participation

"Why did you launch a citizens’ dialogue?" was the first question addressed to the Chancellor. Angela Merkel did not hesitate: firstly, she said it is no longer enough to think in four-year periods, from one general election to the next: secondly, she aims to break new ground in the fields of communication and participation. The citizens’ dialogue and the online dialogue have demonstrated very impressively that citizens are ready and willing to deliberate with the government about the future.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron emphasised that all democracies must look to the future and develop. The internet is an important medium for politicians, since it is easier to explain policies there and present arguments in more detail. Political communication is, he said, at the end of the day a daily struggle to improve the people’s understanding of politics and foster the confidence and trust of the people in politics.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg talked about Norway’s experience with referendums. In 1972 and again in 1994 Norway held referendums on the country’s accession to the EU – with the result that Norway is still not a member of the European Union. He pointed out the advantages of Europe, which Norway can enjoy without signing up for membership.

Nevertheless, pointed out the Chancellor we still do not have what could be termed European public opinion. Work is urgently needed on this front. She also called for the establishment of a joint European labour market.

Political commitment is important

Johanna Altinghaus from Germany would like to see not only more democracy and participation, but also more political education in schools. She also thinks that referendums should carry greater authority. Prime Minister Stoltenberg underlined the importance of political youth organisations in his country, and called on all participants to become actively involved. Today, he said the internet and social networks and forums make it easier than ever before to get involved.

Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed with her Norwegian counterpart – political engagement is the best form of active citizen participation. She also pointed to successful referendums, including the referendum on the “debt brake” in the State of Hesse.

Building confidence and trust in politics

In the run-up to the event, the students had already had lively discussions about the problem of single-issue parties. In this context, Jörg von Ingwer from Berlin suggested introducing primaries as held in the USA. David Cameron countered that in the UK local candidates already have excellent opportunities to be selected as Prime Minister.

Neither were the heads of government convinced by the students’ complaint that there are today too many governments of technocrats "Never before have so many people lived in democracies," declared the Norwegian Prime Minister. With a view to the EU, the Chancellor added that the EU member states have a "custodian role" to play, but this also means they must be capable of accepting constructive criticism. Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Jens Stoltenberg agreed in particular on one point – democracies will lose the trust of the people if they make pledges they cannot keep.

One question submitted via twitter on the increased online activities of European governments was welcomed by the three heads of government. They feel that the so-called "community building" in the internet is helpful, and that it strengthens democracy. "Major institutions are learning societies", explained Chancellor Merkel. Transparency must not become the only issue though, she added. She believes it is important to achieve a balance of issues and generate confidence and trust in the work of governments. There cannot be a divide, with critics on the one side and solution seekers on the other, she said.

Jun 07, 2012