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Campfire and hot debates

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Unsere European Public Sphere beim Campfire Festival

Campfire and hot debates


Friday the 30th of August was the day. With the Europe Dome in our luggage, we made our way to the Campfire Festival in Düsseldorf; a festival for a better society; a festival to think, talk and discuss about life and the future in an increasingly complex society. We were already looking forward to exciting conversations and a lively exchange - just like on a long evening when you sit in a circle around a cosy campfire.

An blogpost by Michelle Becker and Sophie Auffermann.

The Campfire Festival set up directly in front of the North Rhine-Westphalian state parliament in Düsseldorf. A nice contrast actually: On one side the parliament building, with its restricted access and inside of which only a few people - even if they are elected by the people - decide on matters of direct importance for our lives. On the other side, there was the camp, which has set itself the goal of breaking down barriers and discussing topics that affect us all in an open dialogue, with as many people as possible from all walks of life.

The construction of the dome on Friday under a bright blue sky went smoothly. And so, we were ready to develop ideas for a better society and to discuss how to implement them concretely. There was enough material to talk about: In addition to global topics such as direct democracy in Taiwan and a more democratic Europe, talks on local opportunities for direct citizen participation in the areas of restructuring traffic, climate protection and contributions to road construction were on the agenda. For once, it was not just about Europe. Short specialist inputs introduced each topic and served as a basis for the subsequent discussion.

Day 1

Saturday was hot! The top of the wooden dome was covered by a wafer-thin coloured tarp that served as protection from the sun, to little avail. Participants and speakers were sweating under a cloudless sky at a steady 31+ degrees. Thus, we welcomed the occasional gust of wind but unfortunately realtively few visitors. Nevertheless, the Dome was always filled for our talks. It was not uncommon to see small groups of curious visitors gathered around the entrance of the dome, attracted by a snippet of conversation; they stopped, listened for a while and then either came inside or went along to the next stand.

At 11am, the first talk began with Caroline Vernaillen, Democracy International's PR Manager, on "Taiwan - a country dares direct democracy". She briefly described the historical path of democracy in the country, follwoed by a heated discussion about referenda, direct democracy, Taiwan's politics and relations with China.

Afterwards, Claudine Nierth, executive spokeswomen of Mehr Demokratie, encouraged participants to more citizen participation in her talk "Doing is like wanting, but better" (“Machen ist wie wollen, nur krasser”). The participants were particularly interested when the topic "citizen assemblies" came up.

Under the scorching midday sun, the number of visitors to the Campfire Festival dwindled a little. Nevertheless, the talk "Daring More Democracy" by Stefan Padberg, spokesperson of the European working group of Mehr Democratie, and Daniela Vancic, European Programme Manager of Democracy International, attracted a lot of people. The desire for trans-European media, trans-European parties, strengthening citizen participation and the EU Parliament were echoed widely by those present. In addition, more attention should be paid to young people as well as to democratic reform of the EU through for example the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI). Too much is said and too little is done. The will for more democracy and more citizen participation was clearly felt in this discussion!

The last conversation of the day was at 5:30pm “Rome, Taipei, Seoul, Mexico City - democratic cities as pioneers of civic participation" by Bruno Kaufmann, Board Member of Democracy International. The focus here was on direct democracies and the encouraging observation that there is a positive development of more democracy in the world against the popular negative perception.

Day 2

The second day of the festival began at 10 o'clock - and it stopped raining at that very moment. As to be expected on a Sunday morning, the festival got off to a leisurely start - and after the first coffee we were awake again and ready for the first debate, led by the people behind citizens' initiative "Aufbruch Fahrrad". The initiative demands a bicycle law in the German state of North Rhine-Westpahlia that would signify a turning point for mobility and that would ensure adequate room for bicycles in the state's traffic. Interested cyclists quickly gathered under the dome. Everyone agreed that cycling is dangerous in most cities and that they did not really have the feeling that fundamental changes were being made. With 66,000 votes collected, the citizens' initiative was very successful. We are curious to see which conclusions the state parliament will draw from it.

The second lecture, "Citizens' initiative for climate protection - how we can take climate policy into our own hands through municipal initiatives", by Jörg Rostek, Managing Director of the Westphalia District Board of Bündnis 90/ DieGrünen (the Greens), was also highly topical. Here the participants were encouraged to think about what kind of initiative they themselves would launch to save the climate. A familiar topic quickly emerged: transportation policy. It was also interesting to see which cities have already declared a climate emergency and what people can do themselves if the municipality/city in which they live has not taken this step yet.

At the end of the day, our Europe Dome was visited by "Bund der Steuerzahler NRW" (Association of taxpayers NRW), which has launched a citizens' initiative against the duty for local residents to carry most of the financial burden for road construction in their streets. What may not have sounded as an exciting topic at first, turned out to be really interesting. The short input led to a heated discussion afterwards. Also for us it was hard to let go of the road construction contributions, which is why there was still a lot of talk about it back in the office.

At 5pm we went home. We dismantled our camp, loaded everything into our van and off we went back to Cologne.


All in all we had a very nice weekend at the festival, with interesting contributions and conversations that made us think. One point that particularly struck us, however, was that the participants of the Campfire Festival seemed to be a very homogeneous group. Contrary to the aim of the Campfire Festival - and also the European Public Sphere - to offer people an opportunity to escape their own bubble and to get into conversation with others who think differently, most of the people who took part in the festival seemed to be professionally connected with the topics. In our opinion, the festival could have been better promoted so that more people, even those who were not primarily concerned with the topics addressed, would have found their way to the festival with curiosity. Nevertheless, we hope that under the dome we have shown the people that it is possible to take political change into your own hands!

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