Missions Publiques: StamEuropa will be fully open to the public in September 2021. But let’s look back at the genesis of this project…
Alain Deneef: The StamEuropa concept was originally envisioned by the urban design agency Vraiment Vraiment for a place that could become a citizens’ embassy to the European Union. Countries, regions and large cities have permanent representations to the EU, but the ordinary citizen, beyond the democratic process of elections, do not. This is how the idea of the ‘Brussels embassy’ came about. Then, as president of the (2) EQuAMA association, I heard about an abandoned place to be rehabilitated. To avoid confusion with the institutions, the name embassy was dropped, and we proposed the creation of a house of democratic dialogue. The term ‘Stam’ means ‘stump, root’ in Dutch, and in many Germanic and Scandinavian languages. In Brussels, a ‘stam café’ is a place where people have their habits and feel good. StamEuropa is a place where Europe is at home and where European citizens feel at home in Europe; a place where democratic dialogue and citizen participation are practiced.
One of our sources of aspiration are the democracy festivals that are very popular in the Baltic countries and Scandinavian countries, which attract between 15,000 and 100,000 people. Dialogue and debate are constructed in a democratic way because they are relatively egalitarian in the ways and means of dialogue, and the rules of engagement or discussion. There are no podiums, no filtered questions, no hierarchy but a rotation of actors who come to question the leaders. Our ambition is to restore these principles in StamEuropa, and that the organisations in the place submit to them. Different rates will be applied according to the size of the organisations (companies, collectives or associations), but we will not allow debates in their classical forms.
Missions Publiques: You say that StamEuropa is a place that is in tune or in resonance with its time, both physical and virtual…
Alain Deneef. StamEuropa will be bringing information to the participatory space as well as organising virtual debates that go beyond the European district.
We designed three specific systems: broadcasting, where each debate can be retransmitted on the Internet thanks to equipment that will allow for filming. It will be possible to record the debate on site and to dialogue with another room from a distance. Second device: the centralisation of information related to European news in StamEuropa, which we will make visible via several screens. We are in a logic of concentric circles. The first circle of information is what is happening in StamEuropa; the second circle: events in the European district, very specific to European construction (plenary session of the European Parliament, the work of the committees, the European Commission delegations, etc.) and then everything related to the European ecosystem beyond the institutions with the latest news on debates organised by lobbies and civil society. And the third circle: the latest news on Europe and its major decisions and events that deserve to be brought to light.
The third feature at StamEuropa is the podcast. After their visit, citizens will be able to leave their testimonies. They will be asked to fill in a questionnaire in the 24 official languages of the European Union about their dreams, ambitions and fears about Europe. All this material will be analysed and brought to the attention of certain departments of the European Commission or the European Parliament. Researchers will also be able to work with this data. Finally, these testimonies will be archived to make a sort of “living memory of European citizenship”.
“Countries, regions and large cities have permanent representations to the EU, but the ordinary citizen, beyond the democratic process of elections, do not. This is how the idea of the ‘Brussels embassy’ came about.
Entrepreneur and founder of StamEuropa
Missions Publiques: StamEuropa aims to “transform Europe from below”. What do you mean by this?
Alain Deneef. This is an idea that has been debated over and over. I don’t think that Europe should be built only from below, because the elites have a responsibility to set a framework and determine the rules of the game so that Europe can express itself from below. It is not by opening the doors of communication in an unstructured way that solutions emerge. With our partners, including Missions Publiques, we will organise debates and dialogues, and other organisations will follow. The idea is not to control the content of the discussions but to agree on the rules of engagement and discussion. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is no small task, especially in these times of conspiracy theorising and the spread of disinformation. “From the bottom up”, because the venue’s architecture and rules of discussion allow for openness and frankness, and for those present to abandon self-censorship, shyness or the idea that they are not legitimate and not sufficiently knowledgeable. From these rules of the game, interesting debates with innovative ideas and sketches of solutions can emerge.
The challenge is also to reach out to those people who are not aware of this. Remember that this space will be joyful, vibrant and dynamic! We are in an area that is also home to hotels, restaurants and cafés. It will therefore also be possible to have a drink and a light meal there once all the health conditions have been met, probably from September. StamEuropa will be open from 8am and can be used by companies, organisations and anyone who wants to attend a debate or just pass by. We hope to welcome local residents, European institutions and anyone passing through the area. That’s about 400,000 visitors a year, invited by MEPs, tourists visiting the Parliament and other cultural activities. The European Quarter is a small area of one kilometer by one kilometer, which is both a business and an administrative quarter. The European institutions are obviously the main occupants, but the whole European ecosystem (lobbies and representations of all kinds) revolves around it. It is also home to the more ‘traditional’ businesses that make it the leading business district in Brussels. Nearby, there are extremely populated neighbourhoods, very diverse in their sociological composition. This district attracts a lot of people, and we know from experience that we can attract people from further away if the place has something to attract them at some point.
Missions Publiques: Current European events are conducive to debate and discussion, notably with the Conference on the Future of Europe (3), officially launched on Europe Day, 9 May. Is this the moment to reshuffle the cards at the institutional level and to integrate the voice of the citizens in future decisions?
Alain Deneef. In principle, I am pleased that this Conference is taking place. I will not be critical from the start on having reached an agreement between the three major institutions, which may still lead to a reconsideration of the treaties and, possibly, to their amendment. More important than the outcome of these conversations is the process that has been put in place. In addition to the officially organised debates and the massive online consultation of citizens, there will be all kinds of ‘unofficial’ debates. Through this participatory process, dynamics are created which, independently of the content of the discussions, contribute to the idea that there is a form of listening to the institutions in the public opinion. Most of the people who take part in the online consultation (4), but even more so in the citizen’s Panels, are often already interested in the issue and sometimes even are part of a collective. But they carry the message that they have been listened to, that the process is interesting and that a certain number of ideas can pass the authorities’ barrier. They are the ones who will spread this message to society at large and it is at this point that citizens’ opinions can gradually evolve.
These initiatives challenge the idea that Brussels is a bureaucratic fortress that does not listen. A place like StamEuropa could demonstrate that this vibrant European neighbourhood could turn the paradigm upside down and become the place where people listen to each other, not by setting their own terms, but by accepting the terms of others.