Sortition is worthy of a prize. The "Franco-German dialogue to strengthen cross-border cooperation in times of COVID-19" is the French winner of the European Citizens' Prize 2021, an award given annually by the European Parliament. It honours special achievements for European engagement in various fields.
The COVID-19 Dialogue between the French region of Grand-Est and the German state of Baden-Württemberg ran from December 2020 to April 2021. The procedure with randomly selected citizens on both sides of the border was an initiative of the organisation "Missions Publiques". In the process, a total of 24 people from both sides of the Franco-German border were brought together in online working sessions to formulate recommendations that would strengthen Franco-German cooperation in the border area and make the cooperation agreements more crisis-proof.
Tensions over border closure
The background to the cross-border dialogue is the Treaty of Aachen signed by Germany and France in 2019. This treaty is intended to strengthen relations between Germany and France. This Franco-German cooperation is already being experienced in practice by people in Baden-Württemberg and the Grand Est region. The COVID-19 pandemic had different effects on the inhabitants of the two countries and has strongly influenced cooperation. The decision to close the border between France and Germany, taken in the spring of 2020 in the emergency of the health crisis, led to tensions in the border area between the residents who saw the border, which they thought had been overcome, (re)rise.
The Franco-German dialogue opened up a space for people in both regions to share their experiences of the Corona crisis, of Franco-German cooperation and their wishes for the future of this cooperation. 40 citizens of all ages and from all parts of the population were randomly selected for the dialogue. The participants met in four one-and-a-half-day sessions. During these sessions, they were provided with information by experts in the plenary and in small groups. These experts are specialised in different areas of cross-border cooperation. At the end of these four sessions, the participants formulated recommendations to improve Franco-German cooperation in the region and make it more resilient to health crises.
Politicians welcome proposals
During the last session, on 16 and 17 April 2021, the participants presented their proposals to politicians. The recommendations were received by Gisela Erler, State Councillor for Civil Society and Citizen Participation of the State of Baden-Württemberg, and Claudine Ganter, State Councillor for International and Cross-Border Relations of the Grand Est Region, as well as by Benjamin Kurc, Director of the Franco-German Civic Fund. The latter welcomed the citizens' proposals very favourably and promised to implement some of them, including the proposal to hold Franco-German cultural festivals. However, they also drew the participants' attention to the obstacles in implementing certain proposals, as some issues are not within the competence of the regions.
For the participants in the dialogue, cross-border cooperation between the two countries must be further strengthened in all areas and become more recognisable and committed to the citizens of the region. The sense of community should not stop at the borders of the two countries, because the border region is their common living space. In order to simplify daily life together, the administration must be harmonised and simplified in all areas, and the bureaucratic hurdles at cross-border level must be reduced.
The 15 recommendations
- School partnerships and the formation of bilingual teams of teachers
- Organising large Franco-German reunions after the COVID-19 pandemic
- Cross-border exchange between cultural scenes
- Proactive communication on projects and financial support for the implementation of citizens' projects
- A chatbot on cross-border issues
- Better information on cross-border institutions and projects
- Reduction of social, fiscal and economic differences in the Upper Rhine region
- Harmonisation of health systems and digitalisation of procedures for cross-border commuters
- Establishing an exchange of medical professionals from both countries
- A reassessment of the transport situation in order to rethink public transport and mobility in accordance with our real needs
- The creation of a cross-border ticket that is advantageous for everyone
- The creation of environmentally friendly and sustainable Franco-German exchanges
- Proposals for a green future
- The promotion of bilingual vocational training in various fields
- A cross-border job exchange
To ensure the impact of these proposals, Missions Publiques and its partners in Baden-Württemberg and the Grand Est region are planning several working sessions and events.
- A workshop on the citizens' proposals, bringing together the actors of cross-border cooperation
- A "face-to-face" meeting between the dialogue participants and the politicians and authorities involved to discuss the way forward
- A presentation of the process and its results at the World Democracy Forum in Strasbourg in November 2021
Hope for the future of Europe
At a time when there are many citizens' consultations on the future of Europe, Missions Publiques believes it is important to think beyond the geographical borders of countries. "The transnational approach allows us to learn not only about the current actions and needs of participants from these regions, but also their aspirations for the future" writes the organisation on its website. While the Corona crisis led national governments to (re)think regions in terms of borders, citizens' consultations led them to take a step back and imagine other forms of coexistence that are more resilient to crises and respectful of residents' experiences.
Consultative citizen participation, he said, is technically possible and necessary to create a true participatory democracy in cross-border areas. "We could imagine other participatory approaches of this kind, in other regions or with a more precise theme," Missions Publiques said. The citizens' dialogue on Covid-19 had shown that cooperation in areas such as culture and language or mobility and the environment, could have been the subject of a dialogue process. For this first Franco-German dialogue, a broad and open topic was deliberately chosen in order to give the participants the opportunity to determine the topics to be discussed.
Participants support cross-border dialogue
The idea of maintaining this kind of cross-border dialogue was very much supported by the dialogue participants. Cultural and linguistic differences had been taken into account so that participants could understand each other and feel represented. At the same time, a fluid exchange was ensured through informal and personal conversations. "These moments were valuable in creating a group dynamic, even though this process took place entirely online," concludes Missions Publiques.