Friday, 11 December 2015 16:03

E&M meets the Wake Up Foundation: how a transnational debate can wake up Europe

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With Euroscepticism on the rise, what can be done to get Europeans to start debates around constructive criticism about Europe?  E&M editor Nicoletta Enria met Paola Buonadonna, director of the Wake Up Europe! campaign run by the Wake Up Foundation for a chat about the challenges of creating a transnational discourse, Brexit and how to create a conversation about together building a Europe we want to see. 

rsz wake up europe logo solid colour
Photo courtesy of Paola Buonadonna 

E&M: Hello Paola! To begin with can you let us know what the Wake Up Euope! campaign is?

Paola: The whole thrust of the Wake Up Foundation is educational and awareness-raising, the starting point is that there are trends that threaten our way of life that we don’t realize yet. The motion of these tectonic plates is something that we should be aware of now and be talking about now and you know Europe is one part of this.The idea behind Wake Up Europe! is to get people together to start thinking, talking and acting about Europe. It’s an interesting mix, we want to use the Great European Disaster Movie to promote this transnational conversation and this will happen for most of the time online on various channels such as social media. The interesting thing I think about it is that we don’t just want people to download the film and watch it, we want people to organise events so that they can meet face to face with other people and talk about these things. The idea is that it’s the face to face sort of activism of that kind that is slightly missing at the moment. Europe is what the media, politicians , think tanks say and they give you a version of what Europe is about and they interpret and percolate for us how we should look at Europe. Depending on where you live and depending on what’s in the news that can be a very highly skewed or narrow perspective or you’ve got, as my colleague James, calls it, click activism – various petitions websites that send you constant requests for very pointed, limited action. But you sit on your own in your house and you click a button, you are not really connecting in any meaningful way with anybody else. The idea behind this is to use the film to bring people together both physically, face to face, and with an online conversation that continues after they watch the film, we ask them to get back in touch with us, tell us what they thought and tweet throughout with the #WakeUpEurope.

E&M: How did you come up with the idea of this campaign?

Paola: Well, an idea was to create a transnational conversation around Europe. Now how transnational we can make it, it will depend on a number of things. It’s certainly going to be a challenge. We have strong networks in Italy because of Annalisa Piras, the director of the Great European Disaster Movie, is Italian. Bill Emmott, the other main trustee who’s the chair is in very well known in journalistic circles – he used to be Editor-in-chief of the Economist and he’s extremely well connected and he’s often invited talks at international events. We’re all journalists-turned-campaigners. I reported on European affairs for many, many years mainly for the BBC so I have seen first hand how there is this vicious circle where we only are really allowed to tell people in a sense what they already know or what they already think. Even the BBC with its impartiality call, has for a long time now been unable to have a truly not blinkered sort of reporting in Europe. Bill Emmott wrote a very interesting piece for Politico at the start of our campaign where he sort of had a go at the European media for reporting on continent-wide challenges as if it was only happening in your country and only had repercussions in your country. This kind of reporting doesn’t give the citizens any tools to understand what’s at stake. The refugee crisis is obviously awful, but is a fantastically perfect example of what this means. Here is a problem that is not going to stop whether you’re part of a bigger unit or not – and this is a problem we’ve only scratched at the surface of. I mean, there are four million more potentially headed this way. The few thousands that we’ve seen are essentially nothing in the grand scale of things. And yet each country is desperately trying to repel the very tiny numbers that are either making it there or are allocated to that country by the European Union. This inability to take the longer view and the bigger view starts with leaders, continues in the way that national media reports on it and ends up with a much heightened and much more alive feelings of populism and nationalism that we’ve seen for a very long time. In the UK, this takes a particular form with protest parties like UKIP that have become almost mainstream and Hungary even worse, in Italy La Lega Nord has become unabashedly racist ([there’s]no sense of hiding it anymore) The message is, it’s not that if people talked about Europe more they would love it but I think they would get angry at the right things or the right people. Who do I get angry at, who do I challenge? Do I challenge the refugee who’s just arrived on my doorstep or do I challenge a decision to bomb a country without predicting what would happen afterwards?

Brussels Launch B A P outside
Photo courtesy of Paola Buonadonna

E&M: Speaking of the refugee crisis, what would you feel would be the best way to steer away from this nationalistic mentality and people focusing on it being a national problem?

Paola: Well it seems to me that throughout the refugee crisis people have been ahead of governments. So you saw images of citizens coming up to the borders welcoming refugees offering them shelters, volunteer groups springing up everywhere to house refugees. There are a number of people in the UK who  have created websites welcoming Syrians and the government is still to act on the availability that these people have given to house refugees. And this tipped the balance in Germany, where Merkel in the end seemed to think: this is ridiculous, we have got to do something. It’s also true that there’s been a backlash – in Germany and in other countries about it. So one thing is that governments fear citizens’ response to things, but the issue seems to me that if you give people a very clear view on what is happening or what is likely to happen, you give them more information to process and they’ll see that barking up the wrong tree won’t get anything solved. And the second thing is that we really do need to have the media active – campaigns like ours can do a little bit, but the power that media establishments have in various countries you can’t really beat that in terms of broadcasting. We can panic and then have an emergency or we can plan. 

E&M: Back to the European Disaster Movie screenings, how have you seen the reactions?

Paola: We are looking at a number of ways we can get that feedback; this is a problem a lot of campaigns have and we are grappling with this. Once you’ve signed up you get access to a lot of resources online. You can list an event and the resources are an organisers guide which gives you a very simple, yet detailed template that tells you a bit more about the film, the five items and artefacts that are used in the film to tell the story, five values that the film discusses. It stimulates extra questions for debate along those lines, and it gives you other suggestions on how to make the debate more/less topical. At the top of the organiser’s guide we have a set of questions that we ask the organiser to ask the audience by a show of hands, our task at the moment is to keep it as light as possible because the more you ask people, the more complicated it gets and things get lost in the process. You’ve got to keep it simple. We’re not going to get precise survey level data but we’re going to get a feeling. So one of the questions is if you’re feeling more or less optimistic about the question of Europe, or do you feel European and you get a sense of the majority or minority of that particular audience. We’re also toying with the idea of creating a form online so that after people have taken part in the debate, we email them asking them to take part in our quick survey – immediate data. The best that can happen out of one of these screenings is if somebody has been to a screening and thinks “Wow, that’s interesting I’d like to do something at work or my church group etc.” and, by giving the film for free and the tools to start a debate, we create a platform for people that aren’t experts to do this, make the screening a replicable experience. It’s not going to be as massive and mainstream as, say, the ice bucket challenge: you are telling people to watch something in a different language for an hour and a half or they’re watching it with their own language with subtitles. We hope to create more debate and we hope to then use the website to link these various people together. They might not meet in any other way: we might be a sort of matchmaking dating site that allows them to do so.

Brussels Launch - Wake up Europe! from Wake up Foundation on Vimeo.

E&M: How useful do you think the film is in instigating this conversation about Europe?

Paola: As you know, the film is really critical of the EU institutions, and some of the EU national governments for pushing people away. It’s a strange beast in a way. To give you a comparison: there a lot of action-stirring films on the environment right? It’s a straightforward proposition – we have to save the earth, climate change is happening and here’s how we go about it. And here is where what we’re doing is different because we are saying Europe ISN’T working but it is worth saving. So in a sense we hope that the fact that the film is polemical in itself will encourage people to talk about it whatever their views are. The intentions of the film makers was not to just do a propaganda movie for Europe but it was very much to say look, we might lose these things before we know it. There’s a Joni Mitchell quote “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” which really applies here. 

E&M: In the light of the possibility of a  Brexit and given you are based in the UK, what are your hopes for your campaign in the upcoming referendum?

Paola: In Britain the debate now is so completely focused on in or out –  what’s missing is any sense of what kind of Europe would we like. And you’re not allowed to have that debate because, if you’re on the stay side, putting any doubts about the fact that we might want to have a different Europe militates against your argument, whereas if you’re on the no side, you don’t care, you don’t want Europe changed or improved, you just want out. So the one conversation that might be worth having is not being had and personally, having worked in European affairs for many years and having been part of campaigns on this question and with this referendum in the past, I have no confidence that a referendum campaign is the best way to generate a debate about Europe. People will be trading facts and figures which are often made up and trading insults about what things mean and don’t mean, but there is no space to say what would we like? I think this is the challenge, particularly in Britain; you have to defend something that is wrong, that needs to be improved and changed, but it is impossible to have that conversation until you know if you’re in or out. The process of membership is in itself a process of renegotiation, by staying in you have the power to change how Europe works. If you’re outside, Europe does what it does maybe for the better maybe for the worse and you are just reacting but this is a big monolithic massive market that you are sitting next to so you’re not going to be able to ignore it or not bother or not be part of it or not sell from it or buy from it. So an informed public opinion in Britain or wherever means that governments can go to those famous summits and express what the people want to change.  Britain could sleepwalk out of the EU for all the wrong reasons, but equally (we are not cheerleaders for Europe) Europe is sleepwalking towards disaster if it doesn’t address these issues of populism and nationalism, of people who used to be pro-European that are just upset and disgusted by who have been punished by the economic crisis and how austerity has impacted on their lives.

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Photo courtesy of Paola Buonadonna
Debate panel at University College London screening

E&M: Having read Annalisa Piras’ article about the reactions the movie got, which was really shocking, I was wondering how that maybe changed throughout the campaign? And especially in regards to the Eastern European countries that have taken part and what kind of debate has been going on there?

Paola: We had a screening in Warsaw, we were invited by a large cultural foundation and they did it as part of a series of events they were doing, so they concentrated on the dystopian vision of Europe coming to an end, not on the criticism coming from Eastern Europe. I think what happened in Britain is pretty unique because there is a very unique brand of Euroscepticism that is so ideological, so detached from any actual evidence of harm particularly for the UK that they took very badly the fact that the film was criticising Europe from a pro-European perspective, because they felt that we had invaded their territory. So I don’t think and I wouldn’t expect other audiences to be upset at the negative term; from a Eurosceptic point of view I would expect a Eurosceptic audience to agree with a lot of the film and maybe disagree with the message that despite it all Europe is worth saving. 

E&M: What do you think about young Europeans and their role in creating this conversation? 

Paola: I think if you are young you are at the receiving end of a lot of the policies that haven’t worked. The youth are still more ideological than older people and are at the forefront of this conversation. It seems to me that the youth perceive with more clarity that you cannot stop water and you cannot put a barrier that stops a tide of humanity that has nowhere else to go and that the obvious thing to do is to work together to make this better, this not only applies to the refugee crisis but the crisis of the European Union in general. Europe should turn itself around and become an engine for growth as opposed as an engine for fiscal discipline.

E&M: Anything else you’d like to say to our E&M readers?

Paola: Well we want to empower you! We want individuals to become their own organisers, because Europe is an issue on which very few people want to speak up. It’s felt as remote, as too complicated, and it’s almost like talking about the air we breathe it’s everywhere – where do you start? Essentially what ends up happening is that only the ones violently opposed to it, sometimes for the wrong reasons and who are just misguided, end up having a voice and being heard in the public domain and that’s what we are trying to stop. 

The Wake Up Europe! campaign hopes to ignite dialogue around the themes explored in the docu-drama The Great European Disaster Movie. You can register on their website and host an event yourself, all you need is to gather an audience and they will give you a Vimeo link to the film with the rights to screen it for free and an organiser’s pack to lead a debate after it.


Brussels Launch - Wake up Europe! from Wake up Foundation on Vimeo.



Italian-born Paola Buonadonna has lived in the UK since 1989. In the mid-90s she was Brussels correspondent for The European Newspaper and subsequently a political reporter on BBC programmes including The E-Files, On The Record, and the Politics Show.  More recently she was  head of press for the European Parliament Office in the UK and since then  has  worked as a media consultant for a variety of organizations and campaigns including British Influence and the Centre for European Reform.  Paola joined The Wake Up Foundation in September 2015. 

Last modified on Monday, 14 December 2015 08:30
Nicoletta Enria

Nicoletta Enria is Italian, originally from La Spezia, grew up in Rome, London and Frankfurt. She graduated from University College London, studying Language and Cullture and now works as Project Assistant and Social Media Assistant at the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Follow her on twitter: @NicolettaEnria or her blog.

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