7 Lessons from the OED 7: What Our Largest Political Dialogue Taught Me About the State of Politics in Europe
A reflection on the Seventh Annual Policymakers Dialogue by Chiara Rosselli, Head of the Open European Dialogue.
On the 9th of September, parliamentarians from all over the continent made their way to the small town of Cascais, just outside of Lisbon.
Our Polish delegation had been up since 3 a.m. that day to catch their flights. Their flights, as well as everyone else’s that day, were delayed – from Germany to Georgia and Malta to Estonia. Our delegation of seven Ukrainian parliamentarians showed particular determination. After having obtained approval to leave the country, they made their way from Kyiv to Poland by land to the nearest airports outside a no-fly zone, completing what was, for most, a two-day journey.
Despite it all, seventy parliamentarians and policymakers eagerly arrived in Lisbon on Friday, September 9th, as we inaugurated the Seventh Annual Policymakers Dialogue, hosted by the Open European Dialogue. Anticipation was in the air.
We came together to speak of the war in Ukraine, of leadership in times of uncertainty, of global digital risks, the escalating energy crisis, and political imagination.
Over the next three days, we were shaken to the core by testimonials of life at war under constant threat of bombardment, we celebrated a parliamentarian’s birthday by singing ‘Happy Birthday’ and blowing out a candle, and said goodbye while sharing parting reflections on the importance of open political dialogue and collegiality across borders, both physical and ideological.
The impact of the Seventh Annual Policymakers Dialogue strengthened my resolve to keep working to promote, support, and create safe spaces for honest political conversations.
For three days, politicians from the right wing to the left, from newer challenger parties to profoundly established political groupings, left behind the rigidities and constraints of day-to-day politics to embrace a spirit of open dialogue and enquiry. As we made time for politicians to listen to different political perspectives, share personal experiences, connect with the political realities of others, exchange ideas, and constructively discuss their differences with colleagues, I grew more and more aware of how precious spaces that allow for genuine political exchanges are. I reflected on what the impact could be on the state of our politics if we invested more in creating the conditions for better political dialogue.
In the hope of encouraging a conversation on the importance of political dialogue in our democracies, I have distilled seven lessons learned from spending the weekend talking to Europe’s decision-makers. I believe these takeaways are relevant for anyone who is working in politics or aspires to make a difference through political work. I hope they may serve as a prompt for some further reflection on the state of our political sector and, in particular, on our political conversation spaces and the way we work with politicians.
HERE ARE THE 7 LESSONS I LEARNED FROM OUR POLITICAL DIALOGUE THAT ARE RELEVANT FOR ANYONE OPERATING IN THE POLITICAL SECTOR
#1 – We Seriously Need More Spaces to Talk Frankly and Openly About What Unites and What Divides Us
The overwhelming majority of our political representatives expressed the uniqueness of the Open European Dialogue space.
“The OED is different. I attend many parliamentary assemblies, but this is the only time that I don’t have a strict agenda and list of things to do and say, and I can talk freely”
If politics is the art of compromise, it is inexcusable that politicians from across the continent lament the absence of adequate spaces for dialogue and deliberation, spaces that allow and encourage an open and frank exchange of different political views.
We need to invest more in spaces that are expressly designed with dialogue in mind and that don’t necessarily have to produce an agreed-upon legal amendment or list of negotiated recommendations to justify their existence – spaces that exist for the very sake of promoting better dialogue and constructive political exchanges.
#2 – Politics Is Increasingly Being Played as a Competitive Zero-Sum Game
Not only across different political ideologies, but also within parliaments, institutions, and even within the same party – politicians are navigating a political context where competition rather than cooperation is the norm.
“What is different in this event is that I found a space where I can test ideas that I have. I could not do this in parliament, where I face opposing parties, not even in my own party, which I lead. Here I’m free to discuss ideas and debate ideas I could previously only share with friends”
As political negotiations are seen more and more as win-lose matches, the ability – or even habit – to engage in dialogue with the political other, and comfortably seek out and find common ground, is being compromised.
#3 – Incubators for Political Creativity and Imagination Are Urgently Needed
Across the political spectrum, policymakers feel that they need more time and space to think strategically and creatively.
“As politicians, we spend most of our time dealing with refrigerator issues – fixing technical things – we need spaces like these to re-ignite political imagination”
The ability to generate and test new ideas is crucial to keeping political imagination alive and hence creating political systems that are able to face the uncertainty of the future by generating new visions for the future, not just putting out one crisis after another. Current institutional infrastructures tend to fall flat when it comes to encouraging long-term thinking and creativity in policymaking and political thinking – dialogue spaces designed to exercise the muscle of political imagination are being sought after.
#4 – A Better Political Culture Is Possible and in Demand
If bringing together seventy politicians from across the continent has taught us anything at all, it is that there is a craving for a political culture that is rooted in listening, understanding, and learning across political and ideological divides.
“I will apply OED House Rules to all my meetings in the future!”
Regardless of the platitude we so often hear about politics being increasingly polarized, this state of affairs is not inevitable, as politicians across parties increasingly seek and invest their time into spaces that allow them to have better political conversations.
#5 – If We Want Our Politics to Be More Humane, We Need to Start Doing Our Part in Taking Care of Our Politicians
The political sector overall would be doing a lot better if only we took the time to remember that at the core of the difficult work that is politics, is the work of human beings. It is disquieting that we are often unable to remind ourselves that politicians too, are people. If we want a more humane political sector, we may want to consider applying some of the same empathy that we demand from political leaders to the way we engage and communicate with politicians. We need to be more conscious of the standards and norms we, ourselves, bring to political engagement spaces.
“I agree with what you said, think tanks should be working with politicians, not against them. The same I think is true about us politicians, we should talk with each other, not at each other”
The difficult and tiresome work of doing politics “right” should be recognized, and we should support the shapers of our societies. For example, by recognizing their specific needs and the challenges they face in bringing about change, or in creating spaces where they can feel supported. We can recognize that they too, like all of us, are fallible and human.
“After the OED, I am going back to my factory settings, being reminded about why I was motivated to enter politics in the first place”
“[At the OED] we are back to being people”
#6 – We’re Stuck Between Two Worlds – a.k.a. Why Leading with Empathy Is Key in Times of Uncertainty
Regardless of political colors, politicians overwhelmingly agree that we seem to be in the middle of some rather momentous political, economic, and societal paradigm shifts.
“We are in a zeitgeist of uncertainty… but we remain united”
It is when faced with such high uncertainty, when the answers are not readily available or easy, that leading with empathy becomes key not only to better politics and policies but to political survival.
“We all represent citizens who are going through a lot of challenges and all of them look to us for answers. Sometimes we don’t have the answers, but we can already do a lot more if we learn to simply listen”
In order to succeed in navigating this uncertainty, we must build dialogue spaces that allow us to practice listening more attentively to those who are being affected by policies, as well as the parts of society or politics that don’t see the world the way we do.
#7 – The Final Lesson: The Untapped Potential of Interparliamentary Institutions and Infrastructures Is Staggering
The appetite for more and better cooperation among our countries’ key legislative bodies and elected policymakers is fascinating as much as it is frustrating.
“We could launch a project to provide a shared database of legislative practices translated in English from different national parliaments”
“The OED could be useful to support official interparliamentary cooperation and help to host discussions across different national parliaments”
On the one hand, the demand for platforms, dialogue spaces, or programs that can allow policymakers to learn from each other and work together across borders is evident and on the rise among politicians. On the other hand, the infrastructures that are in place are sadly often ill-designed and minimally functional. Room for improvement exists. Better investment into the infrastructure of cross-border political dialogue has an incredible potential to better the way we go about policymaking across borders – and policymaking more generally.