EU Ideas Lab: a joint stand against right-wing extremism

Three women of different nationalities
© Getty Images/Ridofranz

Right-wing populist parties now have government representation in multiple EU countries. This development is not without consequences for democratic civil society, says political scientist Dr Floris Biskamp from the University of Tübingen: ‘It’s not just their direct political opponents who come under pressure when right-wing populists gain power, but also representatives of the free press, the democratic and vibrant part of civil society, minorities, independent academia as well as art and culture.’ Together with Professor Dierk Borstel from Dortmund University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Biskamp devised an EU Ideas Lab entitled ‘Democratic civil society under pressure’. The event took place from 17 to 19 June 2021 and involved academics and DAAD alumni discussing the developments in Germany, Austria and Hungary as well as strategies for resistance.

DAAD alumni in search of the best ideas

‘Our focus lies on topics that are relevant to practicalities’, Biskamp explains. The opening lecture and a panel discussion were followed by four workshops on different aspects of civil society: schools, higher education institutions, churches and trade unions along with culture and media. Participants were encouraged to share their experiences and discuss promising strategies for action. The best ideas were jointly selected by everyone during the concluding discussion. The initiators will then present their ideas at an EU-wide DAAD alumni meeting that is currently planned to be held in Berlin in spring 2022.

In 2020, the DAAD called for its alumni associations, regional offices and information centres in Europe to organise the to mark Germany’s EU Council Presidency. The aim is to jointly develop ideas on topics that are of particular significance to the future of the European Union. Due to the coronavirus pandemic only three events could be held so far: an EU Ideas Lab , one for alumni from Italy, Croatia and Slovenia on migration and the creative competition run by the DAAD regional office in Paris. 

The lab dealing with the topic of right-wing populism was postponed multiple times due to the pandemic and ultimately had to be replanned as a fully virtual event. ‘This long period of time enabled us to gain a lot of experience with digital events, which is now to our benefit’, says organiser Dr Anneka Esch-van Kan – who worked with the Ruhr regional group of the to initiate the lab. Her team has produced several films to provide visual variety and to compensate for the lost physical experience, for instance a guided tour through Dortmund’s Nordstadt district on the opening evening. The online Miró whiteboard and the Mentimeter questionnaire tool were intended to promote lively discussions and the participants were also able to withdraw to virtual ‘coffee corners’ for networking.

Speaking out about racism, promoting diversity

‘These EU Ideas Labs are also a great opportunity to bring together alumni and associations from across Europe’, says Esch-van Kan who is also an executive committee member at Friends of the DAAD. ‘We think it is unfortunate that scholarship holders often notify us about horrific experiences of racism – which is why the Friends consider this topic to be extremely urgent’, she says. She is convinced that the EU owes its strength precisely to its cultural diversity: ‘This makes it all the more important to counter these political currents that want to destroy such diversity.’

‘Right-wing populism in power strives to bring about lasting change in society’, warns political scientist Dierk Borstel. This process is thought to be already well advanced in Hungary, where the Fidesz party under Prime Minister Orbán has been in power since 2010. After implementing massive changes to the school curricula in the past year, the government recently transferred almost all state higher education institutions to asset management foundations. This could pose two major risks, explains Hungarian doctoral candidate and DAAD alumna Eszter Kováts – who will be running the workshop on higher education institutions: this could accelerate ongoing processes intended to subordinate the universities to market interests and the government is filling the management positions at these foundations with loyal supporters. ‘Both of these threats can restrict the autonomy of the higher education institutions’, Kováts states. 

The EU Ideas Lab seeks to organise solidarity

The developments in Hungary are said to be closely interwoven with German and European politics, and with the German economy. ‘And the right-wing populists and illiberal forces in the whole of Europe are enthusiastically looking to Orbán for inspiration.’ It could therefore be of interest for alumni from other countries to confront the situation in Hungary. 

The EU Ideas Lab investigated how European solidarity can be fostered when democracy is at risk. The event was open for up to 200 participants. Alumni from many different professions have registered – teachers, doctors, chemists and theologians. This lead Dierk Borstel to hope for positive results: ‘There is a good chance that some really great ideas will emerge if the discussions involve alumni from multiple countries and quite different sectors of society.’ 

Continue reading on the Alumniportal Deutschland

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