The B-word, and its place in a democratic community.

By Marian Cramers

The best conversations take place at round tables, with a few diverse people, and an bold, ambitious topic. The BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt has understood this, and has established a tradition of European Tables, culminating in a Forum held last week, to give the ideas generated a big lift. Kelly McBride and I were there from Demsoc.

Over the past year, the European Tables have dealt with Identity, migration and the impact of technology on the European jobs market. At the Forum, where participants from those tables met each other, we also faced up to how much the world has changed again in just the space of a year. The 11 recommendations from the table still held, and the resilience of citizens, their livelihoods and the sustainability of their environments stood front and centre. However, the tone of the Forum debates was also full of concern about the populist zeitgeist in Europe, and how to maintain a hold on our democratic values, leading up to the European elections. In the heart of the BMW Welt, and among the steel and prosperity of Bavaria, the key instruments to shape a convincing outreach campaign seemed particularly elusive.

One outcome from the Forum was the establishment of Alliance4Europe, a platform for pro-European NGOs and businesses to ‘augment the impact of civic society groups’, and first of all drive the kind of turnout and voting that is constructive for the European project. [Demsoc did not sign up to be part of the Alliance, but will follow the development of the platform with interest, particularly in its work on turnout and voting.]

I found the discussions on the involvement of business in democracy particularly intriguing, because that topic is bound to be received with awkwardness and hesitation on both sides.

I strongly believe there is a role and a mandate for business communities to be involved in politics, beyond lobbying, representing their employee and consumer communities. I have also experienced the slight bitterness in their leaders, when the only thing they are asked for is money, while they have more to put in the balance. And evidently, R&D + Marketing can equal a product, but not a lasting democracy. But it is worth considering that some European enterprises may, for their own interests, have a better finger on the pulse of our citizens concerns than certain governments do.

However, as we see the first signs of a surge in interest by the business community to get involved, there are lessons to be mindful of. Too often, efforts to engage the public are duplicated across the field, and don’t have the runway or focus to develop. Also, if this recent political turns are at least partly explained by a schism between political elites and their core constituents, then the one-sided profiles of many business leaders will likely result in the same outcome. And lastly, for any organisation, but corporates in particular, without a clear statement of principles and an open conversation they will not be able to build trust. For citizens, these are the brands that employ and sustain them. It takes caution and courage, but it is worth providing both with the agency to be part of the conversation.

The BMW Foundation showed passion and humility at the their Munich European Forum, and their approach merits some consideration. Given shape to a round table with every pillar of European society, citizen voices included, would be a wonderful base, and offer us more stability than we currently feel.