Is Wikimedia Europe a hub?

Members of Wikimedia Europe by affiliation type

For almost 10 years, the Free Knowledge Advocacy Group EU has been roaming around the corridors of institutions in Brussels explaining to EU decision-makers how the Wikimedia movement works and why it is important to legislate with it in mind. Now that the European affiliates debate restructuring the initiative into an organisation called Wikimedia Europe, let’s take a look into the ways in which the lessons from the process can contribute to the global conversations on new structures in the Wikimedia movement.

More than the sum of parts

Free Knowledge Advocacy Group EU, or FKAGEU (as unpronounceable as it is), has been an initiative of several chapters and affiliates based in Europe. They saw a great chance in collectively approaching the institutions of the European Union (EU) to advocate for better frameworks in access to knowledge and information. Spearheaded by Dimi Dimitrov and administratively supported by Wikimedia Deutschland (that also finances a vast chunk of activities along with other European affiliates), FKAGEU involved volunteers and staff members from other chapters who promoted freedom of panorama, copyright exceptions and open data, in Brussels as well as in other European capitals.

Why was working together so important? The affiliates supporting FKAGEU knew that only one cannot singlehandedly complete what they collectively set out to achieve. Pooling in combined expertise, experience, coordination and adding a Brussels presence of one and then two staff members had good results. One example is the initiative we lead to safeguard the public domain. The annual Big Fat Brussels Meeting has been an occasion to celebrate the joint work – and sometimes mourn if the results of a vote in the European Parliament have been disappointing.

Geographic or thematic?

It needs to be said that the European affiliates have a great incentive to cooperate and invest money and time in European-level policy and advocacy. The EU is the centre of legislation, which sooner or later affects the whole federated continent. It makes sense to make our voice heard when policy objectives and legislative ideas can still be changed. Once the legislation starts being implemented in the member states, it is already too late to change it fundamentally.

At the same time, in Europe we are united by many more things than just, what is called in the European jargon, the Digital Single Market¹. We could do many more things together, be it with the GLAM sector, open science, or towards preserving language diversity – to just name a few. For FKAGEU both the thematic scope, being policy work, and the geographic one, create a natural overlap. 

While it is perhaps a unique convergence, exploring it provides a new opening for our movement globally. Many things that originate from Europe influence other parts of the world, for better and for worse. Be it a good model of privacy protection online or a grim legacy of colonialism, while we work in Europe, we have a global responsibility. This responsibility is embodied in the objective to create legislation and policy frameworks that prioritise humans, enable sharing across various knowledge protocols and respect both different points of view and procedures for creating verifiable and trustworthy information.

Limits of growth

In the evaluation of FKAGEU that we commissioned in 2021, agility was mentioned as one of the advantages. It is true that through the agreement between the affiliates and thanks to WMDE shouldering the administrative burden, the operation was easy to scale from one to two people. It ensured that prioritisation of topics in the small team goes hand in hand with building personal connections with the professionals and volunteers alike supporting FKAGEU.

On the other hand, the movement went through the strategic process that surfaced additional opportunities of collaboration and renewed approach to supporting free knowledge. In parallel, within the EU a lot of policy frameworks on digital issues are being revised (copyright, platform liability) or created (AI Act). No matter how hard we try to prioritise and plan for efficiency, the two of us are stretched thin. The result is that we end up chasing EU legislation at the expense of creating policy ideas proactively and approaching the lawmakers before they structure their legislative proposals.

The evaluation showed clearly that increasing our impact and visibility top the wish list that our colleagues, supporters and partners have for FKAGEU. Both cannot be increased without adding to our existing capacity. It is also somewhat difficult when, after almost 10 years of operating, FKAGEU does not have Movement-related branding – very confusing for the decision-makers! Finally, the transparency standards we hold ourselves to require that we clarify the governance model of the affiliates over FKAGEU’s functioning and ensure that its democratic foundation is future proof.

European future

The global challenges of climate emergency, economic downturn, and shrinking civil society space are also palpable on the European continent. United in diversity (the motto of the EU that describes our Movement just as well), we have a better chance not only to weather the storms locally but also to increase our support to the global Wikimedia movement. Creating Wikimedia Europe is a way to build on the existing nucleus of the cooperation – the FKAGEU – and look into the future where adding features to the cooperation helps us reach untapped opportunities, such as institutionalised funding or capacity building across the Movement actors in Europe.

To date, 21 European affiliates expressed their faith in the future synergies becoming founding members of Wikimedia Europe. This faith is not unfounded with FKAGEU as a 10-year-long collaboration. This trust enabled the impossible to become true, which is unifying so many Wikimedia affiliates under one goal and reinforcing it with the statutes of an organisation drafted jointly in 6 months. We are hopeful that the new organisation will smoothly undergo registration process in Belgium and will become fully operational in 2023. In the meantime, we will be holding the “Brussels fort” and ensuring that the voice of free knowledge is heard and expected across the European continent.

What about the hub?

So, is Wikimedia Europe a hub? In earnest, during the discussion on the scope, governance, and membership the affiliates did not ask themselves this question. Maybe it is because the restructuring of FKAGEU has been researched, discussed and confirmed as a necessity to key actors on the continent. It has been more important to reinstate the commitment that with increased capacity the team will serve affiliates and other Movement stakeholders that are and aren’t its members; that it will strengthen the support it offers to the affiliates in the non-EU countries in Europe; and that it will coordinate and synergise with other structures such as the emerging CEE Hub.

Looking from the perspective of the strategic recommendations, however, we can see that the way of work we adopted – both as FKAGEU and through Wikimedia Europe in the near future – hits pretty close to how hubs are imagined in the movement. Our objective has been to “empower existing and future communities” and provide “the capacity and resources to make and implement their own decisions” and the two are already working in practice. It happens through bringing our activists, volunteers and experts closer to the European policy-making processes, both by providing capacity building and opportunities to actually be there and talk to decision-makers directly. As a good practice and as an increasing pool of expertise and coordinated action, our work does contribute to “sustainability, resilience, and growth for the whole Movement” as we help those who turn to us for advice and instruction no matter where they are based. What we are working on now, is reinforcing the existing structure, whose key goal is to strengthen joint governance and by that “bring the principle of subsidiarity into practice”. 

We definitely see takeaways that can apply to both the theory of defining what is a hub and the practices of their operations in the future. A decision to create one should be a result of analysis if joined capacities provide a whole that is better than the sum of parts. It may mean better in terms of efficiency, but also how it helps the weaker and the smaller to amplify their voice and tap new capacities.  It is important to bake in a model of communication that involves talking to people and meeting them regularly. Ensuring that individual issues are voiced takes time, but it also creates lasting bonds and ensures constructive cooperation. Our evaluation study shows that this has been appreciated and that there are needs to do more.

As the conversations on hubs advance, we are happy to contribute, learn from others, and adjust our approach. And we are very excited for this new chapter – the restructuring will serve the Wikimedia Movement with more people on board, more possibilities and more opportunities to adjust to not only adjust to the changing world but also proactively shape it with increasing the impact of free knowledge.

1 The Digital Single Market strategy was adopted on 6 May 2015 and is one of the European Commission’s 10 political priorities. It is made up of three policy pillars: Improving access to digital goods and services; An environment where digital networks and services can prosper; Digital as a driver for growth. More on https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/cache/infographs/ict/bloc-4.html