Europe Day: How to increase citizen participation in the EU

Europe Day: How to increase citizen participation in the EU
Credit: Bertelsmann Foundation

The European Union lacks a functioning infrastructure for citizens’ political participation according to a new study conducted jointly by the Bertelsmann Foundation and the European Policy Centre (EPC).

The study was launched in 2019 and was published timely after the final plenary session of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), just ahead of Europe Day on 9 May 2022.

This first phase of the conference resulted in an agreed  set of 49 detailed proposals, each one with an overall objective and  altogether over 300 concrete measures for implementation, based on feedback and ideas from  citizens participating in the plenary and previous citizens panels.

The overall conclusion in the study might come as a surprise considering that the EU already has a number of citizen participation instruments, including elections to the European Parliament, the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI), Petitions to the European Parliament, the European Ombudsman, Public Consultations, the Citizens’ Dialogues and the European Citizens’ Consultations.

“We didn’t focus at the conference which was an unfolding event during our study,” said Corina Stratulat, Head of the European Politics and Institutions Programme at EPC, “but the conference confirms the gaps that we identified in the existing instruments.”

The study used several empirical data collection methods, including semi-structured interviews and a survey of nearly 100 political decision-makers and EU democracy experts, and a representative EU-wide population survey conducted in March 2020, with a total of 11,467 respondents.

As in any democracy, it is of vital importance for EU that citizens are able to participate in political decision-making in a variety of ways. Yet the overall framework for European-level participation today is far from robust and citizens are offered a patchwork of citizen participation instruments. Most European citizens are unaware of these instruments or know little about them.

“In order to improve citizen participation, the EU needs to build a participation infrastructure,” commented Dominik Hierlemann, a senior expert on citizen participation at the Bertelsmann Foundation. “To be perceived as legitimate, democracy in the EU needs more than just elections every five years.”

The study identified three gaps in the existing citizen participation instruments.

The awareness gap: Only 15% of respondents said they found it easy to participate in politics at the European level, compared to 25% at the national level and a much higher 46% at the local level. The analysis indicates that this is not primarily because existing EU participation instruments, with the exception of the European elections, are difficult to use. Rather, they are simply not well-known.

The performance gap: Most existing participation instruments offer considerable room for improvement. Not only are they largely unknown; they also have relatively little political influence on European policymaking. Only a quarter of the democracy experts interviewed for the study said that the instruments function as they should.

The political commitment gap: Only 17% of the EU democracy experts said they believed the EU successfully facilitates citizen participation at the European level. There is a gap between the EU rhetoric of a “Europe of citizens” and the actual practice of EU citizen participation. Levels of understanding and knowledge regarding existing participation instruments are low.

To what extent do the results in the expert survey and the citizens survey converge or agree? 

“The purposes of both polls differ,” Dominik Hierlemann told The Brussels Times. “The expert survey was an evaluation of the whole system while the citizens survey focused on citizens’ knowledge and perception of opportunities to participate and influence the EU. Still, there are interesting points of overlap.”

“We can see in both polls that the lack of visibility is among the main problems. 95% of all experts disagree with the statement “The existing EU participation instruments are sufficiently known and used.” The average score on visibility among all instruments is the lowest average among the criteria we used. Citizens find it difficult to differentiate between existing and fictional instruments.”

“Furthermore, we see similar results as regards impact. When we asked citizens what holds them back from participation, the largest number (32%) argued that they believe that their participation does not make a difference. Of the experts, 83% disagree with the statement “All things considered, the EU institutions are successful in facilitating citizen participation.”

Do the results differ by member states because of different attitudes to the EU or experiences of national instruments for citizens participation?

“Actually, in general deviations are not huge,” he explained, “although some notable ones exist.” When asked how citizens can participate in the EU, respondents were given 4 existing instruments and 4 fictional instruments.

“In France, only 36% chose elections to the European parliament (49% EU average). By far the highest percentage in terms of voting in the European elections was recorded in Poland with 63%. When it comes to how easy or difficult it is to participate in EU politics, 28% of all Polish respondents replied that it’s easy or rather easy, compared to only 10% in Italy and 11% in France (EU average 15%).”

Overall, it emerges from the study that there is room for improvement in most instruments. Could you exemplify?  

“Indeed, we list several points of improvement for each instrument. As regards for example European elections, in fact, 27 national elections take place rather than one European election, both in terms of procedure and debate. Reform proposals for increased democratic legitimacy (lead candidates, transnational lists) are either incomplete or blocked.”

Another example is the European Citizens Initiative. Despite some success stories, its visibility is extremely low, with only a very small proportion of EU citizens knowing that the instrument exists. Organisers are limited in their opportunities to campaign digitally and only very few reach the one million signature threshold.

The study has also included the European Ombudsman as an instrument for citizen participation despite its focus on individual complaint. Why?

“Complaining to the Ombudsman is an act of participation and holding the EU administration democratically accountable,” Dominik Hierlemann replied. “The Ombudsman institution was created for this purpose, to make EU citizenship work in practice and to ensure that the European public administration is transparent to citizens.”

What new instruments have the potential of strengthening citizen participation? 

“We belief, as a result of the Conference on the future of Europe and experiences at the national level, that an institutionalized and permanent European citizens assembly could substantially reinforce EU citizens participation.”

The list of proposals adopted by CoFoE does include a measure (proposal 36, measure 7) on “Holding Citizens’ assemblies periodically, on the basis of legally binding EU law” as a complement to representative democracy.

As regards the idea of transnational lists, the European Parliament adopted on 3 May a resolution on reforming the European Electoral Act, including the establishment of an EU-wide constituency to elect 28 MEPs from transnational lists in addition to the 705 MEPs elected in national or regional constituencies.

In this form, with a limited number of seats for transnational lists, the proposal does not go very far and changes will have to be incremental. The CoFoE adopted a similar measure (proposal 38, measure 3) on “moving towards voting for Union-wide lists, or ‘transnational lists’, with candidates from multiple member states” but without limiting the number of seats.

The study concludes that building up a citizens participation infrastructure requires cultural change. It must move from being a "nice to have" to becoming an integral part of EU democracy. For this to happen the EU institutions must work out and agree on a common strategy with the member states. Joint communication efforts are required to make the participation infrastructure visible to the general public.

More concretely, and referring to CoFoE, an EU participation infrastructure needs a central, user-friendly and clear online platform for all participation instruments in order to enable networking opportunities, effective communication and political education on EU citizen participation. Modern citizen participation also needs stronger digital components.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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