A Citizens’ Europe: From buzzword to reality

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
A Citizens’ Europe: From buzzword to reality
Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) - Citizens' panel, plenary session. Credit: EP

A vibrant and resilient European democracy requires meaningful citizen participation. The European Union often speaks of a “Europe of citizens,” and it has created many participation opportunities.

But the image of a distant and complex EU apparatus, where decisions are made behind closed doors, persists. 54 % of all Europeans believe that their opinion does not count in the EU. Only 15 % find it simple to participate in EU politics. The EU strives to be democratic and participatory, but if it is not perceived as such, it ultimately has a legitimacy problem.

That is why European leaders initiated the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE). It included citizens from all walks of life in policy discussions and aimed at giving new impetus and perspective on the topic of European integration. And, the citizens who did participate in the process, really did deliver. However, the Conference itself operated in the shadow of the European public, and was to a large extent ignored by media.

Just how easy is it for citizens to participate in European politics? What remains of the Conference? And how can the EU give life to the idea of a citizens’ Europe while generating true impact?

Three gaps in EU’s current citizen participation instruments

It might come as a surprise that the EU has more political participation tools than many of its member states. Citizens can vote for the European Parliament, submit petitions, launch or simply sign a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), express their views on legislative proposals in consultations and participate in EU citizens’ dialogues. Unfortunately, except for the European elections, citizens are hardly aware of the existence of these possibilities. Brussels remains distant and abstract.

A patchwork of participation instruments does exist, but a coherent comprehensive or effective citizen participation infrastructure does not. This is mainly due to three gaps that need to be addressed.

First, the awareness gap. The EU participation landscape is terra incognita for most people living in the EU. Citizens want to participate, but often feel that their opinion does not count. They believe it is difficult to participate in EU policy-making processes and know little about their concrete options. The media in member states rarely reports on the various ways in which people can participate in European politics.

Second, the performance gap. The existing EU participation instruments are not used to their full potential. Participation with them is not very representative—it is mostly a small group of well-educated EU supporters who participate and use them. Most instruments are only marginally transnational, and cross-country interaction is missing. Citizens are often left in the dark about how their participation is reflected in EU decision-making processes. All in all, the true impact of participatory instruments on EU policymaking remains marginal.

Third, the political commitment gap. Citizen participation in the EU lacks the political will it

needs to succeed. There is a gap between the Union’s rhetoric on participation and the action taken and resources invested to make citizens’ voices count. The understanding and knowledge of participation instruments is not well-established—not even among political insiders. Overall, political enthusiasm and institutional commitment for more citizen participation continues to be less than expected.

The Conference on the Future of Europe delivers proof of concept

The Conference on the Future of Europe had the potential to tackle these problems. While it has not become a turning point of European integration (there is simply no appetite among member states for fundamental strategic debates), it still has the chance to become a trailblazer for more and better citizen participation in the EU.

The European Citizens’ Panels were the most exciting and promising instrument. 800 randomly selected citizens from across Europe met on three weekends to discuss a wide range of political challenges and establish priorities for the EU in four thematic Citizens’ Panels.

The European citizens’ panels were by no means perfect as the topics were too big, the deliberative depth and quality of the discussions too low, and the connection to the plenary assembly of the conference not transparent enough.

Nevertheless, the fact that citizens from 27 countries were able to communicate and agree in 24 languages can be considered a success. Based on the ideas and proposals of the citizens’ panels, the plenary assembly of the Conference agreed on far-reaching political recommendations. And all of a sudden, the debate on treaty changes is back on the table.

There appears to be a new political willingness to involve citizens in a more concrete way when it comes to European politics. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised that “in future we will give the citizens’ panels the time and resources so that they can make recommendations before we present major legislative proposals”. In other words: The citizens’ panels will soon become a new participation instrument in the EU.

More and better citizen participation is not a nice-to-have

Now the EU’s largest democracy experiment must be transformed into sustainable participation structures. Participation rhetoric and participation reality must be aligned.

It is precisely the transnational character of the panels, with exchanges across borders and cultures, that makes citizens’ debates on European issues valuable. The participation of people from across Europe—with different socio-cultural and linguistic backgrounds in complex European policy-making—is both fascinating and challenging.

How can and should citizen panels be implemented requires asking both technical and political questions? What level of personal involvement can be expected from ordinary citizens? How can citizens be supported by expert knowledge? And, how can such an instrument be seamlessly anchored in the EU’s political system? The political will of European leaders is key and their openness and courage is needed to take EU citizens’ participation to the next level.

The promise of increased and better use of European Citizen Panels requires an investment in resources and participatory know-how. The administration must have the knowledge what constitutes good citizen participation and what framework conditions are needed.

The European Commission has already established a new Competence Centre on Participatory and Deliberative Democracy. But what is really needed is a total makeover of administrative cultures, and an understanding that citizens need to be involved early on in policy processes. It might be time-consuming, tiring and exhausting even, but in the end, it will be worth it.

Ultimately, the EU needs a central online hub for all participation tools. A user-friendly website with a central entry point for all Europeans. The hub must ensure that all participation instruments are accessible, that participation opportunities are clearly communicated and that all EU citizens can interact in their own language.

More and better citizen participation is not a communication exercise or a nice-to-have democratic extra; it is an essential part of defending and developing European democracy.

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