Dialogue between EU and citizens ‘must be a continuous process’

KBF Newsletter, 08.05.2019


Link to interview

Building a stronger connection with its citizens is a challenge that the European Union (EU) has long grappled with, and has been pursuing again in the framework of the European Citizens' Consultations (ECCs).

Combining a citizen-led transnational online questionnaire with existing European Commission Citizens' Dialogues, and member states' varied efforts aiming to connect to citizens, generated some confusion and inconsistency, but the process is valuable and promising if the political backing exists, say analysts at the European Policy Centre (EPC).

Ahead of Europe Day and the Sibiu Leader's Summit, on 9 May, EPC Director of Studies Janis A. Emmanouilidis told us that creating and nurturing genuine participation must be treated seriously as a continuously evolving process that is worthwhile pursuing.

Question: We've been here before – is there anything new in this citizens' participation project?

Emmanouilidis: "Finding ways of involving citizens in the debate about the state and the future of Europe has always made sense. But there were three things which were different this time. First, in 2017, the European Commission came up with five potential scenarios on the future of Europe, that were discussed subsequently throughout Europe in the framework of "Citizens' Dialogues".

Second, the circumstance that French President Macron initiated and advocated a new form of dialogue with European citizens was probably the biggest difference compared with the past. You had a highly prominent and influential political figure who had done something similar at national level and was strongly pushing also for a 'bottom-up' discussion on the future of Europe in France and beyond. In terms of the process, all member states were involved in the ECCs. The heads of state and government would not have supported the initiative, if President Macron would have not strongly pushed for it.

Last but not least, we are witnessing a new discussion on the future of democracy at all levels of policy-making. Democracy is a dynamic concept that needs to be adapted over time. Today, there is a need to identify new ways of involving citizens beyond their right to simply vote in elections. All levels of governance, including the European one, need to find ways how to effectively respond to this call for more citizens participation.

For all the above reasons, the involvement of citizens had a different quality than in the past – it wasn't just a side dish. One can always be critical and, for example, argue that the backing for the ECCs was not strong enough, or not equally strong throughout the member states, but I think that it has been somewhat different to previous experiences."

Question: What does the EU want to know from citizens?

Emmanouilidis: "The EU and its members need to know what European citizens consider to be the biggest challenges, and what priorities the European level should set in the years to come. It is not about yet another debate on the finality of the European integration process; we actually don't need another abstract discussion on the future of Europe, given that we know that member states will not be able to agree. We need a more concrete discussion about the strategic priorities for 2019-2024."

Question: What have been the key challenges in carrying it out?

Emmanouilidis: "You have contrasting cultures of dialogue and debate in different members states. We need to reflect that when engaging with citizens throughout Europe. At the same time, one needs to also make sure that the process of engaging citizens is 'scripted' enough to be able to compare the findings and draw conclusions at European level. The member states organized the ECCs in very different ways. Some just rebranded some of the actions which they already had in mind. Others were more innovative and tried to find more interactive ways of engaging with citizens.

One also needs to think a lot about how the process can extend beyond the 'usual suspects' – often you only attract and reach those who are already interested. In addition, citizens must feel that their voice matters and that they are not there to be 'brainwashed'. So, you need to be careful how you structure the dialogue with European citizens.

Finally, I think that it is necessary to organize this process in a more decentralized fashion, also involving actors who are independent of national or European institutions. Most importantly, decision-makers need to take the process seriously and develop it over time. This is no easy exercise; it is very difficult to engage people and be able to convincingly argue that 'this is what people really want'. But the effort is very much worthwhile and necessary as an input into the national and trans-national debate about Europe's future."

Question: Ahead of a change in leadership at the EU, how do you see the future for enhanced citizen participation?

Emmanouilidis: "Enhancing representative democracy is one thing. But finding new avenues involving citizens is another, and they both need each other – they're complementary, not antagonistic.

There is a need to further develop the process and to improve how European Citizens Consultations are conducted throughout the EU. The outcome of ECCs needs to be taken seriously; it needs to influence the debates that matter between member states at the highest political level. It is by no means certain that this will be the case this time around. There is also a danger that the process will be sidelined and only re-emerge when we will move towards the next European elections in 2024. This would definitely be the wrong thing to do.

That's not how it should work. On the contrary, the process of conducting ECCs should be further improved. The EU and its members need to create a culture of civic engagement by actively involving citizens in the European decision-shaping process. It's enormously difficult to quantify the success of this process. But even if it's something 'soft', and also difficult to assess, it's very much worthwhile doing. At the end of the day, we will only be able to judge the significance of the ECCs in retrospect, in five or ten years. Maybe we'll look back and say it was just another attempt to involve citizens which led nowhere, or we'll realise it was the beginning of something worthwhile that was picked up and further developed by the next European Commission and the member states."

Question: Where do you think the dangers lie?

Emmanouilidis: "There are a number of risks and deficits. First, I don't think a lot of citizens were really aware of the consultation process and it was not strong enough to reach the 'unusual suspects'. Second, there is a danger that those who were involved will ask themselves: 'So what? We were asked to express our views, what we considered to be important, what we think needs to be done, but did this actually feed into the process? Did it make a difference?' The entire process might backfire, if citizens get the impression that the ECCs were nothing more than a fig leaf, that it was not really something that was cherished as being of added value.

When the heads of state and government have the discussion about the future of Europe, and then draft the Union's Strategic Agenda for 2019-2024, the question is whether they will take these consultations into account. If they do not take the process seriously, some will argue 'we tried all this, it didn't work, why try it again?' Others could say it was actually counterproductive because false expectations were raised, given that the voices of citizens were not taken seriously".

Question: Can we make this work?

"Yes. There clearly is a need to establish more innovative ways of involving citizens and the European Citizens Consultations were a right move in the right direction. But the process can obviously be improved. Its success will ultimately depend on the willingness of the EU and its members to support and further reform the process. The quality of European democracy will profit from these efforts – provided that national governments and EU institutions invest in it".

Link to interview here

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