25th Sep 2023

Brussels to launch citizens charm offensive

EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – The European Commission is to announce a major "listening exercise" in a bid to curry favour with citizens who have become disillusioned with the EU.

The commission’s "Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate", obtained by the EUobserver, will be presented on Thursday (13 October) by communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom.

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The plan is part of the commission’s contribution to the "period of reflection" called by EU leaders in June, following the French and Dutch rejections of the EU constitution.

But key parts of the proposal put the ball firmly in the member states’ court, by urging governments to start a series of national debates on the political role of the EU.

It calls on the 25 national governments to "take the necessary steps to structure a national debate as soon as possible" and agree on a "feedback process".

The commission stresses that Plan D should not be seen "as a rescue operation for the constitution", but it does suggest the debates should focus on the economy, the EU's competencies and the EU's role in the world.

Opening up its own polices for questioning, the commission says proper feedback from the debates should ensure that there will be "a direct impact on the policy agenda of the European Union."

Goodwill ambassadors

In its plan, the commission also commits itself to a better communication with citizens.

Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and Mrs Wallstrom will undertake a series of visits to as many of the member states as possible, accompanied by the commissioners from the member states themselves.

"A particular effort will be made in the coming months", Plan D announces.

Commissioners will also make themselves more readily available to be heard before national parliaments – a step seen as key to improving the Union’s legitimacy.

"A greater voice to Parliaments is a greater voice to Europe’s citizens", the text says.

Moreover, the commission seeks to connect to citizens through the help of "European Goodwill Ambassadors" modelled along the United Nations example.

The involvement of celebrities led to positive experiences in EU membership referendums in the new member states, as well as in Spain’s referendum on the EU constitution, a commission source explained.

\"People want their politics back\"

But some are unsure about how helpful the communications strategy will prove to be.

Speaking about the idea for national debates, Daniel Keohane, expert at the Centre for European Reform, said he welcomed the plan, but feared citizens were no longer in the mood to "reflect".

"It is not very clear for people what to reflect upon. There is no new treaty that they can now approve or disapprove. People rather demand less talk and more action from the EU.", Mr Keohane stated.

Meanwhile, Hans Anker, an independent pollster who has extensively researched public opinion on the EU for different Dutch governments, said that he "grows nervous" while reading Plan D.

By focusing its efforts on listening exercises, debates and communication, the commission denies its own deeply political nature, Mr Anker told the EUobserver.

"So the Commission is going to "inform" and "listen". The thing is, citizens are way beyond that. They want to see real political conflict and form an opinion, as they did in France ad the Netherlands on the European constitution, and most important, they want to have a say in it."

He said that the European Commission "appears to fail to understand" that it itself is a deeply political entity and that people want to have a say on what it is doing.

"People want their politics back. Many citizens in many member states not only increasingly feel they are being forced to give up their national identity, they also feel they have been robbed of their politics."

Mr Anker said that a communication effort may help, but that it will not solve the EU’s crisis of legitimacy.

"Whether we like it or not, we will need important reform of the European institutions, aimed at allowing politics - agreement as well as disagreement - to shine through."


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