Friday

26th Feb 2021

Opinion

Involving people in EU governance

  • 'A Union for the Citizens' is the aspirational label Luxembourg gave to its EU presidency programme (Photo: Charles Caratini)

“A Union for the Citizens” is the aspirational label Luxembourg gave to its EU presidency programme.

Commitments range from gender equality to the labelling of fats, but also include promises of an “open approach” and “listening to citizens”.

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  • The debate around TTIP illustrates the broader problem of EU governance (Photo: Greens EFA)

There is little new in this pledge: a collection of well-intended priorities couched in transparency and accountability soundbites.

Transparency and accountability of the EU refers to EU governance. But EU governance is about much more: the content of decisions and the processes that lead to those decisions.

The quality of the final policies depends on how input is managed, who joins the debate, how consultations are set up, what standards and rules define the activities of the responsible officials and lawmakers. Finally, it’s about how EU legislation is implemented, monitored and reviewed.

There is a general consensus that EU governance is not working.

There is no consensus on what should be done to improve it. It therefore comes as no surprise that the Grand Duchy has made no clear commitments on this. But the issue is unavoidable.

TTIP

Amidst Luxembourg’s programme is the intensification of discussions on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (Tee-TIP).

The debate around TTIP illustrates the broader problem of EU governance.

TTIP critics question its overarching and over-reaching structures, its dispute settlement mechanism that gives too much to the private sector, the risk of lowest common denominator on hard-fought standards, or simply the secrecy of negotiations.

These are content and process questions, and echo broader discussions about the EU institutions.

In March, during a discussion on TTIP hosted by the German Marshall Fund, vice-president of the European Commission Kristalina Georgieva gave her response: “Transparency. We are putting everything out so nothing is being hidden from our people.”

Importantly, she included the next step, taking the conversation to those people, “country by country, region by region, city by city”.

Georgieva’s comments represent half the solution on EU governance. Transparency is not enough by itself. Communication to citizens is not enough by itself. Member states need to be involved – but all of this requires a sequence.

Post-facto transparency is still de-facto secrecy.

Partnership

Earlier this year, the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, asked commission first vice-president Frans Timmermans to explore the Open Government Partnership (OGP) as a possible mechanism for improving EU governance.

The OGP initiative has 65 participating states, several multilateral partners and is exploring participation beyond states. 21 of the 65 participants are EU member states.

Each government works on an action plan with civil society to make governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens.

The First Vice-President’s response was disappointing. He preferred to focus on the “consolidation, improvement and development of the existing means [the commission] has put in place to achieve the highest standards of transparency and accountability.”

But the existing means are failing. For example, the European Citizens Initiative, the flagship initiative to allow direct citizen participation in the legislative process, has not led to the intended citizen-led legislation.

The European election turnout remains low.

The promise of a mandatory lobby register has yet to be fulfilled.

Meanwhile commission consultations, expert working groups, access to documents and information, the misuse of EU structural funds, the opaque trilogue process to negotiate legislation all question the integrity or accountability of the EU governance process.

Engaged citizens

Most of the ‘transparency initiatives’ have one thing in common: they allow EU citizens to physically or virtually engage with the EU.

But this is not enough. In this sense, Georgieva is right: the EU needs to go to citizens.

EU institutional transparency initiatives have yet to challenge the narrative that the EU institutions are distant and unaccountable.

The standard of EU governance should be a reason for citizens to want to stay in the Union, rather than an excuse to leave.

The OGP methodology represents a model for engaging with citizens that would actually give meaning to the soundbites around citizen participation.

The commission should start by asking EU member states committed to better governance through the OGP what they have learned and what could be taken to the EU institutions.

The next step would be to participate in the global OGP summit in October when France will take over as co-chair.

Momentum

The momentum could not be better since, after Luxembourg, the following six EU presidency holders are all OGP participants.

Each participating country has a coalition of civil society – engaged citizens – driving the process. OGP provides 21 ready-made national civil society coalitions for the EU to engage with.

Over 50 civil society organisations from across Europe asked the new EU leadership in 2014 to assess and engage with the OGP.

That call was repeated over the summer.

Civil society groups in Europe are not interested in the OGP as an end goal. The interest is in improved governance, better public policy and accountable institutions. OGP is a path for the EU to rethink the way it has been governed to date and to engage citizens in a partnership for reform.

As the EU leadership returns from its summer break, perhaps now is the time to explore fresh approaches to what has become an increasingly urgent problem.

Neil Campbell is deputy director of the Open Society European Policy Institute

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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