14th Apr 2021


EU citizen consultation as necessary as ever

We are glad to see that the European Citizens Consultations attracted your attention. Your commentary, "Why it may not be right to consult the people", demonstrated clearly that a discussion on involving citizens in EU policy-making is as necessary as ever.

Your objection to involving lay citizens in a debate about the future of Europe seems to be that it is a waste of money and politically undesirable. Let us deal with the desirability issue first.

Read and decide

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For many years, we have seen more and more people shy away from traditional modes of political participation. At the same, though, research reveals that they do want to participate – just not in the traditional way.

Studies show that protests, petitions and elite-challenging participation of all kinds are increasing. But this kind of participation is often very skewed both socially and politically: those who are more educated, who have more resources and who also hold more extreme views tend to engage in those forms of participation more than others.

However, policy-makers do need to be provided with information about people's concerns and preferences in order to formulate policies which respond to their interests.

What we need therefore is a way for people to articulate their interests beyond the traditional methods which allows everyone - from all walks of life and from all countries - to speak their minds.

Initiatives that people trust

We need initiatives that people trust; initiatives brewed in civil society. We need to overcome interaction problems between ordinary Europeans of different languages and cultural background which they tend to face when they try to make their voice heard.

Initiatives like the European Citizens' Consultations provide a forum for citizens to exchange ideas, to express their concerns and to make their voices heard. They give a significant number of citizens the opportunity to share the experience of people like 63-year-old Berlin pensioner Günter Langanke, who took part in the German national consultation and said afterwards: "I learned a lot about democracy and participation. Everyone could voice their opinion and all voices were heard. I have never experienced something like this."

This does not mean that citizen participation projects aim to become a form of 'ersatz' democracy. They reinforce democracy by going back to the citizens and consulting them.

Citizens' participation fosters active citizenship. This is the basis of any well-functioning party or representative democracy – not a competitor to it - and active citizenship means more than going to the ballot box once every four years, more than being the recipient of advertisements and brochures explaining the work of the EU's institutions and outlining its achievements and goals. It means being able to share and discuss one's views with fellow citizens all over Europe.

Waste of time and money?

You go on to predict that this largest ever deliberation on the future of Europe among lay citizens will prove useless, a waste of time and money. The evidence of the events held so far contradicts this.

The European Commission and 20 European foundations are supporting this project. Has their money been invested badly? We do not think so.

The primary objective of the European Citizens Consultations is to provide to EU policy-makers a new source of information. The outcomes go far beyond what opinion polls can provide, and they are much more than individual wish lists: They are the result of people listening to each other and respecting each other's point of view across boundaries of education, geography and language. This is information of the kind which has been mostly unavailable in Europe so far.

Moreover, the European Citizens Consultations raise awareness among policy-makers, stakeholders and the wider public of the value of involving more than just the usual suspects in the debate about how Europe should develop.

The media response to the launch event last October and to the national consultations - including TV coverage, radio interviews, press articles and comments like yours - shows that we are well on our way to achieving this goal.

A final remark: citizens' participation is not only necessary and therefore a good investment. The European Citizens' Consultations are also demonstrating that dialogue among lay people about a shared European future is entirely feasible – rebutting the all too convenient and lazy cynicism of those who argue citizens are unmotivated, incompetent and generally unable to join in the debate.

Active and competent citizens are essential to any democracy. This was one of the key lessons of the events of May 2005.

Gerrit Rauws is director of the King Baudouin Foundation, Felix Oldenburg is head of new governance at the Institut für Organisationskommunikation, IFOK


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

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