15th May 2021

MEPs plan citizen 'agoras' to boost EU debate

The European Parliament's political group leaders are considering to create regular forums for citizens to debate the same draft laws as MEPs in Brussels or Strasbourg - but critics warn the plan may prove a lip service to bringing citizens closer to the EU.

The idea of "agoras" has been filed by the parliament's vice-president, French Green MEP Gerard Onesta whose original ambition was to present the project to the public exactly one year after his co-citizens rejected the new EU constitution, on 29 May.

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"Through the no vote in the Netherlands and France - I hope - the citizens did not say no to Europe but they said stop! Now we want to participate. Please help us to participate," Mr Onesta told EUobserver.

Under his proposal, the parliament would organise five to six forums per year with around 300 participants to discuss issues chosen by the parliament's political group leaders.

The list of citizens to attend the agoras would be prepared by the parliament's committees dealing with the EU laws or issues under debate in the agora session concerned.

Mr Onesta said he had received informal support from the parliament group leaders for his project, with the final verdict expected in early June - although for the moment only for a pilot period of one year.

"We can't have all the citizens of Europe at one square as it was happening at agoras in ancient Greece, but this new instrument could still prove better than nothing as it would create a platform for a real European civil society," he added.

Brussels talking to Brussels

But first reactions by MEPs and analysts indicate the Onesta plan is set to spark questions and scepticism, mainly over who should be invited to such forums and what should be the outcome.

"It sounds interesting and definitely worth a try," commented Finnish centre-right MEP Alexander Stubb.

"But there's a danger of sidelining democratically-elected representatives by a forum of non-elected groups which are not responsible to anyone."

Mr Onesta is aware the agoras may be viewed as another way of lobbying by participants from sectors affected by particular laws - such as REACH, a draft bill on chemicals which could be first on the agenda of one of next year's agora sessions, ahead of a second reading by MEPs.

"But the difference is that this would be transparent, not in the corridors...People from these organisations would meet in one room and present their arguments in public. And maybe some MEPs could be inspired and use some of the points in their own reports," he argued.

Jackie Davies, analyst at the European Policy Centre, warned the public perception of parliament activities would not improve if the agoras were fillled with Brussels-based lobbyists and NGOs.

"It may seem like the MEPs preaching to the converted or Brussels talking to Brussels, especially when complicated issues such as REACH will be debated," she said.

Citizens' debate orchestrated by MEPs?

But Mr Onesta insists the MEPs should at least give the plan a try, arguing the agoras would create a platform for people from different EU countries to interact.

"Why does everybody in the UK want Turkey and in France everybody is afraid? If we don't create a European bubble to push the civil society of UK and France to talk among themselves, it is a pity, and we basically have to stop Europe as it means nothing," he said.

Danish eurosceptic MEP Jens Peter Bonde argues such a debate should not be managed and orchestrated by the MEPs.

"It should be a bottom-up initiative, not all managed by the parliament - I no longer trust such arrangements as they never fully involve those with minority opinions, just like when the constitution was being drafted," he said.

British Labour MEP Richard Corbett agrees it is always difficult to organise such giant forums although he believes there's no harm in trying new ways to widen the debate.

But he stressed "MEPs themselves - if they do their job properly - can help create links between the parliament and citizens - to connect with them and listen to them."

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