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A consultative Council of Citizens: for a new policy of participation in Europe

People are no longer content simply to take part in elections and to delegate all their power to political representatives. If Europe wants to create a direct link with the people, there is no other solution than to put the latter in a position to communicate with it.

This article is part of a series we are publishing this summer from Eutopia Magazine – ideas for Europe. Eutopia sets out to create a place for European citizens to analyze the issues most relevant to their future by openly debating them with authoritative voices in each field. Here, some important conclusions are drawn from the recent European elections. 

The election results, characterised by very limited participation and the rise of Europhobic parties, show how much the European project is once again endangered. In Europe, unprecedented attempts at communication were made in an effort to become better known and loved. For the first time, the EU attempted to organise a real pan-European electoral competition, and the European Parliament led a policy of active communication, particularly through social networks, to motivate people’s interest in the elections. But we need to note that these efforts were insufficient to restore the charm of the European project.

According to almost everybody, the various television debates between the candidates for the European political parties – a major advance in the attempt to create the utopian European public space – were quite dull, particularly because of the protagonists’ use of language, and the fact that none of the main candidates was capable of offering any true alternatives. It was as if the only alternative proposed by European politics was either to adhere to the centre-right/centre-left European project as it exists (incarnated by the institutional pair Juncker/Schultz), the other parties counting for almost nothing, or to leave this scheme entirely by adhering to the one represented by all the anti-European parties.

It is even probable that splitting the European elections into two (elections for the European members of parliament and for the nomination for the President of the Commission) created more confusion within the electoral body than it brought clarification. This all the more since the European Council hesitated to adopt the candidate of the European Parliament to the Commission: a fatal signal for an already fragile European democratic legitimacy. In these conditions, it is indeed regrettable but not surprising that in some countries, for instance in France, the debates on the nomination of the president of the Commission were not aired on all the public TV channels. 

In any case, the way in which the EU has approached democracy recently has ignored the increasing expectations of European citizens to be involved in the process. As most opinion polls show, people are no longer content simply to take part in elections and to delegate all their power to political representatives; they also want to have a say in between the elections and not to be left on the fringe. They search for new means of political involvement and are always requesting more direct forms of participation. It is partly this feeling of powerlessness with regards to the Brussels elites that the leaders of the Europhobic parties have figured out how to mobilise.

We propose a Copernican revolution in the effort to democratise the EU, starting with the idea that it is necessary to reinvent the European community by encouraging citizens from different EU member states to discuss issues with each other. A mutual solidarity and even a loyalty towards European institutions among citizens can develop through the strong habit of participating in transnational debates. However, it is impossible to expect that citizens spontaneously turn towards Europe. Europe will only be able to interest, and to be understood by, its citizens if it moves towards them, by putting them in a position where they can inform themselves and discuss European stakes. In this way Europe would show that it is not removed from the people’s preoccupations.

This is what the EU began to understand after the failure of the Dutch and French referendums in 2005 on the European Constitutional Treaty, through the development of a new communication strategy – notably the D Plan, Debate Europe, e-Europe – which considers the citizen as a critical interlocutor, and no longer a simple abstract entity to whom the validity of the European project is promoted by means of well put together flyers, ad spots and Internet sites.

Within this framework, numerous citizen consultation projects (such as, for example, the European Citizens Consultations, Europolis, and Ideal-EU) have been tried, gathering randomly chosen citizens from different countries, with financing from the Commission and the European Parliament. What comes out of these experiments is the citizens’ great satisfaction at being invited to discuss European questions for a day or two, the impression that they have become better informed, a favourable open mind with regards to the European project and a certain evolution in their points of view. On the other hand, these same citizens were often disappointed by the fact that these experiences had no direct impact on the political leaders.

The necessary second step for a truly participative EU should have consisted of spreading this citizen commitment by selecting a model from amongst the consultations that was most easily reproduced. This has not been the case, however. The participative project was aborted without any justification, and was replaced by the European rhetoric of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which, further to the request of a million citizens in at least seven member States, offers the possibility of asking the Commission to initiate a legislative proposition. This is a fatal error, because the ECI is above all an instrument in the service of organised groups capable of mobilising enough human, technical and financial means to gather a million signatures in twelve months. However necessary, it does not fulfil the functions of citizen participation and pan-European deliberation, as European consultations do.

To rekindle this aborted revolution in the way citizens participate, our proposition is to organise wide-ranging citizen debates covering major European issues, through a multitude of local, regional, national, as well as transnational consultations. The latter should be organised in a decentralised manner, throughout the year, with groups representing the various opinions present in society, who would be chosen at random, based on socio-demographic criteria (for instance, age, education, sex, nationality).

In order to manage these debates in the long term, we suggest putting in place a European consultative Council of Citizens, which would give permanence and a tangible impact to the consultations, and which could develop its actions according to longterm stakes (between ten and thirty years). It goes without saying that the consultative Council would have no decisional power, but it should not be in a position to be ignored by the economic and political actors. The three decisional institutions of the EU – the European Parliament, the Commission, and the Council – would officially have to take into consideration the recommendations (and questions) elaborated by this European Citizen Consultative Council. 

A current example of such issues might be the question of the legislative treatment of data protection that raises important issues in society. On questions that are so central to daily life, it is not enough that the Commission contents itself with presenting regulations of general scope on data protection, even with the consent of the European Parliament. The adoption of these regulations has actually been delayed by the European Union Council (particularly by Germany), as well as by massive pressure from the lobbyists in the information technology industry. Citizens must be able to act efficiently to defend their fundamental rights, thanks to coordinated transnational consultative procedures. Such a process would surely contribute to adequately addressing the aspirations of citizens to participate and to be a counter-weight to the dominance of organised interests. 

The second example is the development of a European energy policy. Just as at the time of the founding fathers’ European Coal and Steel Community, the energy question remains at the heart of the EU, but it now also aims to deal with climate change, increase the role of renewable energy, and limit dependence on third party energy suppliers. The realisation of these ambitions demands great projects of infrastructure and long term political commitment, which cannot be made only by experts but also necessitates the strong involvement of European citizens. The question is not only to determine the best balance between different sources of energy, but also how this new energy policy should be implemented. Do we want central solutions for the development of renewable sources of energy, or would decentralised solutions be better, for instance a cooperative and municipal supply? It follows that in order to agree an enlarged and shared European energy policy, it is necessary to link local citizen participation with general debates going on at the supranational and national levels. This would certainly contribute to revitalising the European political project.

Of course, the idea of such a Council of Citizens will disturb most of those currently in government. They will argue that it is too complicated to create, non-representative, dangerous, and costly. But Europe has a unique political system which is quite different from national politics, founded as it was on the idea of solidarity arising out of Europe’s particular history.

If Europe wants to create a direct link with the people, there is no other solution than to put the latter in a position to communicate with it. Obviously, for citizen commitment to be taken seriously by institutions and the media, it is essential that sizeable financial resources and a competent professional staff be put at the disposal of this new Council of Citizens. Particular attention will need to be brought to the selection of participants, to the information distributed to them, to the choice of experts and moderators who will manage the debates, and to the diffusion of those debates in collaboration with traditional media, so that the largest possible number of citizens may participate (also through the Internet) and be informed about it.

The democratic legitimacy of the European Union and probably its existence must necessarily include wider engagement of and with the citizen. The cost is worth it. 

This article was first published on Eutopia on July 21, 2014.

About the authors

Raphaël Kies is a researcher in Political Science and member of the Research Chair in Legislative Studies at the University of Luxembourg. Among his publications are: Is Europe listening to us? Successes and Failures of EU Citizen Consultations (ed. with Patrizia Nanz, London, Ashgate Publishing 2013), French translation: Les nouvelles voix de l’Europe? Analyses des consultations citoyennes (with a foreword by EU-Commissioner Viviane Reding, Editions Larcier/De Boeck 2014); Promises and Limits of web-deliberation (New York, Palgrave 2010).

Patrizia Nanz is Professor for Political Theory at the University of Bremen and chair of the European Institute for Public Participation (EIPP). She is head of the research area “Culture of Participation and Democracy” at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (KWI) in Essen. Among her recent publications are: Is Europe listening to us? Successes and Failures of EU Citizen Consultations (ed. with Raphael Kies, Ashgate Publishing, 2013). 


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