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The Launch: Margot Wallström and citizen engagement

J Clive Matthews
19 September 2007
Wallstrom and Giscard d'Estaing

As first Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, Margot Wallström is one of the highest-profile members of that group of 27 appointed politicians that make up the EU institution most often attacked as undemocratic and unaccountable.

As the initial source of almost all EU legislation, it is also the European Commission which is usually the first target of the many criticisms leveled at the workings of the European Union, and the EU institution that most agree is the most in need of serious reform. It's a problem of which Wallström seems fully aware - not least because she has come in for more than her fair share of criticism thanks to her high public profile.

The first commissioner to launch a blog, in an attempt to improve dialogue and show that the Commission has a human face, over the three years since her appointment (she previously served as Commissioner for the Environment from 1999-2004) she has repeatedly professed her desire to increase the EU's democratic accountability, launching her "Plan D" (for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate) following the rejection of the European Constitution by French and Dutch voters. The Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll is the last in a series of Plan D initiatives, so little wonder that Wallström was the first to speak.

She started by stating four aims: to give EU citizens a voice in decision-making, to engage the Commission and get it to listen, to make EU policies understandable and relevant, and to make all EU institutions accountable.

For any democratically-minded person, those should all sound laudible, yet the problem with being a member of the European Commission is that it's very hard to please. Wallström has repeatedly been attacked by EU-sceptics as the union's "propagandist in chief", with the comments to her blog packed out with angy opponents of the EU venting their dismay at pretty much everything she - or the Commission at large - has to say.

But it's not just EU-sceptics - as Wallström herself pointed out in her speech, "There are many who would prefer to keep this to a small political elite, who feel that citizen participation will just complicate things".

To win over the members of this elite - the people most responsible for the EU's current crisis - ways must be found to prove that it is possible to get the input of the hundreds of millions of EU citizens without creating yet further stalemate and stagnation.

The Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll is the latest attempt to get this input in a coherent and usable form. As Wallström said at the close of her speech, "I hope this project will help us understand how we can understand public opinion better".

In other words, to succeed in making the EU more deomcratic (something Wallström acknowledges as vital for further progress and reform to be achieved) never mind winning over the hearts and minds of the ordinary citizen - the first step is to convince the EU itself that the people's opinion should count.

It may sound incredible that any developed society could consider ignoring the people - but can nearly half a billion people in 27 different countries and speaking 23 official languages really be said to hold an opinion? Is it possible to discern "what the people of Europe want"?

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