"We know how panels and deliberative polls work. We’ve tested the ground. They increased citizens' knowledge and enthusiasm for the EU. They worked," European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, responsible for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, told a European Policy Centre debate.
'Mainstreaming' consultation process
"Citizens' consultations must be mainstreamed and take place right at the start of the policymaking process. They can complement and boost representative democracy," Reding said.
Pilot consultations carried out in 2009 ahead of the EU elections represented the first-ever attempt to hold a pan-European debate involving citizens from all 27 of the bloc's member states.
But the commissioner warned that future consultations would have to respond to demand from policymakers if they were to genuinely influence the legislative process.
In last year's pilots, "discussions were too general and there was not enough time for detailed debate," Reding said. "The cost and skills level required to participate in the consultations was too high, and we cannot guarantee that policymakers will take them into account," she warned.
European Citizens' Consultations (ECCs) were given a new lease of life by the entry into force last December of the Lisbon Treaty, Article 11 of which states that "the institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action".
Vice-President Reding said Lisbon marks "a real watershed" in EU decision-making, because it "recognises that EU policy must be designed to benefit citizens and make sure that their voices are heard in the EU institutions".
"I'm not very favourable of talk-shops, but we need to consult before putting our proposals forward. NGOs can help to make the consultation process as effective as possible," Reding said.
"We've supported 9,000 projects and spent €250m on consultations so far. The challenge will be ensuring that the results feed directly into policymaking," she added.
"We need to justify that funding, ensure that work is sustainable and feeds into the broader political agenda and we need a better balance between small and large-scale proposals," she urged.
The commissioner announced plans to bring out "a comprehensive report" in the next few weeks proposing ways to overcome the obstacles faced by Europeans in exercising their rights as EU citizens.
"We've started to put Lisbon into action and in my department we've come forward with new policies, for example on divorce of multinational couples, criminal law and consumer law," she said, adding that now is the time to "put flesh" on Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s plans to put the citizen at the centre of the EU's agenda in his second term.
Issues to be addressed in the coming months include making sure that citizens can register their car in another EU member state and making sure that ex-pats do not lose their right to vote in their country of origin before they have registered to do so in their adopted home, Reding said.
Risk of creating 'talk-shops'
Participants in the debate warned that input from citizens must be followed by output from policymakers if consultations are to be a success.
"All Reding's ideas are policies directed AT the citizen. What we need to do is make them feel involved," said European Parliament Vice-President Diana Wallis (Liberal Democrats; UK).
"NGOs and lobbyists do a wonderful job and we couldn't do our work without them, but it's the citizen sat at home that we need to hear from. MEPs need a mechanism allowing them to say 'I need a citizens' consultation on this'," Wallis continued.
Others lamented the failure to harness the potential of ECCs so far. "They haven't had much policy impact. But this is because they were conceived as pilot projects. It doesn't at all mean that they won't influence policy in future," said Gerrit Rauws, director of the King Baudouin Foundation, which helped coordinate last year's pilot consultations.
"We need to make sure that they are on specific policies and not too general, or there's a risk of creating talk-shops," Rauws warned, identifying areas where ethical issues are involved, like agriculture, among those where ECCs could lead to better policymaking.
Commission officials agreed with Rauws that the most valuable input from citizens concerns values and ethics. "ECCs should be demand-driven and held on issues for which policymakers need input," said Sophie Beernaerts, head of unit for 'Citizenship policy – Europe for citizens' at the European Commission's communication directorate.
Lack of funding
Beernaerts warned that consultations are more expensive than other methods of boosting citizens’ participation in policymaking. "It's not clear we’ll have the money or the staff to deal with more ECCs," she said.
"Will we now be prioritising ECCs and citizens' dialogue at the expense of something else or will we get a bigger budget despite the belt tightening of the crisis? We don't know," the Commission official admitted.
Beernaerts said it would be up to the Commission itself to convince its services of how ECCs can improve their policymaking. "This is how to get the resources to do more," she said.
Meanwhile, Hungarian Socialist MEP Kinga Göncz warned that participants must be aware that their interests are not the only ones out there and called on the EU institutions to improve the transparency of decision-making.
"Involve them in discussions with other points of view and show them how difficult it is to find compromises: then they'll understand why their opinion is not always reflected in policy outcomes," she said.
Other critics spoke of the importance of making sure that consultations are as representative as possible.
"If ECCs are biased in their composition, then you would doubt the validity of their recommendations," said Monique Leyanaar of the University of Nijmegen.