Boucher: ‘Possible to get citizens interested in EU’

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Due to their recommending force, deliberative polls can act as incentives for politicians to take action, says Stephen Boucher from Notre Europe. Such polls could also help to bridge the gap between the EU insitutions and its citizens, and increase acceptance for economic and social reforms, Boucher argues in an interview with EURACTIV.

Stephen Boucher is co-Secretary General of the French think tank Notre Europe. He has worked as a public affairs consultant in Brussels, an adjunct Professor in Paris and advised the Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport on European and international affairs.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

What are the key conclusions that you draw from this experiment: a deliberative poll with 400 citizens from across Europe discussing the EU’s policies and processes?

My first conclusion is that it is possible to engage citizens, to get them interested and better informed about complex policy matters, including the EU.

Also, that such an exercise can be of interest to policy makers – we’ve had some very positive feedback from politicians – and to the media, and through them, I hope, to citizens beyond the group of citizens involved.

What do citizens expect from the EU? Where do they want to see “more Europe” and what are the main points of criticism? Were there any new ideas put forward?

One of the interesting features of deliberative polling is that it does not seek a consensus. Participants answer questionnaires before and after the information and deliberation process, reflecting only their personal views. There is therefore not a uniform view of the EU, but lots of nuances from one question to another.

Overall, however, there are some discernible trends. People want the EU to sort out its institutional difficulties before enlarging further. They accept the need for economic and social reforms, and want both their national governments and the EU to take action.

If you look at the results, there are therefore many original findings, for instance the fact that people, after deliberation, are more willing to reform pension systems. Or that new and old member states converge on matters related to enlargement.

What is new about the methodology you apply? How is it different from ordinary opinion polls?

On the one hand, deliberative polling is not new – it has been used, at the regional and national level, some 13 times for instance in the past 13 years within Europe. And about 30 times worldwide.

What’s new in our case is that it is the first time that a representative sample of a population encompassing several countries, languages and cultures is brought together using this methodology. Deliberative polling differs from other methodologies in that it does not seek to push participants towards a consensus as citizens’ juries or consensus conferences do, for instance.

Also, it invests heavily in ensuring that the sample is truly representative, unlike recent European citizen consultation exercises which purport to be representative, but in reality end up only bringing a diverse group of people together. If the representative is just another group of people, the process is surely pleasant, possibly useful for the participants themselves, but has no significance for outside observers. The information you can draw from it is very limited, as it can only apply to the group concerned.

Should we have more deliberative polls? Could it help to overcome the Europe’s democratic deficit and/or the EU’s communication gap?

I do not believe that there is a democratic deficit. Citizens however do feel distant from EU institutions and policy-making processes. The link between their opinion, vote and voice and everyday decisions in Brussels is not obvious to them, so they become disengaged, disinterested.

With this deliberative polling initiative, I believe we have demonstrated that people can become meaningfully engaged and that citizens beyond can benefit from the process. We hope that this will be a springboard for future deliberative polls.

In fact, we’re collaborating with the University of Siena, which is preparing the second EU deliberative poll, due to take place in 2009, one month before the European parliamentary election. The objective there is to stimulate voter participation. Arguably, beyond these two polls initiated by civil society, one might want to think of having some form of institutionalisation, while maintaining the impartiality of the process.

How important do you think public opinion is for successful EU policy-making? Do you think European leaders should take this more into account?

Of course politicians’ decisions should not be guided by polls, deliberative or not. However, politicians need incentives to take action, and deliberative polls have a recommending force, because they are truly representative and deliberative. They represent the view the population as a whole would take if politicians had a chance to present different policy options and citizens had the time to consider them all.

European leaders who believe that it is possible – which Tomorrow’s Europe demonstrated – to appeal to citizens’ intelligence when it comes to sensitive EU policies will want to take the conclusions of the survey into account.

In your opinion, how could the EU improve its relations with the citizens?

The EU needs to use a variety of strategies and instruments to generate dialogue and active citizenship. It should continue its efforts to be transparent – which it already is, arguably more so than some national governments.

Deliberative polling is potentially a useful complementary tool, because it achieves a two-way dialogue. I hope instructive lessons can be drawn from this first experiment.

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