Citizens’ consultations: France dreaming of ecological Europe

An example of an “argument tree” at the presentation of the report on the citizens’ consultation at the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs on 4 December 2018.

The European Council on 13-14 December will focus on the findings of the citizens’ consultations. French people dream of having a more ecological and more socially just Europe, where there is greater citizen participation. Can the EU meet their expectations? EURACTIV France reports.

On the same day that the French government announced it was abandoning the increase in the French carbon tax, following pressure from the ‘yellow vest’ movement, the minister for Europe was given a report that showed a very different reality.

It presented the picture from the citizens’ consultations, which brought together some 70,000 people at 1,082 separate events over six months.

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These debates were organised by associations, think-tanks, local authorities, the French state and the private sector. They gave the participants the opportunity to list their desires and wishes for tomorrow’s Europe.

The topics raised most often (the environment, citizenship and social issues) hardly reflected the European institutions’ current political agenda. But this is the purpose of the citizens’ consultations organised across Europe.

Their findings will help to guide the vision on the future of Europe that will be outlined in Sibiu, Romania, at an extraordinary council on 9 May.

The environment is the issue which should be addressed the most at the European level, according to the consultations in France, which emphasised that “the new European dream is an ecological one.”

“It’s the topic that was raised the most often, but this is not why it is the first matter of concern,” said Chantal Jouanno, chair of the French National Commission for Public Debate (CNDP). The CNDP analysed the findings of the consultations, at the end of a complex task.

Citizens’ need for information

The CNDP chose to organise the proposals around 14 major themes, or “argument trees.” French people’s vision for Europe showed a real appetite for more Europe.

Participants were often critical about European institutions, and this was to call for greater citizen participation. All of the proposals were in line with a desire to bring citizens closer to the institutions.

Whether this was through learning about European history rather than only French history at school, learning languages, or by generally communicating how Europe and its systems work, French people want to have more information. They were not against the idea of having both national and European citizenship, which were seen as being complementary.

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A too liberal Europe

The European economic approach was considered to be too liberal and French people wanted to incorporate more social provisions into the European project. The push for tax harmonisation aimed at taxing multinationals was often mentioned.

In the end, some of the ideas from the proposals may appear quite disruptive, whether it is calling for social issues to be dealt with at the European level, or for European history rather than French history to be taught. “It’s quite contrary to what is usually thought,” Jouanno acknowledged.

The methodology for recruiting citizens to express their views was probably one of the reasons for this unexpected outcome. The process was not scientific because the participants were not representative of the population.

Those who participated in the consultations did so on a voluntary basis because of their interest for the structures organising them or for the topic of Europe. Many of the consultations were held in the Paris region but small towns had the most, which gives a fragmented picture of French geography, with medium-sized towns either hardly represented or not at all.

Nevertheless, it appears that French citizens “would be proud to be part of a Union whose political horizon would be focused on a better capacity to defend their common values and interests, as well as on a social and humanist environmental ambition,” as summarised by a panel with around 40 participants representing French society in Paris in late October.

The findings of France’s citizens’ consultations are now to be compared with those of the other 26 European countries. It is not clear if a common denominator between all of them will be found.

Not least because it was not necessarily a shared effort. Hungary held a few very vertical consultations and Matteo Salvini’s Italy simply abandoned the idea. While some states, such as Greece, went as far as to suggest holding written consultations online, or Germany, to mobilise its adult education institutions, many also settled for doing the minimum.

Nonetheless, the initial conclusions will be debated at this week’s European Council and a joint report will be prepared for 9 May 2019.

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The European Council will consider in December the outcomes of the citizen consultations. However, some MEPs are already calling for the EU not to stop at this experiment. EURACTIV France reports.

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