European politicians want citizen panels to be used at EU level

The concept of citizen forums is very successful according to a group of politicians who are now exerting pressure for these to be permanently used at EU level. [EPA-EFE/JULIEN WARNAND]

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) ended on Monday (9 May), but a group of politicians want citizens’ panels that were at its heart to become a permanent practice at the EU level. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The conference was the EU’s first deliberative democracy experience, bringing together randomly selected citizens both online and in person to discuss proposals on the bloc’s future. A third of participants were 18-25-year-olds, and regional representation was also considered.

At the conference’s closing ceremony yesterday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the results were such that treaty changes could even be on the table if it meant really taking on board citizens’ proposals.

A group of European politicians have now called for the conference to be used as a model for future engagement between citizens and politicians, believing the experiment to be a success. Among them are Belgian MEP Guy de Verhofstadt, who has made the conference his project, and the president of Baden-Württemberg’s state parliament, Muhterem Aras.

“I am absolutely in favour of doing more citizens’ panels,” Aras told EURACTIV. “The institutions must find a way to make citizens’ panels permanent as a supplement to representative democracy,” the president of the majority Green parliament, who in 2017 set up a citizen forum on the pension schemes for members of parliament at the state level, said.

When conducted properly, “participants of the citizens’ panels are the best ambassadors for our democracy”, she added.

Frustrated citizens

However, the conference’s citizens’ panels and the experiment as a whole often fell short of expectations. Taking place amid a global pandemic, and in terms of the tail end, the war in Ukraine, the panels went largely unnoticed.

Participants felt even more ignored, instrumentalised and marginalised as they often presented their results to empty seats in the European Parliament’s COFOE sessions.

“I had the impression that some MPs were completely disinterested in our ideas,” said Chiara Alicandro, an Italian, in January.

“In the working group, some of the remarks seemed to indicate that our role and commitment were not taken seriously, while others tried to exploit some of our proposals for their political interests,” she added.

MEPs support treaty changes to reform EU

Members of European Parliament passed a resolution on Wednesday (4 May) supporting the outcome of the Conference on the Future of Europe and changing EU treaties to facilitate the implementation of citizens’ proposals.

Lessons from Stuttgart 

Poor communication is clearly what frustrated citizens in this exercise, said Aras.

“You have to explain openly from the outset what the task of a citizens’ forum is,” she said, adding that due to complex issues, citizens need to be “supported by experts who prepare and provide information.” The Green politician added that this would allow participants to “actually deal with complex issues.”

“If we use a citizens’ forum, then afterwards the politicians must seriously deal with the results from the citizens’ forum and hold real debates,” she said.

Additionally, it is important not to give the impression that proposals from the citizen’s forum just disappear in a drawer because that can quickly backfire. “That must not happen under any circumstances. We would lose a lot of trust. And trust is the most important currency of democracy,” said Aras, who also appealed to the EU decision-makers to seriously consider the recommendations.

Aras is thus hoping her success story from Baden-Württemberg can serve as an excellent example for EU institutions, often seen as distant from EU citizens.

In rare cases, politicians can “even adopt citizens’ recommendations one-to-one,” she said. But in the case of recommendations that cannot be implemented, “then parliament and politics must explain this openly, honestly and transparently.”

Citizens’ panels must also be “standardised and open-ended” because only then “does it make sense, she said. “You shouldn’t use citizens’ panels in an inflationary way for every little thing, but only for very specific issues, when a situation is perhaps muddled or complex,” she added.

Whatever the outcome, clear communication with the participants is crucial since “the final decision is made in parliaments.”

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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