The empty taste of Macron’s citizens’ consultations

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The French administration has to engage more seriously in the preparatory work of national citizens’ consultations. [Shutterstock]

Much ado about nothing. This is how we could sum up one of President Macron’s first citizens’ consultations, held in Croatia, writes Mario Munta.

Mario Munta is the programme director of the Centre for Policy Writing and a PhD candidate at the Central European University in Budapest.

Last Friday, with surprisingly little fanfare, French Minister for European Affairs Nathalie Loiseau, paid a visit to Zagreb to kick off the citizens’ consultation in Croatia.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron heralded the idea of an EU-wide dialogue with citizens to discuss the future of the EU in his Sorbonne speech last September. Curiously, impressions from the Croatian consultations citoyennes are rather disappointing. At present, the initiative remains an empty publicity stunt.

But the night is young and the initiative can still be fixed.

Macron’s initiative was hailed as a promising attempt to reinvent Europe and to counteract populist sentiments by drawing on grassroots inputs. Citizens and civil society would be invited to participate in a bottom-up process to project their concerns, proposals and priorities for a future Europe. The consultations would be organised both nationally and locally, the format of which would be determined by each member state.

In practice, however, the Croatian debut of the democratic convention had all the elements of a façade consultation. The working method was ill-conceived. The dialogue was not inclusive. And it lacked thematic structure and focus.

First, the working method looked more like a boring panel discussion than a citizen-led dialogue. Ms Loiseau and four other ‘panelists’ gave introductory speeches outlining well-known common challenges for the EU. This was followed by a time-limited, unstructured Q&A session which yielded no added value. Not exactly the most conducive format for open debating.

Second, the event was hardly inclusive. The audience comprised mostly of PoliSci students and faculty of the local university, diplomats, civil servants working on EU-related issues and a handful of civil society actors. What is surprising in such a random set up is that it is neither representative of the population’s diversity nor confined to stakeholders with a specific thematic interest. If the intention was to garner views of ordinary citizens, it was not successful. If the intention was to have a specialised audience, again, this did not work either.

This brings us to the third remark – that the ‘debate’ was neither well-structured nor focused. Although Ms Loiseau timidly called for inputs by the audience (5 minutes before the end of the event), this is simply not enough. Productive debates require serious preparation to be able to engage in discussion of specific issues. Stimulating ad hoc questions is not bad by itself, but if the French President thinks seriously about reforming the EU, then the thought process should be equally deep and intensive.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Although it might be a little too late to fix these problems until the official launch of the initiative in Strasbourg next Tuesday, there is still time to make a success story out of the citizens’ consultations.

For starters, the French administration has to engage more seriously in the preparatory work of national citizens’ consultations. Shifting responsibility, and then also blame, to local organisers is not an option. If President Macron is truly devoted to the ideas of real dialogue and the plurality of thought, he has to actively stimulate them through four channels.

First, by bringing structure and thematic concentration to these consultations. This would not necessarily contradict the bottom-up nature of the exercise. On the contrary, it would guarantee a well-informed and focused exchange of opinions grounded in solid argumentation. It would also bring clarity to the purpose of such dialogues. Finally, a similar structure across member states would allow for cross-country comparisons to detect the most urgent issues that need action. Scenario-based materials should be dispatched well in advance, and thematic working groups should convene ahead of the central debate to prepare substantive inputs.

Second, by making sure that, depending on the format, all relevant citizen groups are represented in the consultation process. There is no place for arbitrariness and sluggish randomness in this initiative. Avoiding elite-centeredness of such events is paramount to avoid backlashes. The risk is well-known to everyone –  adding fuel to allegations of being far away from citizens’ everyday lives.

Third, by fostering publicity and coverage of such individual events, both offline and online. Currently, it seems that Macron had more success in promoting the idea of citizens’ consultations than the actual events.

Finally, completing a one-off event should not mean that the debate suddenly stops. Citizens’ consultations should have a clear follow-up methodology that will ensure transparency and traceability. If the goal is to empower citizens, they must know whether, to what extent and how their thoughts fed into the final results of the citizens’ consultations.

Until then, the empty taste of Macron’s citizens’ consultations will linger. But then no one said that rebuilding citizens’ trust would be easy.

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