Should European citizens dictate the bloc’s budget?

Next Generation EU was a missed opportunity to let citizens decide how to spend EU funds, according to Jean Monnet Professor Alberto Alemanno. [EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET]

MEPs and experts propose to scale up a city-level tool allowing citizens to decide how to spend a part of the municipal resources and let Europeans shape the EU budget expenditure.

In a 2021 report, the European Parliament proposed experimenting with participatory budgeting at the EU level, allowing Europeans to co-decide how to spend the bloc’s money.

The report attempted to see “how we at the EU level could complement the decision making by giving citizens new tools and instruments in their hands to participate,” rapporteur Helmut Scholz told EURACTIV. 

In Scholz’s view, the current political situation in Europe could create an “additional good momentum” for rethinking the way the EU budget is discussed.

“Do we spend billions of euros for the defence of the Union, or do we spend now these billions for the environment, mitigating climate change, other energy policies, migration?”

Feasibility

Letting citizens co-decide the EU budget could be challenging but is “absolutely feasible,” according to Elisa Lironi, senior manager at the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS).

In her view, EU-level participatory budgeting should start with a small part of the budget, asking citizens ‘where would you want the European Union to spend this amount of budget?’, similar to a consultation process.

However, introducing such a tool at the EU level is “not immediate”, said Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor in EU Law at HEC Paris.

“It is not so immediate to get citizens involved in allocating European budgets,” he told EURACTIV.

As European funds are generally transferred to national authorities who are in charge of redistributing these resources, “participatory budgeting at the European level can only be conceived and designed along national lines,” Alemanno said.

However, the EU could play a critical role in pushing member states to consult citizens on spending the bloc’s funds.

EU guidance

“Unless the European Union will kind of force them, nudge them by providing all the methods and conditioning also the delivering of fundings to participatory budgeting, I don’t think it’s going to happen as quickly as we would like.”

In Alemanno’s view, the EU should prepare a “participatory budgeting toolkit” for national authorities setting out the methods and procedures to be used.

Meanwhile, the post-pandemic recovery plan Next Generation EU could serve as “a good case study of what not to do,” he said.

The €800 billion recovery plan was designed at the EU level with a top down approach, despite being “possibly the major attempt by the European Union to transfer resources from the European level to the citizen level.”

“There was nothing participatory about it,” Alemanno said, adding that consultations should have been carried out at the national level to allocate part of the funds according to citizens’ expectations.

From the city level to the EU

While national governments are still reluctant to introduce co-designing schemes, European cities have extensively used participatory tools in the past two decades.

Europe counts over 4,500 participatory budgeting processes, and some countries, like Scotland and Poland, have even introduced national frameworks which require local governments to consult citizens on the spending of resources.

Participatory budgeting: Europe’s bet to increase trust in government

Participatory budgeting (PB) – the shared decision between city leaders and inhabitants on spending a part of the municipal budget – is becoming an increasingly popular democratic tool in Europe.

Lironi said the advantage of using participatory budgeting at the local level is that “people can see immediately the effects of it, they can really see the money is being allocated to create a new park in the neighbourhood or a new school.”

In her view, participatory budgeting could be “very concrete” at the EU level as well, especially if it focuses on cross-cutting issues, like allocating funds to Erasmus and other EU programmes.

However, involving citizens on other matters on a national or European scale could be more challenging, according to Alemanno.

“Defining whether a European country like Spain should invest more on renewables and incentivise electric vehicles vis-à-vis reducing the number of plastic bottles on the market are decisions that might be felt a bit more far away.”

Yet, Alemanno remains optimistic that participatory budgeting has a future beyond local decision-making.

Being already a “permanent and institutionalised” exercise at the city level, he said participatory budgeting is more developed than other civic participation tools and more likely to expand to the national and European levels.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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