This article is part of our special report Whose democracy? The tumultuous road to effective civic participation.
The EU’s attempts to encourage citizens’ engagement through participatory tools has made little impact due to the lack of information and clear follow-up, experts say.
The EU has put in place consultations, citizens’ initiatives and other tools which Europeans can use to influence decision-making, in an effort to strengthen democracy across the bloc.
“The future of European democracy depends on making sure citizens participate actively,” the EU’s Věra Jourová values and transparency commissioner told MEPs during a European Parliament discussion on citizenship earlier this month.
“The opinion of citizens is valuable,” she said, adding that civic empowerment is one of the Commission’s priorities.
However, the 2020 citizenship report shows that over 60% of respondents think that EU citizens are poorly informed about their rights.
On top of that, “the current set-up of the EU participatory framework may leave people doubtful about which channel is more suited to their needs,” a recent Parliament’s report on citizenship states.
Estonian lawmaker Yana Toom, who drafted the report, said the Parliament’s petitions committee often receives requests that are better suited for the European Ombudsman – the independent body dealing with complaints of maladministration by EU institutions.
“This makes me think Europeans might be confused about participatory tools that they should be using,” she said.
Lack of information
A “single platform” and “better guidance to the appropriate tool” are needed to make sure citizens’ voices get heard, said Toom.
“The European citizenship rights we are so proud of can’t make a difference if Europeans are not aware of them,” Toom said, calling for more political education on European affairs.
Lack of information is also hindering the effective use of another participatory instrument, according to Elisa Lironi, senior manager at the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS).
“If we take the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), people don’t really know about this tool, although it is a good tool, and then it doesn’t have the impact they would expect it to have,” she said.
The ECI was first launched ten years ago and allows Europeans to propose new EU laws.
To increase the use of this tool, Commission officials said the EU executive has recently intensified its efforts to promote the ECI.
“Those efforts are bringing tangible and positive results,” a Commission official told EURACTIV, adding that there has been “a steady increase of the traffic on the ECI website and an overall positive trend in terms of new requests for registrations.”
However, “there is more to be done,” the official added.
Since 2012, 88 initiatives have been registered and 6 have reached one million signatures, the required threshold for the Commission to consider the proposal.
Last year, the “End the Cage Age” initiative pushed the EU executive to commit to a legislative proposal to ban cages for animals by 2023.
However, Lironi said not all ECIs become EU laws, making it difficult to measure their impact.
“The problem with these participatory democracy experiments is that impact is never a guarantee unless the political actors since the beginning agree that they’re going to do something with it.”
The same issue is emerging in another EU-wide participatory exercise, the Conference on the Future of Europe, where it is not yet clear how the recommendations drafted by participants will be taken into account by EU policy-makers.
Meanwhile, despite the limited impact of these exercises, MEPs are already calling on the Commission to experiment with more participatory tools at EU level.
“I see a participatory approach as part of an attempt to change the way we are coming to decisions, which are more responding to the needs of citizens,” said MEP Helmut Scholz, rapporteur of a 2021 report calling for pilot projects on co-designing tools for citizens.
In his view, participatory tools could be the best way to address challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, and poverty.
“Participatory democracy could be a transmission element in picking up that awareness and addressing it also in the process of solution finding,” Scholz told EURACTIV.
The initiative is carried out in ten different cities and is an attempt “to have a real transnational participatory democracy experiment,” said Lironi.
Citizens are asked to identify problems concerning air quality and brainstorm solutions. The most supported solutions will then be formulated as policy recommendations together with NGOs and experts in an effort to influence the EU directives on air quality.
“We’re going to take the contributions of citizens, and then we’re going to knock on doors at institutions and say ‘this is what citizens want’,” Lironi said.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]