Mr Macron, here’s how not to spoil your historic heart-to-heart with EU citizens

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

Pulse of Europe rally in Berlin [EPA-EFE/FELIPE TRUEBA]

French President Emmanuel Macron has convinced (most of) his fellow Heads of state and government to do the unimaginable: Ask Europeans what they want for the future of the Union. But the way governments are planning to go about this will lead to more frustration and confusion, write Stephen Boucher and Lex Paulson.

Stephen Boucher is visiting professor, Sciences Po Paris and Solvay Brussels School, author of Petit manuel de créativité politique – Comment libérer l’audace collective. Lex Paulson is International counselor, D21, lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris.

Back in early 2017, Mr. Macron was calling for a consultation of citizens to elicit their true intentions for the EU. What then looked like a scaled-up rerun of his electoral “Grande Marche”, with campaigners knocking on doors across a whole continent, has now been sold to some 15 (and counting) other governments as an official consultation exercise (the local canvassing will be conducted separately by Mr. Macron’s party).

Tout ça pour ça?

Do all hail deliberative democracy, EU-wide or nationally but synthesised at European level? Not quite. To appease countries such as Denmark and others opposed to a single approach, Mr. Macron has suggested that each country does its own thing, with no common methodology, no mixing of people of different countries, and an open invitation to any citizen interested to discuss a few vague questions, online or offline.

We know who will join: the usual euro-enthusiasts and sceptics, with a sprinkling of lobbyists. We therefore know the end result: a compilation of the usual views, from a national perspective, tackling topics in ways that other Europeans most likely will not relate to and without the impact and legitimacy a systematic methodology would have given.

Decades of quality deliberative processes, including across countries, have taught us how to consult citizens in order to produce meaningful input – fostering convergence, generating more effective solutions and building support from citizens.

At their core, these processes share the following qualities: a purposefully diverse – ideally representative – sample of participants, complete and balanced information, moderated discussions that ensure all perspectives are expressed, and, importantly in this case, a process that allows participants to confront others’ views, across borders.

Unless… we bring Europe together for a real deliberation

Accept that the realities of politics have landed us where we now are, what could we do now? Well, Heads of state and government could consider at least adding a high-quality deliberative element to what’s planned that could look like this:

  1. Ask a representative sample of Europeans – working with a classic survey institute – what key issues they wish to discuss for the future of Europe.
  2. Draw from this a smaller, yet representative sample of citizens from all 27 member states to meet for a few days in Brussels. Having received balanced information on the, say, top 3 priority topics and political options on the table, this ‘mini-Europe’ group could discuss the matters with interpretation and moderators in small groups and put questions to a diverse group of policy makers at the highest level and experts representing the diversity of opinions on the matters discussed.
  3. Connect an online debate around this transnational platform to ensure transparency and wider participation, notably from current Europe-wide deliberations, such as Europe’s People’s Forum;
  4. Then bring together the rich input thus produced in a concise format for EU heads of state and government.

While modest, such an addition would compensate for the current plans by being more bottom-up, representative and transnational.

Moreover, it could be implemented fast and at a limited cost, if, say, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, the European Parliament and/or the European Commission shared their venues, interpreters, survey institute, and budgets to pay for the cost of a few hundred citizens travelling to Brussels.

Civil society and academia stand ready to shape the briefing material to ensure that it’s fair and balanced.

Wanting to listen to Europe’s people is good, but only if we create the conditions for hearing what they really have to say. And act upon it.

Further Reading

France to launch bottom-up consultation for European reform

Online consultation, then local debates: democratic assemblies for EU reform should be held from May to October 2018, ahead of the 2019 European elections. EURACTIV France reports.

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