Economic crisis takes centre stage in citizens’ consultation

Following in the footsteps of the first transnational citizens’ consultation, the King Baudouin Foundation and its partners yesterday (3 December) launched a new Europe-wide debate on the economic and social future of Europe.

Ahead of the June 2009 EU elections, European citizens’ consultations (EECs) will try to mobilise randomly-selected citizens to engage in political discussions and close the alleged gap between Europeans and EU policymakers.

“In many European countries, the EU is a background voice. These consultations have a transformative effect, allowing citizens to get interested in the EU and have a say in policymaking,” said Hellen Duffet, a UK citizen who participated in the first round of citizens’ consultations and has become the mascot of the 2007 project. It was Duffet who coined the slogan that made the project famous: “I got interested in the EU when the EU got interested in me.”

Speaking at the launch, European Commission Vice-President Margot Wallstöm and UK Liberal MEP Diana Wallis stressed the need to boost citizens’ engagement and launch movements across the EU to help revitalize democracy in all of Europe.

The format of the KBF-led 2008-2009 citizens’ consultations combines an online forum and face-to-face national meetings, bringing together citizens and policymakers from across the 27 EU member states. The discussions will culminate at a summit in May 2009, attended by roughly 150 participants. A set of recommendations will be drawn from the summit. These will be discussed with newly-elected members of the European Parliament and opinion leaders at regional conferences in the autumn of 2009.

A transformative tool for policymaking?

The topic chosen by the organisers has the potential to attract a large number of participants and attention. Even before the recent financial and economic crisis, Eurobarometer opinion polls showed that unemployment and social welfare were at the forefront of citizens’ concerns. Because the EU is working on a post-2010 successor to the Lisbon agenda for economic growth and competiveness, the recommendations that will come of the consultation have the potential to “be heard” by policymakers, say the organisers.

“The Parliament is a good listener,” noted Wallis. But she admitted that she wished all member states had ratified the Lisbon Treaty, which contains a citizens’ initiative introducing the possibility for one million citizens to submit a policy proposal to the European Commission. “If we had the Lisbon Treaty, these processes will be institutionalised,” Wallis argued, while underlining that the treaty would have directly allowed the EU institutions to speed up the democratic agenda.

KBF Director Gerrit Rauws stressed the added value of citizens’ consultations in the present political context. “I believe we are constructing a tool that can channel citizens’ proposal in a more formal way to policy-makers,” he noted. 

Random debates pit NGOs and organised civil society against citizens

In the NGO world, many activists question the usefulness of such consultations. They fear that the process will divert attention away from the organised and informally-structured dialogue that takes place at EU level between European umbrella organisations, and would have preferred such a project to be led by the NGO sector.

Rauws points out that ECCs offer an “open forum for everybody, be they citizens, NGOs or their umbrella organisations, in the one and same debate”. In follow-up conferences planned for the autumn of 2009, which will be more-expert driven, NGOs will be invited, together with newly-elected MEPs, to sit on the panels and react to the recommendations on behalf of their organisations.

“I passionately believe we need NGOs, but please allow us the direct contact with our electors and don’t just give us Astroturf lobbying,” highlighted Wallis. 

The new wave of European citizens' consultations (ECC) builds on a pilot project launched in 2006, which involved the participation of randomly-selected citizens in town-hall like meetings across the EU. More than 30 national and European events were organised between October 2006 and May 2007. An agenda-setting event in Octobe
r defined the themes for debate, namely energy and the environment, social welfare and family and borders and immigration. 

ECCs are run by a consortium of more than 40 European partner organisations, led by the King Baudouin Foundation (KBF), and are co-funded by the European Commission under its 'Debate Europe' programme.

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