Improvements required in the EU public affairs process

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

Public affairs, or the “interaction of society with its political institutions,” is essential to democracy, particularly a ‘new’ democracy on a continental scale such as the EU, writes Tom Spencer, executive director of the European Centre for Public Affairs (ECPA), in an article for EU Reporter.

Spencer speculates as to whether a “public affairs process in Europe which commands genuine public support and helps politicians do their job” can be created. 

He is highly critical of European public affairs culture, noting that the “behaviour of the European Commission will one day make an excellent case study of how not to produce policy”. He also criticises the failure of the European Transparency Initiative to “rise above the level of soap opera”. 

European public affairs professionals are irredeemably focused on the short term and have failed to communicate the purpose of the European project, the author believes. The result, he claims, has been “no direction and no evolution” and “diatribe not dialogue”. 

The modern age of public affairs in the European Union can be accurately dated to 1979 and the first directly-elected European Parliament, according to Spencer. Parliament’s rise “blew through the cosy corridors of interest representation with a cleansing zeal,” he writes. 

Spencer believes the European Parliament holds the key to redeeming European public affairs because “real transparency is a mixture of democracy, mandate, openness and accountability,” a game in which “Parliament holds all the high cards”. 

He goes on to note that “Parliament has traditionally acknowledged the usefulness of public affairs in providing the ammunition with which to amend Commission proposals and rein in the hubris of the Council”. 

Parliament could do more, believes Spencer, arguing that “proper parliamentary involvement offers the opportunity to correct some of the errors which have marred the debate so far”. He calls for a public affairs ombudsman to be created “to oversee public affairs practice by those seeking to influence decisions in the Union”. 

Spencer concludes by stating that providing “parliament seizes the opportunity, it could lay a proper basis for a pan-European democracy,” because “in the 21st century power is diffused [by] and rests on consent”. 

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