Social Platform: EU has ‘failed’ to connect with citizens

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Recent EU initiatives to connect with citizens “probably failed”, but recent calls from the European Parliament for a structured dialogue between the EU institutions and civil society are “a very positive sign,” Social Platform President Conny Reuter told EURACTIV in an interview.

Conny Reuter is president of the Social Platform, a network of European social NGOs. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Do you think the European Parliament report drafted by MEP Grabowska adopts the correct approach to addressing shortcomings in communication and consultation between the EU institutions and citizens? 

There is a difference between communicating to citizens, consultation and dialogue. 

Communicating to citizens is about providing information to them in a language they can understand – i.e. with minimal EU jargon and in their native language. Consultation is when public authorities inform citizens of their agenda and ask for feedback, like a two-way information channel. Dialogue means that both public authorities and civil society are able to set the agenda, and public authorities respond to the concerns advanced by citizens’ organisations. 

To make sure expectations and goals are properly managed, we need to be careful not to mix up these concepts. The Grabowska report is specifically about consultation and dialogue between civil society and the EU institutions, and how these processes can be strengthened. 

So why is the existing system not working as it should? 

In the past decade, there have only been a handful of initiatives from the Commission regarding consultation, dialogue or communication. There was the Commission’s ‘Plan D’ initiative on communication (2005), its minimum standards for consultation (2002) and a White Paper on governance (2001). So the current situation is this: we’re nearing the end of the decade and the Commission has yet to propose a way forward on how to have an effective dialogue with its citizens and associations. 

The Lisbon Treaty recognises for the first time that involving citizens beyond traditional representative democracy (i.e. electing MEPs) is actually a fundamental principle of modern democracy. This gave rise to the Grabowska report. The report demonstrates that MEPs – the representatives of European citizens – are taking strengthening civil dialogue very seriously, and this is a very positive sign. 

The next steps are for the Parliament to push for the changes that are proposed in the report. It states that all EU institutions – particularly the Council, the Parliament and the Commission – must integrate civil dialogue into the way they work. So citizens can have a say on policies that affect them, at every level of the policymaking process. This is the right approach. 

The report seems to imply that the ‘main offender’ in terms of institutional failings in creating a civil dialogue is the Council. Do you agree with this and does the report suggest realistic and suitable solutions? 

I’m not sure the report implies that the Council is the ‘main offender’, but it does identify the main shortfall of the Council: lack of transparency. If we don’t know what national governments are doing at EU level, how can citizens be involved? How can they have input? And yet the Council is still the most important decision-maker of the EU! 

For example, the Council alone will decide on the Anti-discrimination Directive (the Parliament only has a consultative role). Ensuring transparency and access to documents in this case is the first step for dialogue, and the Council is lagging behind on this. However, as mentioned before, it’s important that the recommendations of the report are applied to all EU institutions. 

Also, the Parliament recognises that society is diverse, and that some people are genuinely less heard than others. Let’s take the members of Social Platform as an example. They are European networks representing people living with disabilities, gays and lesbians, migrants, older people, children, women, young people, and people living in poverty. Vulnerable people usually have less access to decision-makers than well-organised industry lobbies. 

And yet, it is these people who will be most affected by European decisions, like the European Recovery Plan for the economic crisis. They have rights to defend and an opinion to give on issues that affect them. They need to be heard, but they cannot compete with industry lobbies. Also, they can give a solid grounding to any policy debate by bringing in their real-life experiences. So they should have a clearly defined role in shaping EU policy, via a formal civil dialogue process. 

No-one denies that the EU needs to connect more with citizens, but have any previous initiatives (Plan D, Agora, etc.) genuinely succeeded? 

That’s hard to say. If you mean ‘did they succeed in connecting with citizens?’, let’s look at the expected turnout of the European elections, which many are saying will be low. There’s an argument there to suggest that these initiatives have probably failed. 

For us, the crucial idea behind civil dialogue is that EU institutions dialogue with active citizens – those who have decided to offer their free time to help improve society. These citizens have formed grassroots associations, assembled into national coalitions or platforms, that then come together at European level in transnational networks such as the Social Platform. They are not here to make money or increase shareholder profits. They are here to improve people’s lives, to fight for social justice or climate change, for a Europe that is built on solidarity and human rights. So why not involve them in European debates? 

The Parliament’s report recognises this. It’s a very good move forward for European democracy and for better regulation in Europe. 

Is it realistic to expect the institutions to accept their own failings in this regard? Can the culture that allowed these flaws to emerge be changed? 

Yes, it is realistic. This is exactly what the Parliament just did! And yes, the culture can absolutely be changed. The three ‘no’s to the Constitution/Lisbon Treaty challenged decision-makers about the way they engage with citizens and associate them with the European project. 

Obviously, we are not day-dreamers. We know that the current political climate is not necessarily ripe for sweeping social change. That said, we believe that the challenges Europe faces (particularly the economic crisis and climate change) require more solidarity, the involvement of citizens in implementing changes, and being innovative. 

Also, civil society today is more visible, more organised and more vibrant than ever before. Ultimately, engaging civil society in daily life and the political process is a very effective way of promoting social cohesion, solidarity and social justice, and for creating a better quality of life for everyone. And isn’t that what policymakers want? 

The report admits that to succeed in its aims, funding will have to be found. Is it likely that, during a time of financial hardship, the EU will be prepared to commit more money to initiatives such as this? Where could the money come from? 

It’s indeed crucial that proper funding is dedicated to civil dialogue, as a tool for improved regulation and policymaking at EU level. Investing in a proper civil dialogue means making less mistakes in implementing policies, which in turn translates to money saved. It also means better quality legislation because new policies will be connected to, and be responding to, people’s needs. 

We’re not talking about finding millions here. Let’s look at how much the Commission (or the Parliament) spends on consultancies to give them studies, reports and recommendations. Some of this money could also be invested in talking to people and citizens’ organisations. 

Do you think a real structured social dialogue, akin to that between employers and unions, will come about in the EU? If so, when? 

Social dialogue is embedded in the Treaties of the European Union and is a very particular process at EU level and in every member state. Civil dialogue isn’t, but the Commission still published a White Paper on governance and the minimum standards for consultation. This shows that we don’t necessarily need treaty articles to move forward. A treaty article would obviously help but it’s not realistic to re-open negotiations on the treaty. 

Each institution should implement civil dialogue processes in a coherent, coordinated way. The new Commission and new Parliament could already have civil dialogue measures in place at the end of 2009. 

Also, if the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, the Commission is supposed to come up with a regulation on how to implement Article 11. This regulation would already provide the framework for how the Commission can implement civil dialogue. 

Do you think citizens’ initiatives like the one organised by the European Disability Forum, which gathered over one million signatures to push for a Directive on disability, are the way to go for a strong civil dialogue? 

It’s certainly one of the ways to make people feel that the EU cares about what they have to say and what they want. The implementation of such initiatives will be important as well. When the Commission receives numerous petitions, how will it deal with them? How will it respond to concerned and active citizens? 

Initiatives like this definitely support the emergence of the participatory Europe we’re calling for. But another way is civil dialogue itself: the instrument through which EU institutions dialogues with civil society organisations directly. 

The Grabowska report is premised on the Lisbon Treaty. What will happen if, for whatever reason, Lisbon is not brought into force? Where would that leave the social dialogue issue? 

As I mentioned, a treaty article is important in terms of recognising civil dialogue as a democratic principle of the EU. However, EU institutions can decide to make progress on this without a treaty article. We witnessed that with the 2002 Communication on the minimum standards for consultation and the 2001 White Paper on governance. 

In addition, different directorate generals are innovating all the time in the way they run consultations. And the European Parliament decided to organise its own civil society forum (the Citizens’ Agora). They don’t need a treaty article if they have the will to move in the right direction. 

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