MEPs push for ‘structured dialogue’ with EU citizens

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The European Parliament yesterday (13 January) adopted, by a large majority, a report calling for a “structured civil dialogue” between the EU institutions and civil society.

With 519 votes in favour and only 75 against, the report, by Polish MEP Genowefa Grabowska (PES), is seen as a step forward in “eliminating the gap between the EU and the European citizens.” 

Institutions must listen to citizens’ opinions

The report aims to establish new inter-institutional agreements and improve methods for organising the consultation process and the funding of civil society, provided that the Lisbon Treaty enters into force in 2010. 

Grabowska told EURACTIV that of the 75 opposing the report, most are Eurosceptics and against the Lisbon Treaty, rather than the principles of the report. “Even hearing the name of the treaty makes them crazy,” she said. 

Expressing her satisfaction with the vote, Grabowska said “the European project cannot be taken forward without the involvement of Europeans,” adding that “our citizens feel disregarded in the EU decision-making process”. 

“It’s not enough just to inform them about EU activity,” she said, arguing that “we must find the time to listen to their opinions and ensure that their views and concerns are treated seriously and taken into consideration by the European institutions. Civil Dialogue must be more authentic, democratic and transparent: these are the key issues for me.” 

She went on to note that “with the exception of a few commission documents on consultation and communication policy in the EU, there are no rules governing the organisation or the framework and methods for civil dialogue”.

As a result, “the report asks the Commission to take another look at the principles guiding civil dialogue and tailor them to current requirements, such as making references to the framework and procedures for dialogue, with a view to them becoming common principles for all the institutions”.

She added that these principles should be adopted by all institutions “very fast” given that 2009 is a European election year. “Civil dialogue before the European elections and during the campaigns” would give the EU a “unique chance” to truly engage European citizens, she said. 

Key points of the report include: 

  • Openness on the part of the Council: enhanced, streamlined access to Council documents is of key importance to effective dialogue with civil society.
  • Closer and better interinstitutional cooperation on consultations with civil society. In particular, a common platform for cooperation between the Parliament and the Commission.
  • New channels, methods and opportunities for communicating with citizens, and closer cooperation with the media.
  • Funding: For genuine civil dialogue to be possible, appropriate funding needs to be made available. 

Involving citizens is ‘fundamental’ to European democracy

Analysing the report, Roshan Di Puppo, director of a platform for European social NGOs (the Social Platform), told EURACTIV that “the Lisbon Treaty recognises that involving citizens beyond traditional representative democracy is actually a fundamental principle of modern democracy. The fact that the European Parliament takes this very seriously and wants to strengthen civil dialogue is very positive since MEPs are the ones representing citizens in the European Union”. 

Di Puppo also praised the report’s criticism of the lack of transparency at the European Council: “If we cannot know what governments are doing at EU level, how can citizens be engaged? How can they input? And yet the Council is still the most important decision-maker of the EU! Ensuring transparency and access to documents is the first step for a dialogue and the Council lags behind in that respect.” 

From the mid-1980s, the European Union began to officially recognise civil society organisations. In 2001, a European Commission White Paper on European Governance outlined the EU's perception of civil society as a means of closing the gap between the EU and its citizens. 

But it is only in the European Constitution and later in the Lisbon Treaty that participatory democracy and civil dialogue is affirmed and developed. In the Lisbon Treaty, participatory democracy is enhanced notably through the right of the citizens' initiative, which allows citizens to ask the Commission to take a specific initiative if they introduce at least a million signatures from a significant number of member states. 

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