18 Juli 2023

A new push for European citizen participation

By Dominik Hierlemann and Stefan Roch
Orchestra pit
A solid infrastructure is key to meaningful and effective citizen participation. All instruments need to work, both on their own and in relation to each other.

Against the backdrop of democratic backsliding inside and outside the EU, the von der Leyen Commission adopted the slogan “A new push for European Democracy” as one of its six priorities in 2019. Since then, the EU held the Conference on the Future of Europe, experimenting with innovative forms of participation, leading to the Commission’s European Citizens’ Panels, which would become a regular feature of the EU’s policy-making process. It published the Democracy Action Plan, which led to, among other things, a legal package on reinforcing democracy and protecting elections, and the European Media Freedom Act.

Persisting feel of disconnect

While the Commission is pushing its Democracy agenda, citizens still feel a disconnect. Only 43 percent believe their voice counts in the EU, according to Eurobarometer. This is not because citizens do not care about what happens at the EU level. Quite the opposite, when the Bertelsmann Stiftung surveyed European citizens through eupinions in 2020, 78 percent of citizens indicated that they want to have a bigger say in the EU.

Furthermore, when asked what keeps them from participating more in EU politics, the most common answer was “I don’t believe it will make enough of a difference” (32 percent), followed by “I don’t know enough about European politics” (29 percent). Clearly, European citizens want a more democratic European Union in which they can actively participate, but hardly anything the EU has done in the recent past seems to have convinced them that this is possible.

Arduous efforts to democratize the EU

Throughout its history, the Union has taken several steps to become more “democratic”. The first petition to the Common Assembly was submitted in 1958, the first European elections took place in 1979, the European Ombudsman office was founded in 1995, the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 introduced the European Citizens’ Initiative, the EU Citizens’ Dialogues started in 2012, and the European Citizens’ panels were established in 2022. It seems that none of these innovations (except for European elections) has significantly improved the EU’s democratic standing vis-à-vis its citizens. Why is that?

Surely, the EU exhibits an imbalance between indirect and direct democratic legitimacy – an issue that has been discussed for decades. Particularly throughout the 1990s, there was a debate about the EU’s “democratic deficit”, which, as Jan Werner Müller argues, revolved around the idea that while the EU could take far-reaching decisions affecting its citizens, they could not choose “among different political programs for the EU as a whole”.

But while this debate is ongoing, it is not the whole story. Another important democratic constraint is the EU’s lack of a coherent participatory infrastructure. Knowing what is there and how to use participation instruments to exercise citizens’ rights is key to democratic engagement. What currently exists is not a participatory infrastructure, but rather a patchwork of disconnected instruments.

Problematic status quo: a patchwork of disconnected instruments

In our 2022 study “Under Construction: Citizen participation in the European Union”, we and the European Policy Centre found that the EU has a remarkably diverse portfolio of citizen participation instruments, more than most member states. We surveyed 59 EU democracy experts to find out how these instruments perform. Most (54 percent) agreed that the right instruments are in place. However, most also believe that they are currently not working as they should (75 percent), that they are not sufficiently known and used (95 percent) and that the EU institutions are not successful in facilitating participation (83 percent).

Most of the instruments are quite well designed. But citizens have only a vague idea of them and, except for European elections, the EU has made little effort to raise public awareness of them. In the past, the EU has been very eager to communicate its achievements to citizens, but reluctant to involve citizens in in delivering them.

Most participation instruments exist at the European level for their own sake. As with the European Citizens’ Initiative, they are introduced with some hype at first, but soon receive little attention and maintenance, and become largely irrelevant to EU policy processes. Sure, considerable progress has been made in giving the European Parliament more power and in making the European elections more meaningful. But when it comes to citizen participation, new instruments continue to be piled on top of existing ones, with little context, little connection, initial hype, and a long cool-down.

Reform goal: a fully integrated EU participatory infrastructure

A solid infrastructure is key to meaningful and effective citizen participation. All instruments need to work, both on their own and in relation to each other. All instruments need resources such as funding, political support, and public attention to be meaningful. Most instruments cannot obtain these resources on their own, but only through a functioning infrastructure.

When we look at the current toolbox of EU participation instruments, we see that each instrument has strengths and weaknesses, making one more relevant for certain issues than others. Elections are the entry point to participation for most citizens. The European Citizens’ Initiative, if used properly, can excel at bottom-up agenda setting. Petitions are a potentially powerful tool for day-to-day interactions between the European Parliament and its citizens. The European Ombudsman performs an important watch-dog role over the European institutions and their relationship with EU citizens. Citizens’ Dialogues can serve as a potent dialogical format, in which EU politicians exchange ideas with citizens directly. Public consultations can play a key role in gathering citizens’ input into the policy-making process itself. European citizens’ panels can be used to “bring citizens and policy-makers closer, promote truly transnational political debates and improve the quality of the EU democracy and policies”, as we argue in our recent publication on institutionalizing European Citizens’ Assemblies.

However, these virtues are unlikely to be realized if instruments such as citizens’ panels remain isolated within the EU’s current patchwork of participation instruments. The full potential of citizens’ participation can only be realized if citizens are clear about the role of an instrument in relation to all other existing instruments and its impact on EU policymaking.

A change in communication and political culture

Putting participation in the spotlight and making it easy and accessible should be the main tasks of the infrastructure. The EU needs to define a clear and comprehensive strategy on citizen participation, setting out what it wants to achieve, what role citizen participation should play in relation to the relevant institutions and EU policy processes, how the instruments connect to one another, and most importantly, which instrument should be used for what purpose. The strategy needs to be deeply rooted in the EU’s own institutional and political structure. It must set out at which stages of the policy-making process each instrument should be used.

Linked to this strategy, the EU needs to develop a coherent communication plan. This requires a shift from communicating about specific objectives and/or specific instruments to promoting citizen participation as such. The strategy should focus on creating enthusiasm for participation itself, encouraging citizens to explore the various means of EU participation.

Cultural change and political will are also needed. Despite various calls for more democracy, for many policy-makers in Brussels and EU capitals, citizen participation remains at best a “nice to have” rather than a foundation of democratic politics. Without the willingness of all major EU institutions to actively involve citizens, to invest considerable time and resources in participation, and to communicate clearly and credibly to citizens about the impact of participation, the current patchwork of participation in the EU cannot be overcome.

Finally, it is important that all major EU institutions commit to and coordinate on participation. The introduction of the new citizens’ panels illustrates this problem. Like most other instruments, the panels are currently primarily linked to the Commission, despite the fact that the issues discussed are of high relevance to the entire EU. As we argue in our recent publication, it would be in the interest of citizens and of effective participation that panels connect to all major institutions. A stronger interinstitutional approach would add considerable political weight to the voice of citizens and could be a big step towards making EU politics more participatory.

Practical implementation: an online EU participation hub

Although plans are circulating in the European Commission to create a new EU participation platform and the Commission runs a “Have your Say” website which is mainly used for public consultations, the closest thing the EU currently has to a participation hub is a section on the EU- website called: “Participate, interact and vote in the European Union”. The site consists of a simple list of the various instruments, with no coherent differentiation and little to no information on what instruments can be used for, what has been achieved, and what a citizen can currently participate in.

By contrast, the Finnish participation hub Demokratia.fi and the Taiwanese hub Join.gov.tw show what is possible. Both hubs demonstrate a strong willingness to engage citizens from the first click: by coherently listing existing tools and showcasing ongoing activities, all in an engaging and highly user-friendly way. The difference is not only in design, but also in political substance. Taiwan and Finland are at the forefront of innovative and effective citizen participation. Examples for this are the Finnish citizens’ initiative established in 2012, the Finnish virtual polity platform designed in 2008, and the vTaiwan platform. Their commitment to engage citizens is directly translated into the design and usability of their participation hubs.

Following the examples of Finland and Taiwan

What might an EU participation hub look like? As in the Finnish and Taiwanese examples, the EU’s intention to listen to and engage with its citizens needs to be clearly stated. All instruments should be presented in a coherent system, with an intuitive logic. Beyond that:

  1. Clear information is key. The platform needs to clearly describe the purpose, use and impact of each instrument, as well as the participation of EU citizens as such. Citizens should not have to deal with the complexity of the EU’s inter-institutional relations and the affiliation of each instrument, but should feel encouraged to engage directly through the information presented. The hub should also provide an immediate response to citizens’ questions, for example through the use of an AI-based chatbot.
  2. Participation should be immediate. By highlighting ongoing participation activities, the hub should demonstrate that participation is not just an abstract right, but is happening right now. It should encourage citizens to participate directly and immediately on the site, without additional barriers.
  3. Connecting with other citizens and politicians should be a key feature. The website should allow citizens to interact directly with EU politicians and other citizens. Politicians should be regularly present on the hub to interact virtually with citizens and promote current and future opportunities for participation. Citizens should be able to join virtual chatrooms to interact directly across borders and language barriers. Recent advances in AI-based simultaneous translation make this increasingly feasible.

It is time to deliver

Overall, the EU needs to develop a different understanding of its institutional approach when it comes to citizen participation. Only if it starts to see all the instruments as a clear and functioning infrastructure will citizens take notice and policy-makers take an interest. If the current situation of a patchwork of largely isolated participation instruments remains, even the most promising innovations such as citizens’ panels will fall short.

The European Commission cannot do this alone; the Parliament and, above all, the Council need to be on board. They promised to do so at the Conference on the Future of Europe, now they must deliver. Talking about involving citizens has been a constant in EU political communication for some time, but more and better involvement requires a concerted and sustained effort by all institutions. To put it simply: an ever closer union cannot be achieved by continuing to keep European citizens at arm’s length.

Dominik Hierlemann is a Senior Advisor and leads the programme Democracy and Social Cohesion at Bertelsmann Stiftung.
Stefan Roch is a project manager in the project New Democracy at Bertelsmann Stiftung.

This contribution is part of the thematic forum “Supranational governance between diplomacy and democracy – current debates on EU reform”, published in cooperation with the online magazine Regierungsforschung.de.

Pictures: Orchestra pit: Codersquid [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr; portraits Stefan Roch, Dominik Hierlemann: private [all rights reserved]; EU flag: Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

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