EU: The obsession with citizens and consultations

Get ready for a long post.

I know, citizens are at the core of politics. Or at least this is how it should be. And yes, I think referendums are appropriate means to answer certain political questions. But when I browse EU’s statements, publications, websites…the obsession with tying everything to “citizens� annoys me a bit (google “EU citizens�..11 million hits and counting). Of course, I also see the frustration of not really getting the right response from someone’s political constituency. But…

There have been statements in the line of how-important-it-is-to-ask-the-citizens-for-everything before Margot Wallström (the Vice-President of the European Commission), but she can be still labelled as the “mother� of EU citizens. She launched the Plan D (for Dialogue, Debate and Democracy or similar), she even has her own blog! Imagine. It is still difficult to find single declaration of the EU that does not include a line saying “the EU needs to bridge the gap to its citizens�. As if this would be the leit motiv of the whole integration project. Sometimes I stop reading press releases or statements when I bump into similar bullshit, because it’s just overdone. Of course politicians and political organisations need to do policies for people, this is self evident!

But since I have spent a fair deal of my professional and NGO life engaging in debates and projects that had to do with the EU and obviously involved people, I have to explain myself better probably.

A while ago EUObserver ( a slightly less EU friendly EU news portal) published a comment “Why it may not be right to consult the people� by Peter Sain ley Berry who claims:

“The consultation exercise seeks to by-pass politics, falling for the popular but naïve fallacy that among the citizenry there exists a coherent body of political thought untainted by party political machines…Government policy, at whatever level is an amalgam of compromise.�

And goes on to say that one of the large projects financed by the European Commission’s Plan D is a big waste of money that should have been avoided.

Some days later, the same media published a reaction by the leaders of the project (Gerrit Rauws from the King Baudouin Foundation and Felix Oldenburg from the Institut für Organisationskommunikation, IFOK) who answered to the criticism:

“…policy-makers do need to be provided with information about people’s concerns and preferences in order to formulate policies which respond to their interests… Active and competent citizens are essential to any democracy.â€?

And this is what led their reasoning behind the project European Citizens’ Consultations (ECC) that have consulted selected groups of individuals in all EU member states.

The direct consultation with the citizens beyond elections has of course many faces. It can fall under the effects of populism, it can produce racist outcomes, it can produce anti-constitutional decisions…but if correctly moderated also have educational value and strengthen democracy.

Without going on to debate the merits of direct democracy and deliberation in the context of the EU, the particular case above deserves some further debate in the light of its outcomes. I recently read two of its final documents: European Citizens’ Perspectives on the Future of Europe (PDF) and Expert Comments on the European Citizens’ Perspective (PDF). Wow, this is a nice pile of useless conclusions. I’m sorry, but I got really angry. Let’s have a look at few elements of the first:

“All across Europe, our national consultations nearly unanimously ask for the EU to play a substantial role in virtually all social policy issues, and actively create a “social Europeâ€? (25 MS2) beyond the ‘economic Europe’.”

“Gradual harmonisation of social and economic policies (GR/DE/BE) among EU countries and the creation of equal opportunities (EE/DE/SE/SI/HU/FI/BE) are at the centre of the social agenda our panels envisage.”

“Most of us advocate that the EU sets minimum standards (BE/IE/GR/LU/DK/NL/DE/LV/PL/IT/LT/RO/ES/UK), and fights inequalities (FR). It should also be able to enforce (AT/LV/UK/ES/IT) these standards by, for example, using a minimum percentage of GNP for social services and health care (FI), while encouraging more advanced countries to develop legislation further (MT).”

“Many of our panels would like to see the EU support family-friendly (HU/LU/MT/ES/SE) work places, with one emphasising the need to provide adequate support structures for families (AT).”

“A few of our panels would like to see health policy focus more on prevention (BE), alternative medicine and treatments (PT) and a more active role for the EU in preventing and fighting drug and alcohol abuse (PL/CY/LT). One of our national groups would like to see the EU promote a healthy lifestyle (EE).”

“Many of us assign an important role to the EU in developing uniform (FR) and high standards for education (EE/LV/BE/LT) at all levels (PL) in the Member States. The qualifications could be determined at EU level, while the specific content (DE) for comparable and compatible degrees across Member States (BE/HU/PL/RO/SE/DK) is specified at national and regional levels.”

“Some of our panels would like to extend the mandate of the EU to enable it to set fiscal incentives (PT/SI/BE/IE) and enforce agreed policies (FR/MT/UK/CZ/DE), trusting the EU to act effectively against individual interests (CY/DE) and monopolies (DE), and to balance economic, environmental and safety concerns (PL).”

“We broadly agree on the need to protect the environment (CY/FR/HU/LU/RO/EE/SK/PL) in order to safeguard the health of human beings (CZ). One of our panels wants environmental protection to become “part of every day lifeâ€? (HU).”

(The abbreviations in the brackets refer to the national consultations)

One observation is imminent. All the conclusions demand more Europe, be it in the social, environmental, family-policy etc field. There is not a single that would say we need to scale EU back somewhere. But what worries me is of course not more Europe, but the way this “citizens� were consulted.

Do you want that the EU solves your employment problems? Of course. Do you want that the EU takes better care of your children? Of course. Do you want that the EU protects the environment? Of course. How many of the people present expressed that the EU is doing too much in an area? None.

But these are questions taken out of context and cannot alone be aswered correctly. You want better environment? OK, then cycle to work or take public transport. The EU will from tomorrow ban driving in urban areas and put a tax on petrol up by 50%. Do you still agree? Erhm, not really I presume.

This is why I think that the final outcome is everything but credible. Because a flawed methodology of open debate, with little (there were experts involved) or no moderation can produce significantly skewed results. Meaning that you get everyone demanding “more Europe�, but then everyone voting against it once you present the solution.

As for the second document produced by the European Policy Centre. Please, get back to writing and do your homework properly. None of the comments is critical of the outcom. I simply can’t believe that the specialists in this respected think-tank can’t do better.

While I think debating the EU is essential to get people engaged, I think this should happen in normal circumstances of political campaigns, in media, public meetins, news reporting, blogs…Not in supposedly representative “consultations�, put together with the sole reason to get input.

Probably the Commission is quite happy though. Gives plenty of room to argue for more harmonisation.

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3 thoughts on “EU: The obsession with citizens and consultations

  1. I agree, Marko, that the political value of the final declaration is zero. But this was to be expected.

    Nevertheless, you could still praise this ‘consulting the citizens’ exercise for motivating a handful citizens to think about the EU and its policies for some days, what they might have never done before seriously. However, if the participants fall back into anonimity immediately after the final press photos with smiling, “citizens-friendly” politicians were taken, than the ressources were wasted, indeed.

    It is a reoccurring bad habit of the Commission to spend millions of taxpayers money on such actions without caring about a serious follow-up. As with the citizens consultations, I do not yet see, how the impulse on the participants shall be maintained. Instead, the website of the project says:

    “The Synthesis event on the 9 and 10 of May 2007 kicks off an extensive follow-up process. The objective of the follow-up process is to actively communicate the European citizens’ perspectives to policy-makers and the wider public.”

    I assume, it will happen, as always, the participating citizens will be dropped like hot potatoes. Instead of involving them as multiplicators for further, sustainable, long-term discussions about the EU, just more frustrations will be generated.

    I love Plan D.

  2. Hi! Thanks Daniel for your thoughts. True, of course similar projects have a positive side to them. But I prefer to work with already existing multipliers, because they have an outreach that with “normal” citizens (what is here normal?) do not have.

    A follow-up cannot be done by individuals. Or at least not effectively. Like with political parties, you also need structures in the civil society and this is why partnerships with civil society are relevant. But selecting people randomly? Yes, you get some “unusual” suspects and a bit of opinion-poll-feeling. But almost nothing once the funding is gone…

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