Citizen Participation in Democratic Europe - What Next for the EU?

Posted on: 19 May 2021 by Dr James Organ in Blog

Image of EU flag, waving across a european building
Image of EU flag waving across a European building

'Citizen Participation in Democratic Europe - What Next for the EU?', a book edited by Dr James Organ, was recently published. The book tackles how we may address Europe's democracy challenge and respond to the COVID-19 aftermath. Dr James Organ discusses the book, following its launch event on our blog.

Ten years after introducing participatory democracy in to the treaties as one of the EU’s democratic foundations, citizen participation remains limited and ineffective. Opportunities exist for citizens to participate in EU decision making, such as the Commission’s consultation regime and the European Citizens Initiative. The engagement levels though are very low and there is very little impact on the EU policy agenda or its laws. EU governance and decision-making remains supported on the shaky democratic foundations of its parliamentary elements.

In an effort to remedy some of the EU’s democratic sins, Commission President Von der Leyen announced a two-year ‘Conference on the Future of Europe,’ (CoFoE) in which citizens shall ‘play a leading and active part’. In a post-COVID world, this is another opportunity to strengthen Europe’s democracy and inevitably address some public policy issues, such as the EU competences in public health.

This CoFoE launced Sunday, 9th May, but the role of citizens remains in question. The EU institutions are still arguing over its scope and process, and the CoFoE has been shrunk to less than one year. This risks the EU’s first step for many years towards major institutional change being cosmetic at best like the 2018 Citizens’ Consultations for tomorrow’s Europe and recipe for failure at worst - think of the 2003–2005 Constitutional Convention. There are widespread fears that citizens will not be listened to and that their participation will have no eventual impact on policy.

In time to influence the CoFoE, a new book Citizen Participation in Democratic Europe - What Next for the EU? (eds. Prof. Alberto Alemanno and Dr James Organ) was published last month. Attached is the recording of this week’s book launch, which includes comment from Prof. Ulrike Liebert, Prof. Andreas Gross and Laura Sullivan, the Executive Director of WeMove Europe.

The book brings together academics as well as practitioners to give a forward-looking, holistic view of the realities of EU citizen participation across the spectrum of participatory opportunities. They all converge in arguing that, after many years of proven experimentation, the EU must institutionalize supranational, participative and deliberative, democratic channels to complement representative democracy and each other. Ultimately to improve the effectiveness of EU citizen participation.

What Next for the EU? proposes a set of democratic innovations, ranging from citizens’ assemblies to regulatory gaming to strengthening the role of social movements. These ideas, emerging bottom-up across the continent, are complementary, not antagonistic, to existing representative democracy across the European continent.

The attempt to harness citizen participation to help address the current EU crisis needs the type of multi-faceted approach presented in this book. One that recognises the potential of existing and new democratic mechanisms, and also, importantly, the links between different instruments of citizen participation to improve the overall quality of the EU’s democratic system.

More broadly, these reforms touch upon the question of what role citizens should play in EU democratic life – which is central to the book. The CoFoE is a first chance to develop the role of citizens and for EU institutions to demonstrate commitment to genuinely effective citizen participation. In its report Our Voices for the Future of Europe, produced for the launch of the CoFoE (presented on Europe Day, May 9th) the Citizens Take Over Europe coalition promoted ideas from the book:

  • The “gamification” of citizens’ participation through the CoFoE, particularly on its recently launched digital platform to increase the strength and inclusiveness of citizen engagement; 
  • “Legislative crowdsourcing”, and “mini-publics” to develop the Commission’s consultation regime;
  • Last but not least, the European Citizen Initiative - thus far a trigger of high hopes and deep frustrations - could be improved. For example, by linking its legislative follow-up to the deliberations and recommendations of a Citizens Assembly established on a permanent basis.

What makes these ideas not only desirable but realistic is that they are well tested and understood on the ground, in diverse national contexts. All that is lacking now is the political courage and will by European leaders to implement them for the benefit of citizens and the future EU. The EU must urgently embrace a new systemic approach to the EU democratic reform agenda. They must empower citizens to influence agendas on a permanent basis, and create a more responsive, participatory union.

Dr James Organ

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