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EU-level citizens’ participation needs wider institutional support

Conference on the Future of Europe / COMMENTARY
Perle Petit

Date: 21/06/2023
One year after the closing event of the Conference on the Future of Europe, there has been little follow-up to the citizens’ recommendations. A notable exception is the European Commission’s ‘new generation’ of EU Citizens’ Panels. However, it is unclear how these deliberative exercises can genuinely connect citizens to the wider EU policymaking process.

Last month marked the first anniversary of the conclusion of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE). Although the event was a milestone in EU participatory democracy, it passed without much fanfare. The Conference, which officially ended on 9 May 2022, was never supposed to be the end of the process. In the limited follow-up to the Conference, the European Commission has been the institution paving the way for experimentation with citizens’ participation at the EU level via its ‘new generation’ of EU Citizens’ Panels (ECPs).

However, despite being a novel step forward in upholding the Commission’s Conference promises and placing citizens into the middle of EU-level policymaking, these exercises need to be more than symbolic, and more than simply an engagement tool in the EU’s decision-making ‘black box’. First, to allow citizens to genuinely contribute to policymaking, the added value and place of citizens’ input need to be evaluated and a shared understanding accepted across and throughout the entire policymaking chain. Second, exercises like the ECPs should be recognised as one type of instrument in a wider participatory toolkit that should be adapted to specific policy needs. In this way, other formats should be explored beyond the Commission’s efforts with the ECPs.

Institutional follow-up in the wake of the Conference

Since the official ‘end’ of the Conference, there has been little follow-up to the citizens’ recommendations, with the institutions each focusing on an aspect related to their specific agendas. While the Council’s response over the past year has been negligible, the European Parliament has focused its efforts on engaging with institutional reform concerning a possible Convention and specific elements of treaty change (such as the issues of qualified majority voting, ‘passerelle’ clauses, and transnational lists) – connected to several of the citizens’ recommendations.

Compared to the Parliament, the European Commission’s efforts have been in taking up the Conference’s participatory format. As such, among the institutions, the Commission has been the one to uphold the spirit of the Conference by connecting citizens to policy via deliberative exercises. Following Commission President von der Leyen’s commitment to incorporate citizens’ voices in EU policymaking, a ‘new generation’ of EU Citizens Panels was launched in December 2022 to be conducted ahead of key legislative proposals. Three panels have been held so far, with the last (for now) concluding in April. A total of 67 policy recommendations were produced by around 450 citizens on (non)legislative proposals on ‘food waste’, ‘virtual worlds’, and ‘learning mobility’.

Overall, the aim of the Commission seems to be for these ECPs to become a regular feature of the Commission’s policymaking process ahead of the European elections next year (having cited plans to hold up to four ECPs a year). As the most obvious  ‘legacy’ of the Conference at this time, these new panels are a notable development in the EU’s longstanding effort to close the gap between citizens and European decision-makers.

Citizens’ panels as a one-institution exercise

With the exercise solely under the purview of the Commission, the ECPs are insulated from EU policymaking at large. Without external checks and balances when it came to establishing a context in which the ECPs could take place (including their fundamental democratic and political purpose), there is the risk that the exercise is co-opted into current Commission practices to legitimise and engineer certain pre-existing and desired recommendations to suit technocratic and political purposes. This possibility affects how the citizens’ recommendations are received (and trusted) outside of the Commission and whether they are seen as providing reliable input to policymaking.

The Commission’s ECPs can, and most likely will, be improved over time, with more time and thought devoted to refining the process. For example, decentralising the process from the policy DGs, trusting more organisational aspects to external ‘service providers’, and involving a wider range of stakeholders. Yet, regardless of methodological tweaks that boost the internal validity of the deliberative process, the relevance of the entire exercise can be called into question if the use of the citizens’ recommendations is not adequately tied to the wider policymaking process and if there is no buy-in from the other institutions.

During the Conference, the joint investment of the three institutions gave weight to the process of establishing and conducting the initiative. Although the lack of a citizens-focused follow-up from the other institutions regarding the recommendations or use of such participatory instruments demonstrates the buy-in did not constitute any binding commitments. However, without prior agreement among the institutions on how to treat the recommendations, there is no guarantee that they will cooperate with the results from the Commission’s ECPs. Instead, they could well completely disregard the citizens’ recommendations or ‘cherry-pick’ those that suit their pre-existing agendas. Considering the visible lack of cooperation and discord between the institutions during the Conference feedback event last December, as well as the apparent lack of interest from the Parliament and the Council regarding the three ECPs that have already taken place, the expectation that this could happen is justifiable.

Refining citizens’ participation in the EU

If, as the act of conducting the Conference implied, the institutions are earnest about citizens’ participation in the form of sortition-based instruments and genuinely intend to incorporate it into EU policymaking, then, collectively, they should:

1. Determine the place and purpose of citizens’ input in the overall policymaking chain

It is necessary to establish where citizens’ deliberation would have genuine added value for policymaking, particularly regarding the types of policy files that such input would have an impact on (i.e. deliberations that would result in providing information that policymakers cannot access without citizens’ input). A common understanding of citizens’ participation and its potential needs to be determined and endorsed across the board, with agreement by the institutions over the necessity to take citizens’ recommendations seriously, regardless of which institution runs the exercise.

2. Establish the available types of citizens’ participation formats

There is an array of available and/or implementable participatory formats that can be used at different points in the policymaking cycle, to actively aid all aspects of policy building, such as drafting, reviewing, priority setting, and so on (although some imagination might be needed in order to transpose certain of these formats to the EU level). The parameters of these types of instruments need to be set, via guidelines to ensure standardisation for how to conduct these exercises.

 3. Make the connection between different participatory formats and types of policymaking

Citizens’ participation should be supported and conducted across the institutions, as the Commission cannot be expected to uphold the spirit of citizens’ deliberation alone. This is not to suggest that all participatory efforts should be conducted as three-way exercises by the institutions – far from it, considering how difficult the experience of the Conference was. Making every decision trilaterally brings a host of logistical issues and political conflicts which, as seen during the Conference, limits the ambitious potential of such exercises.

Rather, when policy files that would benefit from citizens’ input are identified, they should be analysed to determine which format and institution would be best suited to conducting the participatory exercise. Instead of adapting the policy to the format, the format should be tailored to the policy.

In addition, supplementing and supporting the use of participatory instruments with other relevant formats at different points in the policymaking cycle could involve citizens in a circular way. For instance, the Commission’s ECPs could work well alongside Council-Commission ‘big tent fora’, with citizens identifying the EU’s potential strategic priorities for the upcoming politico-institutional cycle, followed up by ECPs on particular policies areas that, for example, are more contested or contentious.

Inter-institutional cooperation

The establishment of a form of cross-institutional cooperation to support these three points could be achieved by a formal inter-institutional agency on citizens’ participation, comprising representatives from each of the institutions (as an expanded, more accessible multi-actor form of the Commission’s Competence Centre on Participatory and Deliberative Democracy), as well as deliberative democracy practitioners and civil society. Having interaction between external actors and the institutions in this way is essential to ensuring a transparent process supported by all institutions – representative of but not beholden to the institutions and directly accountable to citizens and other stakeholders.

Although the Commission’s efforts are a valuable first step in bringing citizens closer to EU-level policymaking, clear connections should be established between the three institutions to make citizens’ input useful for the entire policymaking chain. This will require willingness, patience, and compromise from the institutions, but if the Conference was able to take place, there is no reason to believe a more cooperative approach to citizens’ participation in the EU is impossible.

Perle Petit is a Policy Analyst in the European Politics and Institutions programme at the European Policy Centre. 

This commentary is written under the EU Democracy Reform Observatory, exploring themes that will be featured in an upcoming publication on the Commission’s European Citizens’ Panels, written by members of the EU Democracy Reform Observatory (including Andrey Demidov and Johannes Greubel).

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
European Union, 2022

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