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COMMENTARY

In EU Citizens' Panels, the institutions must not leave citizens behind






Conference on the Future of Europe / COMMENTARY
Perle Petit

Date: 13/12/2022
The Conference on the Future of Europe citizens’ feedback event reinforced the need for EU institutions to find a better way to speak to each other and communicate with citizens.

In the last official event of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), citizens gathered in Brussels to receive feedback from the EU institutions on their proposals. Despite their enthusiasm about having a follow-up with decision-makers, citizens were left frustrated, with more questions than answers about where the results of the process currently stand or might be heading. What is clear from the event is that the institutions must realise that consultations do not end with citizens’ deliberations. Clear information about how (and indeed, if) their work will be reflected in policy and policymaking is expected. Conversely, deliberations risk being relegated to symbolic PR exercises, which defeat their primary purpose of bringing citizens closer to EU decision-making.

The CoFoE citizens’ feedback event

On 2 December, the European Parliament hosted over 500 citizens from 27 member states (who participated in the CoFoE European Citizens’ Panels or National Citizens Panels) for a one-day feedback event in which the three EU institutions would offer citizens a status update on the implementation of their 49 proposals. The event was meant to provide information on 1) existing initiatives that address the proposals, 2) initiatives already proposed by the institutions, 3) planned actions which would deliver on the ideas directly, and 4) new initiatives inspired by the proposals of the CoFoE.

What have the EU institutions done with the citizens’ proposals so far?

Since the closing event of the CoFoE on 9 May, each of the three EU institutions has made efforts (albeit to different degrees) to include the CoFoE follow-up in their individual policy agendas. For example, the European Commission came forward with a detailed assessment of what is needed (from their perspective) to implement each of the CoFoE proposals. The Commission also included a number of the citizens’ proposals in their 2023 Work Programme and has planned new European Citizens’ Panels starting in 2022. The European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for a ‘Convention for the revision of the Treaties’, and the Council undertook a preliminary technical assessment of the proposals. These efforts indicate that the results of the citizens’ deliberations have not simply been set aside by the institutions.

At the feedback event, the citizens appeared eager to learn how and when their proposals would be implemented. Their expectation was that representatives from the EU institutions would inform them in a clear and practical way about how their input had been taken forward in the seven months since the ‘end’ of the CoFoE. However, as the day advanced, citizens became increasingly vocal about their dissatisfaction with the event, frustration with the institutions, and confusion about what progress was being made.

What went wrong?

The presentations by the institutions on the post-CoFoE state of play were overall too vague and lacked wider contextualisation. They only referred to the number of proposals (35, ‘directly and indirectly’ related) that would be implemented through the Commission’s 2023 Work Programme and the percentage of those (around 95%) which would be prioritised as they do not require any treaty change. However, having spent considerable time and effort working on the outcome of the CoFoE, the citizens wanted to know which proposals have made it into the first batch of the Work Programme and which proposals fell into the 5% that would be put on the back burner on account of requiring treaty change. Despite directly asking questions about specific proposals to the institutional representatives, the citizens did not feel they had received satisfying answers during the event.

In general, there was a systematic communication gap between the political and institutional representatives and the citizens. During their presentations and in their replies to the citizens’ questions, the officials mostly gave broad statements and political verbiage, focusing more on grand ideas about the future of Europe and singing praises for the CoFoE than on the specifics of the implementation process and the path ahead.

Even when it came to self-promoting their efforts, the institutions failed to win ‘easy points’ with the citizens by sharing concrete actions that are already in place. For example, properly introducing the Commission’s plans to hold European Citizens’ Panels ahead of key legislative proposals would have been valuable for citizens, but this news was breezed over so quickly that most citizens did not have the opportunity realise its value and how it is linked to their proposals.

As a result, throughout the event, citizens felt that their questions (e.g. about the status of proposals or what was coming next in the process) were not being answered. The format of the plenary Q&A sessions was also not conducive to having a straightforward dialogue, with a revolving panel of institutional representatives attempting to answer six or more questions from citizens per round within a fairly limited timeframe. As a result, many questions were either not answered or not addressed fully, or – most concerningly – used as a platform for politicians to push their ‘pet’ policies.

In addition, friction and disagreement between the EU institutions over the CoFoE follow-up process was picked up on by the citizens. Disagreements on several topics, such as when to speed up action in regard to the CoFoE or in ‘whose court’ certain developments lie, were played out in front of the citizens. For example, while the Council advocated that “this winter is not the time” to accelerate the process, MEPs were emphasising the urgency to do so. As institutions were ‘passing the buck’ among themselves, citizens were left wondering about the institutions’ dedication to the process but also about what to believe.

Since the event, 96 citizens have expressed their concerns via two letters addressed to the European Commission and the Council, in which they ask for the institutions to respect the commitments undertaken in the Joint Declaration and put in the “necessary political ambition” that their proposals require. They also raised concerns about the “silent and stalling” behaviour of the Council and the potential “cherry-picking” of proposals by the Commission, asking quite simply for “clear and honest communication about the implementation process”.

Improving institutional communication is key

To avoid losing citizens in the process, politicians need to learn from this event, as well as the wider CoFoE experience in general. Citizens want to know what is happening with their work and have the opportunity to question the implementation process with the relevant people involved. Therefore, there must be a continuous and accessible feedback loop, keeping the channel of communication between the citizens and institutional representatives open. Such deliberative exercises cannot end in one-off events.

In this regard, the institutions should work together to provide citizens with a regularly updated rolling list of their proposals, including the status of each proposal and where it ranks in terms of the priorities of each institution. For certain proposals, it will be necessary to include why they are being held up or not being implemented. This overview should be written in a clear and understandable way and shared publicly on the CoFoE’s Multilingual Digital Platform. The platform should also include channels through which citizens can communicate any questions and comments directly to the responsible parties. In addition, further follow-up events should be organised, and Guy Verhofstadt’s comment that he would be inviting all the citizens back next year (which received enthusiastic applause from the citizens) could be a first such step.

This inability to communicate with citizens is emblematic of a larger problem within the institutions. What happened at this event is symptomatic of the struggles that the EU faces in explaining its work and relevance to citizens and shows how inter-institutional fighting can get in the way of providing clear answers to important questions. The EU must improve its style of communication – this experience should be eye-opening to the Union.

In the end, the experience of the CoFoE seems to have inspired a new ‘generation’ of citizens who feel a sense of ownership over their work within the Union’s policymaking framework and want to engage with EU-level politics. The institutions must learn to play their part in response. It is not enough to involve citizens in producing substantial and useful ideas or recommendations, like the CoFoE Panels and Plenary have done. The feedback event amply demonstrates that citizens want to be also included in the follow-up phases to understand how (and/or whether) their participation has made a difference.

This requires the EU institutions to find better ways to speak to each other and then clearly communicate with citizens about their work, competences, limitations, and priorities. A cacophony of institutional voices and confusingly vague messages about what has or will come of citizens’ input can further alienate people from their European leaders, defeating the purpose of the entire exercise. EU institutions must quickly internalise these lessons if the upcoming panels envisioned by the Commissions are to add any value to the EU’s democratic governance reform effort.

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

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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