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View: Europe needs citizen lobbyists to help shape our continent

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View: Europe needs citizen lobbyists to help shape our continent

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At a time of great political uncertainty for the future of Europe, the only way to shape our continent is through citizen lobbying argues Alberto Alemanno.

While public sentiment about the European project has rebounded to a record-high, Europeans remain largely dissatisfied with whether their voices and concerns count in Brussels. Despite recurrent calls for the need to radically reform the European Union to ensure a greater involvement of EU citizens, little is expected to change between now and the next 2019 European Parliament elections. The 2017 White Paper on the Future of Europe is noticeably silent on the issue.

And it won’t be the thousands of Citizens’ Dialogues orchestrated by the EU Commission across Europe over the summer that will re-engage EU citizens with Europe.

This manifest neglect for citizens’ demand appears all the more critical today. A median of around 53 percent EU citizens, excluding the UK, support having national referendum on continued membership. Meanwhile, two seemingly irreconcilable phenomena, Brexit and Macron’s leadership, are encouraging the emergence of an unprecedented, cross-national yet timid pro-EU sentiment, which might soon become – in view of the next EU parliamentary elections – the object of electoral contention.

This situation calls for a re-assessment of the context in which citizens live and perceive the Union.

Today Europe’s greatest deficit is not democratic, but of intelligibility. As we get lost in endless discussions on whether we need more, less, or a fairer Europe, we fail to recognise how indecipherable its operation is. No surprise then that literacy about the EU is modest – only 42 percent of citizens feel fairly-informed about their EU rights – and that engagement remains limited (as epitomised by the EU Parliament low voter turnout).

If we continue to assess the quality of European democracy against the democratic features of the nation state, we fail to grasp what is its underlying logic. This does not entail giving away sovereignty to lose control, but to secure citizens with collective goods that states are no longer able to provide in the face of growing interdependence and transnational challenges. Despite all the new-narrative-for-Europe-talk, no political leader in the EU has been able to make such a case yet.

The lack of a EU public sphere condemns citizens to be exposed exclusively to domestic accounts of EU developments. No surprise these reports are inevitably partial, often misinformed, and generally misguided by national politicians who seek electoral rewards by passing the buck and scapegoating the EU.

Why should they tell citizens that it is Brussels not their national capital taking the most fundamental decisions affecting their lives? And when it comes to EU decision-making, this is characterised by a civic empowerment gap. Political power is increasingly distributed unequally. There are an estimated 30,000 corporate lobbyists operating in Brussels, dominating the EU policy process. While NGOs have increasingly been included in EU policymaking (there are almost 3000 NGOs registered in the Transparency Register), they are typically under-staffed and, due to their pan-European orientation, struggle in connecting with citizens. In short, they are often ill-equipped to effectively represent the interests of 500 million European citizens on issues such as consumer rights, climate justice, data protection or gender equality. The other untold yet known story is that Members of the European Parliament are – in average – disconnected from their constituencies and, as a result, easy to be influenced by their political party and external influence.

But the good news is that, despite its unintelligibility and perceived opacity, the daily operation of the European Union is, on average, more open, inclusive and accountable than that of most EU Member States. Multiple avenues of participation exist, ranging from agenda-setting via the European Citizens’ Initiative, advice and data-collection via public consultation, and adjudication via administrative and legal actions before the EU Ombudsman and national courts respectively. Yet, these participatory channels remain little known. As a result, these remain underused by EU citizens. Paradoxically, the major beneficiaries of the EU participatory opportunities are not EU citizens, but euro-specialists – be they business (who represent 75% of yearly lobbying meetings) or civil society organisations (who supposedly represent us).

While these obstacles to effective and meaningful participation are not specific to the EU, they are particularly arduous to overcome in the multi-layered constitutional and socio-political reality.

The key question is what then, realistically, can the role of citizens be in a multi-level and largely indecipherable European Union?

As I argue in a new book, Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society, to win the citizen’s challenge in the EU (and elsewhere) we need to foster a participatory culture by not only opening the use of the existing avenues of participation to a wider audience, but by also making sure that everyone can actually gain access to them. That is what I provocatively call citizen lobbying.

A citizen lobbyist is someone who, in the absence of remuneration, participates in the policy process by tapping into their own skills, talents and expertise as well as in the repertoire of various, rapidly-changing lobbying techniques within existing participatory channels.

Think of Max Schrems, the Austrian student who challenged Facebook’s use of private data and won. Think of Antoine Deltour, the French PwC employee who blew the whistle after stumbling upon evidence of a massive-scale corporate tax evasion facilitated by Luxembourg and who has been advocating the EU to protect whistle-blowers across Europe. Or consider the rapid emergence of a transnational online campaigning community – as symbolised by WeMove – capable to swiftly mobilise millions of Europeans so as to pressurize EU decision-makers on matters as diverse as CETA, glyphosate, and the Barrosogate. These are just a few, promising instances of citizen lobbying that can potentially redesign the relationship between EU citizens, their elected representatives and the EU institutions themselves.

Yet to many, ‘citizen lobbying’ sounds like an oxymoron. And so it is, if you believe that lobbyists represent – by definition – the interests of the few rather than the many, meaning they can never be a force for good. While organised interests, notably corporations but also some leading NGOs, have historically monopolised lobbying, lobbying is no longer the prerogative of well-funded groups with huge memberships and countless political connections. Indeed, today lobbying is not only legitimate but is also essential and therefore encouraged in a democracy. All the more so in the EU.

By taking full advantage of the many avenues of participation available in the EU, citizen lobbyists may act as equalizers. By countering the undue influence of a few special interest groups in the policy process, they may help decision-makers to better identify the European public interest. This does not mean that citizen lobbying can realistically give all citizens an equal voice, but rather that all elector-elected relationships are going to be structured from that idea. Moreover, by gaining exposure to the policy process, citizen lobbyists learn how the EU works and become aware of the inherent complexity and numerous-trade-offs decision-makers make at various levels of government.

The genius of citizen lobbying is that it complements rather than antagonizes representative democracy. Unlike other forms of engagement taking place in between elections, it is rooted in a set of constructive, truth-oriented actions driven by civic sentiment as opposed to electoral gain.

At a time of growing disenchantment with the EU democratic system, citizen lobbying transforms mounting distrust into an active democratic virtue. And it does so by leveraging citizens’ expertise and imagination, empowering ourselves and boasting our happiness. By striving for equality, citizen lobbying helps European societies to co-create the Europe citzens want.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law at HEC Paris and the author of Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society, Iconbooks, 2017.