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Reconnecting citizens with EU decision-making is possible – and needs to happen now ǀ View

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Maybe it’s the Brexit effect, or perhaps the memories of the great recession are fading, but in poll after poll, Europe’s citizens are saying that they feel more European and strongly supportive of EU membership. Even nationalist parties, like Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Matteo Salvini’s Lega, have quietly dropped policies to leave the EU and now just want it to be a “Europe of Nation States.”

While sighs of relief can be heard from Schuman to Strasbourg, after a decade where the EU has bounced from crisis to crisis, the new Parliament and Commission will inherit a fragile and fractious Europe this year. One of their most important tasks will immediately be to connect EU citizens more closely to the institutions and their decision making.

Crisis or no crisis, that was always going to be the case. As the EU has taken on more functions from its member states, the decisions it makes about migration, economics and investment have come closer and closer to people’s lives. The EU needs to complement that greater power with greater accountability. In other words, the EU will need to do things differently, if citizens are going to feel like they’re a genuine part of the European project.

So what can they do? Well, as luck would have it, they’re not the only people to have confronted the problem. Across the world, there’s a growing wealth of knowledge in how to give citizens a greater role in decision-making. As well as using digital technology to open up transparency and access to government – something organisations like mySociety are experts in doing – in the last few years we’ve seen a host of innovations aimed at giving citizens a greater, more informed say in making decisions.

Some of these innovations, including Citizen Assemblies and Citizens Juries – forms of ‘deliberative democracy’ where groups of citizens debate and reach a consensus on difficult issues – are being used right now in Europe. Recently, a Citizen Assembly was part of the process that led to the referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland, while the German Speaking Community of Belgium has established its own sitting Citizen Assembly.

At an EU level, the journey to this kind of citizen involvement has only just begun – but the wheels are in motion nonetheless. The European Commission’s Better Regulation agenda, for example, offers citizens the chance to become involved in the development of new regulations. Similarly, Citizens’ Dialogues – a part of Future of Europe consultation –offer citizens a way to talk to policy makers too, and are evolving from town hall-style meetings into something where citizens can become more involved. In fact, the questions for the Future of Europe consultations were set by a Citizen Jury that met in May last year.

Nonetheless, the current picture is much as we found it in our 2017 report. There is a lot of good work on openness and transparency, and some on participation, but it’s piecemeal and disjointed.

The new European Commission and Parliament have the chance to change that, by adopting an ambitious open government agenda that puts citizen participation in decision making at its heart.

There are three things on our wish list for doing this.

The first thing on our list is an EU-wide commitment to policy making “in the open.” Built on a renewed commitment to transparency, it would set a unified approach to consultation, as well as identifying major policy areas where citizen involvement is both valuable and where citizens are likely to want to be involved. This could include issues such as migration and climate change. Member states, particularly those who are in the Open Government Partnership, have already had a lot of good practice which can help to inform this while the Open Government Network for Europe, which brings together civil society and government voices, is ready to help.

Secondly, the connection to civil society and citizens also needs to be made beyond the European level, supporting and making use of the rapidly growing networks of democratic innovation at local level. We are seeing an increasing shift from citizen participation as one-off events into a part of the governing system, and as such, the European institutions need to listen to local conversations and support them with better information. Public Square, our own project run in partnership with mySociety and funded by Luminate, is a good example. It is working with local government and citizens to understand how meaningful citizen participation can become an everyday part of the way all local decision-making happens.

The last item on our wish list would be greater coherence between the institutions in Brussels and Strasbourg to better involve citizens. While the European Parliament, Commission and Council all have their different roles and prerogatives, without a co-ordinated approach, the attention and resources they have will be dissipated across multiple conversations. Most importantly, it will be harder to demonstrate to citizens that their contributions have made a difference.

Showing that those contributions matter is the biggest challenge. Europe is distant and deals with big issues, often when they are still at a very abstract of stage of understanding and development. It is one of the hardest political processes in which to add citizen participation. But without it, the foundations on which the system is built will remain fragile, and the next crisis will lead to the collapse of what looks today like strong public support.

A new crisis and future challenges will come – and they will not just be the inheritance of the last decade’s turbulence or a general sense of democratic disillusionment. The EU has to create a democratic model that is ready for the fundamental shifts in society that climate change and work automation will bring – and if it is to work, it has to be rooted in a new relationship with citizens in every community across Europe.

Anthony Zacharzewski is president and founder of The Democratic Society, a non-partisan organisation working for greater participation and dialogue in democracy based in Brussels and Manchester

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