Published on March 9, 2015

Is Participation the EU’s Zeitgeist?

By Reema Patel

Reema is a Policy Analyst at Involve, working on the Citizens and Science programme - including Sciencewise, the expert national resource centre for public dialogue input into science and technology policy.

As I walked through the streets of Riga, I encountered a radio station with bullet holes still scattered across it, a busy Sunday central market, an imposing government building and a striking Orthodox cathedral that still glistened at the edge of Riga’s largest park. I stopped in front of a heavily scaffolded, enormous building – commencing upon the reconstruction of the National Museum of Art – a building which had not undergone reconstruction work for well over 105 years.

I sensed that if I returned in another ten years’ time that the city would again have changed beyond comparison, the scattering of noodle bars, Pakistani kebab shops and the city centre’s coffee culture multiplying out into the city’s suburban sprawl.

The impression I got was that of a people both close to Riga’s past with an eagerness and a desire to reinvent its future; prompted by the expression of a desire for independence. In 1989, two million people joined hands in a Baltic chain, physically uniting the people of Riga with those of Talinn in Estonia and Vilnius in Lithuania. Their act was one of peaceful protest, a clear signal of unification across three major cities and the expression of a united wish from those Baltic States for independence from the Soviet Union. This public act initiated a chain of events leading to Latvia’s independence and eventually, its entry into the European Union which took place in 2013.

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The Baltic Chain

I was in Riga to participate and feed into a conversation about the road map towards increased public participation and engagement in the European Union (A Riga Process towards Public Participation), under the Presidency of Latvia on the Council of the EU.

The starting point for this road map was Article 11.1 and Article 11.2 of the Lisbon Treaty, part of the EU’s constitutional basis. These articles provide that –

  1. The institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action.
  2. The institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society.

Discussion was spirited, to say the least, on questions of interpretation of these two Articles. What do we mean by ‘appropriate means’? How do we define a ‘representative association’ – and what’s the link and connection to representative democracy?

And intelligent conversation was prompted in relation to the question of ‘public exchange’ of views in all areas of Union action – which suggested the need to look beyond the vertical organisation of the European Union where dialogue and participation exist between the Union/Member States and Citizens towards recognising the need for space for dialogue between citizens of the Member States – and for the Union’s role in facilitating that public exchange.

And of course, the Lisbon Treaty leaves in the air the role of that public exchange, dialogue and voice. Once we’ve got it going, what do we do with it? How do we, and can we define the parameters of that discussion and debate? Should it influence policy or decision-making – and if so, at what level? There are no explicit words in the Treaty providing that it should – but if one takes a purposive approach to interpreting the Treaty then it would appear odd for there to be public exchange and dialogue in the EU without also an accompanying objective that this would in turn shape the decision-making of the EU. This conversation has been explored in the past by Janice Thomson at Involve, who has highlighted the need for a space inside Europe for the public before we can have conversations about a European public space. To suggest otherwise would be putting the metaphorical cart before the horse – where we advocate for the public’s participative space without being clear about the potential benefits and limits of that and its relationship to decision making. In short, the public’s time is precious, so if we are going to use it, it should be for a clear purpose.

When I left Riga, I felt that more questions were raised than answered, and much more work on this pressing issue needed to take place until we got to a satisfactory stage. Juxtapose the hopes and the aspirations new EU member states and citizens recently entering the Union have with a broader awareness that across Europe the project has recently stalled, now dubbed the ‘ever loosening union’. Citizens are increasingly looking for the new ‘Coal and Steel Union’ – the idea that may reignite the mandate for the project at national levels across member states. Could participation be the zeitgeist for a renewed European project? One thing is clear – reform is necessary if the conversation is to progress, and asking questions about citizen participation and its role in making the case for the European project is a good starting point.

That’s why we were working with ambitious words for an ambitious roadmap in an ambitious city – but then the European Union has always had an ambitious agenda.


Photo credit: 87094780@N07

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