The European Union (EU) is moving quickly to clarify and enforce the rights of its citizens, driven by the very senior, results-oriented Commissioner Viviane Reding. The Commission’s focus is the rights of individuals when engaging in cross-border activities, such as purchasing products from another country or obtaining social services when living abroad. However, it is also exploring how to help citizens better “participate in the democratic life of the Union”. A public consultation on citizens’ rights has just ended, to be followed by a hearing this summer and likely legislative proposals in the fall.

According to political scientist Robert Dahl, democracies must provide equal and adequate opportunities for citizens to participate by: 1) putting issues on the agenda; 2) expressing their views on these issues and 3) voting. All three rights are enshrined in the Treaty on European Union (Lisbon Treaty). The citizens’ rights consultation briefly refers to the first, in the form of the yet-to-be-implemented European Citizens’ Initiative. It goes into great detail on the third. But it completely ignores the second. Democratic participation is thus effectively limited to voting.

Voter participation in elections to the European Parliament has been declining ever since they began in 1979. This is clearly not a purely EU phenomenon though. During the same period, participation in elections at all levels, along with political party membership, has decreased throughout the EU. Certainly, European election campaigns and voting rules could be improved. Campaigns could become more European with the introduction of transnational candidate lists. Plus, a directly elected European Commission President might actually add some excitement to typically dull EU elections. However, none of these steps will be enough to ensure a vibrant democratic life for EU citizens.

Increasingly, citizens are choosing to engage directly on those issues of greatest importance to them, rather than work through political parties. At EU level, citizens need lots of extra help to do this. Not only do they rarely know what is happening in Brussels on issues of concern to them, but policy makers do not proactively seek their input. It is no surprise then when EU policy outcomes fail to match citizens’ expectations or have undesirable consequences.

Greater transparency in EU policy making, citizen-friendly consultation methods, more deliberative forms of public opinion gathering and stronger links with national organised civil society would be a good start. But the EU should not stop there. The most effective methods for EU public engagement are probably yet to be invented.

Unfortunately, nothing will happen until the EU Institutions take seriously their treaty obligation to support citizens to express their views on EU issues. A growing number of EU Member States are making space for ongoing public engagement between elections. The EU should too. As the world’s newest form of democracy, the EU should be adopting and creating new methods of citizen participation rather than restricting itself to one of the oldest.