Back in 2008, with the EU stalled pending ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Council appointed a high-level independent Reflection Group, headed by Felipe González, to propose solutions to numerous challenges facing the European Union in coming years – from economic coordination to foreign policy to reaching out to EU citizens.
The recently released report is well-drafted and provides an accurate assessment of the EU’s current situation. However, it has so far received a lukewarm response in the EU press for recommending good policies that are already widely accepted, avoiding the toughest questions and generally lacking vision. Its chapter on the EU and its citizens (pages 39-41) clearly identifies the risks to the EU of failing to engage its citizens, but does not go far enough in proposing solutions. Specifically, the report:
- Discusses the importance of good governance mentioning concepts like participation and partnership, but then ties this to the concept of subsidiarity where decisions should be taken at the level closest to the people. It thus maintains the status quo where Member States are primarily responsible for public participation in policy and typically avoid public engagement on EU matters.
- Limits direct citizen involvement in the EU to voting in European elections and indirect representation via civil society organisations present in the weak consultative bodies the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR). Interestingly, to increase participation in European elections, it recommends the federalist ideas of cross-border candidate lists and an elected Commission president.
- Points to the potential to engage citizens in EU policy of two new tools created by the Treaty of Lisbon but does not suggest ways to ensure they are effective in practice. The first tool, The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), allows 1 million EU citizens to invite the Commission to propose new legislation. The second tool is a subsidiarity check mechanism which requires the Commission to reconsider legislation if 1/3 of national parliaments think the issue is best dealt with at national or regional level.
- Defines “citizens rights” primarily as legal rights e.g., voting rights, private contracts, laws governing private matters like marriage. This is a current focus of the European Commission and subject of an open public consultation
- Reiterates the importance of one-way communications, specifically telling citizens in plain language about EU policies. Importantly, it rejects the two-way dialogue approach to communications tried under the previous Commission.
- Promotes long-term efforts to create European identity by educating children about Europe, promoting foreign language learning, cultural exchanges and a European civilian service.
To bridge the chasm between the EU and its citizens, much stronger tools are needed for citizens to influence EU policy. For instance, EU public consultations could better capture the views of ordinary citizens by incorporating participatory elements such as those used in the European Citizens’ Consultations. In addition, the new European Citizens’ Initiative needs user-friendly regulations and institutional support to actually work. Furthermore, EU communications must not only tell citizens what the EU does for them or policies EU decision makers are considering but also engage them in tackling the biggest issues facing the EU. Finally, although organised European civil society has changed greatly over time, the consultative institutions meant to represent it, the EESC and CoR, have not. Both are in need of reform.
The Reflection Group consulted many experts, but did not seek public input and conducted its work in secret. Perhaps then it is no surprise that its final report offers citizens few new opportunities to influence EU policy.