This article is part of our special report EU participatory democracy: bridging the gap between theory and practice.
The European Commission will release a revamped version of its Have Your Say online citizen’s engagement portal this month, Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica told Euractiv.
With 66% of EU citizens in favour of an increased engagement of citizens in the policymaking process at a European level, the role of participatory democracy in modern European politics beckons to be taken seriously. Many of the topics brought up for discussion by active citizens are pertinent. A call for the Commission to ban the controversial weedkiller glyphosate was registered by citizens back in 2017 for example. However, bringing up valid topics is no guarantee that citizens will get their way. Last December the Commission decided to renew its license for another 10 years. Although disappointments are part of participatory democracy, having a more organised system for engaging with the EU’s institutions may make these bitter pills easier to swallow.
“This online hub will act as a single entry-point to all citizens’ engagement mechanisms running in the Commission that allow European citizens to have an impact on policymaking,” VP Šuica, who’s in charge of the Democracy and Demography portfolio, told Euractiv.
She went on to describe how the European Commission has a long history of citizen engagement that is continuing to evolve. In the VP’s words, in the current geopolitical context, this is needed more than ever.
“During this current mandate, we have focused on building a resilient democratic ecosystem that is fit for the future. This is necessary given the pace at which society in general is innovating, adapting, and changing,” Šuica.
“We talk of innovation in our economy and industry. We must innovate in our democracy too,” she added.
From the VP’s perspective, providing a safe, transparent public space for citizens’ participation is a crucial way to strengthen the foundations of our democracies. There hasn’t been a lack of initiatives to try to get people involved and excited about participating in EU deliberations. A youth test to consider a policy’s impact on young people, European Citizens’ Panels of randomly selected citizens to discuss legislation, and the European Citizens’ Initiative to collect signatures to create new laws are just some of the EU’s tools intended to give a greater meaning to the opinions of 450 million people. Although the hype around such initiatives typically tends to die down after their launch, these tools are still very much active.
“For 2024, two additional European Citizen panels are planned on energy efficiency and the fight against hatred and hate speech,” Šuica said.
Despite these good intentions, a dig beneath the surface reveals that the crucial moments that count, such as when decisions are made about where funds meant to improve the lives of people are actually invested, often take place behind closed doors.
Take the pandemic recovery funds as an example. A policy officer at CEE Bankwatch Network told Euractiv they struggled to even find out what’s actually being financed and who the beneficiaries are in Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Spain. His main point: If organisations are struggling to obtain this basic information, it’s evidence that citizens weren’t involved in the process at all.
There are some signs that the intention is for this to be the exception rather than the rule. In September 2023, a majority of MEPs called on the EU to give European citizens a stronger voice and more instruments to influence the Union’s decision-making, as well as institutionalise participatory and deliberative processes. A one-stop-shop for all the existing instruments to make sure citizens have easier access to them was also requested.
However, the citizen’s voice has also had its moments of success. Legislative acts adopted in the follow-up to the successful Right to Water citizen initiative have entered into force. The Belgian presidency of the council is also organising a citizen panel on artificial intelligence.
“This is a first of its kind and it links the national deliberative process with the European level,” said Šuica.
Voting as a tool for change
Asked about any participatory democracy tools the Commission is particularly fond of, Šuica said that all the various engagement methods are equally valid. From her end, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola had a very direct answer: voting.
“Whilst it is good that people, especially young people, are today more politically engaged by using different methods such as social media, the best tool to make a change is by voting,” President Metsola told Euractiv.
Metsola’s message in all the EU member states she’s visiting in the run-up to June’s European elections is already set. It will be to “encourage all EU citizens to make their voice heard, to take matters in their own hands, to shape the Europe they want to, and vote.” Metsola’s stance is not surprising, given a prevailing philosophy within the EPP that voting in a representative democratic process trumps the benefits of direct democracy.
Asked about how the EP can continue serving the needs of EU citizens beyond June, Metsola says she wants the parliament “to continue bursting through the Brussels and Strasbourg bubbles”. Being present in European cities and villages is how the EP can keep on listening to citizens and ensure that its decisions reflect both their aspirations and challenges, she believes.
Despite her enthusiasm for an ecosystem that gives citizens a voice, Šuica didn’t ignore the topic of elections either. She also mentioned that while the different forms of engagement do contribute to deepening participatory democracy, this is meant to complement representative democracy. “It does not replace it,” Šuica told Euractiv.
She highlighted that the Defence of Democracy package calls for citizen observation in the electoral processes, adding that she hopes that countries take this into consideration before June. She also emphasised her belief that these elections will be fought on the basis of trust and highlighted the importance of trust in the electoral process. Ultimately, citizens need to see that democracy delivers.
“We are not in the business of providing easy populist answers to complex issues that affect the daily lives of our citizens. We want to deliver both for and with them. Deliver what is needed, where it is needed, leaving no one and nowhere behind,” VP Šuica said.