Citizens’ Dialogue: Theory and Practice

Possibility But No Promise for EU Sceptics

Vicky Kavanagh

It was an occasion filled with hopeful speeches and brave talks of a better future, but the spirited tone present at the launch of the European Year of Citizens was vastly different to the attitudes of EU sceptics in wider society.

Before the dignitaries arrived, I searched for a youth in the audience who couldn’t get work.  Given that Ireland has the highest rate of youth employment in the EU, I was not searching for somebody with illusive criteria.  I failed to find one to talk to.  Present, however, were several MEP’s, one former MEP, the head of a Catholic Lobby group, the CEO of Amnesty International and a sign on the door which read “Private Function”.  But a youth looking for employment?  In this instance, there were none to be found; quite strange for a “Citizens’ Dialogue”.

Speaking with several students who had attended, it was apparent that nationally, our youth are disenfranchised.  They do not see the point in interacting with a system that, in their eyes, has abandoned them.

An Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore at the Citizens' Dialogue in Dublin. Photo taken by Dave Nowak.

An Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore at the Citizens’ Dialogue in Dublin. Photo taken by Dave Nowak.

After arriving twenty minutes late – it must just be terribly difficult to find Dublin City Hall – the EU Eagles landed to officially launch the European Year of Citizens 2013; President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste.

As the event commenced, the individuals took their time to do what politicians do best: spin a great yarn.  President Barroso spoke of the need to put in place a banking union that would break the vicious link between bank debt and public debt, a statement which was received with a round of applause in the echoing hall.

But in reality, grand talk is all we’ll have in the immediate future to keep us warm.  With regards to promissory notes, it will be the end of March before an agreement is reached.  Days after the event at Dublin City Hall, Barroso said how Ireland’s “hard-earned” reform (a polite way of saying we’ve been smothered by the austerity blanket for the last few years) and progress to win back financial market trust will be destroyed unless action is taken quickly by EU leaders.

Although President Barroso acknowledges the immediate need of such reform, he has admitted that it is unlikely anything will be signed before October.  At the launch on Thursday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke about the need of the ESM to assist in economic recovery; details and conditions of that assistance are expected in June of this year.  The countdown clock is ticking.  And lest we forget, David Cameron is set on either removing Britain from the EU or getting a renegotiation of membership for Britain.  Enda Kenny has admitted that a British departure from the EU would be “disastrous”.

The future of Ireland nationally and within the EU is subject to mercurial factors.  Ireland is hosting the Presidency of the Council of the European Union at a critical time in the history of the EU; member states are either going to have to strengthen bonds or cut them completely, with potentially disastrous consequences.

But as this drama continues to be negotiated and demonstrated, EU citizens are left with very little to comfort themselves with.  Promises do not hold as much weight for citizens – both young and old – who feel abandoned by the EU.

Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, at the Citizens' Dialogue in Dublin. Photo taken by Dave Nowak.

Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, at the Citizens’ Dialogue in Dublin. Photo taken by Dave Nowak.

Jim Collier attended the launch and Citizens’ Dialogue, as a result of his strong interest and opinions on how the elderly of Ireland are being treated.  “Older people living on their own cannot afford to live as a result of the austerity that is hitting the old of Ireland”, he said.  He also spoke of the failures of the Irish healthcare system when compared with others across Europe: “if you want good health, you have to go private”.  He spoke about his own battles with serious illness and how, were it not for his private health insurance, “I don’t think I’d be here in this room today”.

Eamon Gilmore addressed the issue of youth unemployment at the launch, saying “We will not have done enough and should never feel that until we have people back at work and young people back at work… we cannot sustain with having 1 out of 4 people out of work”.

Vice-President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, addressed the issue also, saying that it is the responsibility of all of us within the EU to solve this problem. “We need to think outside the box [in order to solve youth unemployment]”, she added.

Minister of State for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton TD, at the Citizens' Dialogue in Dublin. Photo taken by Dave Nowak.

Minister of State for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton TD, at the Citizens’ Dialogue in Dublin. Photo taken by Dave Nowak.

Lucinda Creighton, Minister of State for European Affairs, admitted that “Young people are the people who have suffered the most through this crisis”.

She added, “They are taking the brunt of this and taking the hit… if young people are going to continue to believe in the EU, we need to give them hope”.

And what about the family in mortgage arrears?  The student who graduated two years ago and still cannot find work?  The single parent trying to provide for their child?  What are their lives to be, lives lived in flux as they wait around for important men and women to decide on their future?  There is a sense of serendipity about 2013 being designated the European Year of Citizens.  This year will be the backdrop to EU leaders working to save the union, generate economic progress, reduce youth unemployment, build a  single digital market strategy and restore the faith of all citizens of the EU; all the while working to convince citizens that they are a part of all this, they are important, they have a say.  Out of that laundry list, the last task will be the hardest battle to win.

 

Dave Nowak

Dave put together this collage of some of the photos he took at the Launch of the European Year of Citizens and Citizens’ Dialogue.  His photos are also being featured in articles written by other YMIP journalists, so keep an eye out for his work as you read reports from other members of the YMIP team.

Collage of photos from the Launch of the European Year of Citizens 2013 and Citizens' Dialogue, taken by YMIP reporter David Nowak

Collage of photos from the Launch of the European Year of Citizens 2013 and Citizens’ Dialogue, taken by YMIP reporter Dave Nowak

 

Citizens’ Dialogue: Theory and Practice

Tricia Purcell

The European Year of Citizens 2013 was launched in Dublin with a Citizens’ Dialogue in City Hall on Thursday, 10th January.

The event, which was the fifth Citizens’ Dialogue to have taken place in the EU since the initiative’s launch in September 2012, was supposed to be a dialogue and debate between politicians and the citizens.
And did it do what it said on the tin, you may ask? Well, to an extent.

While Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso were a fashionably 15 minutes late for the Year’s launch, the real event was the Dialogue with the Vice-President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, and Minister of State for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton.
Vice-President Reding was a breath of fresh air with her enthusiasm and eagerness to get into the crowd and engage with the ‘citizens’ asking questions.

I say ‘citizens’ because I think the event slightly missed the mark with regard to portraying a fair representation of the ‘ordinary Joe soap.’ With MC Pat Kenny picking Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International out of the crowd for a question and a sneaky follow-up and Fr Sean Healy of Social Justice Ireland, input not exactly representative of the common citizen. However, I do think the video presentations used in between the debate were more consistent with the theme of the day.

Vice-President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, speaks to the audience at the Citizens' Dialogue in Dublin. Photo taken by Dave Nowak.

Vice-President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, speaks to the audience at the Citizens’ Dialogue in Dublin. Photo taken by Dave Nowak.

 

Ms Reding proved to be popular on the day with her down-to-earth nature and her admittance that: “Something that has bothered me at the EU level was that we were making too many big speeches instead of going out and looking citizens in the eye and asking their opinion.” And this is precisely what she did.

So with no mention of matching ties or Audis, the event continued without any real feathers being ruffled.
It was all this talk of listening to the citizens of the European Union that made me think about doing the same thing. So on that note I went off to grab some of the more regular citizens attending the event to see what they thought and to see if they had any suggestions of how, during Ireland’s tenure holding the Presidency of the European Union, we could engage some of the non-interested population.

Paolo Petrolini (Dublin/Italy):
So I guess coming from my profession, the most important thing is engaging online so having the proper resources online, engaging on social networks, engaging in different ways. But like, online is the next thing for me ‘cause I think, for me that while the EU and Commissioner are making efforts, there’s stuff online but not that well done so that should be improved.

Douglas Cross (Cumbria):
Firstly, most people don’t want to be interested and secondly, the European Union doesn’t want to listen to people.

Irina Ramoniene (Russia/Ukraine):
I came along today because I am just curious about the situation in Europe and the difficulties with the crisis. Just to listen, just to listen to the discussion… In general, I think normal people [aren’t interested] simply, it’s lack of information and mostly they hear negative information about the crisis and the EU in general. So instead of positives and negatives, it’s negatives all the time. Whether it’s the crisis or EU’s problem with democracy, there are just not enough positive things being reported.

Dominic Gallagher (Tipperary):
It’s hard to spoon-feed, especially when the majority of the population have a negative opinion of politics and that’s not just young people, that’s adults, everyone really. You mention politics; you generally get a negative response so I think it all relates back to education. In Ireland, we’re not taught about politics, we’re not given an interest in it. People are taught about sport and brought up with it. It’s generally only families that have an interest in it [politics]. Like my dad is interested so I was brought up with it. But most families don’t have that enthusiasm and it’s hard to engage with people that don’t care.

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