Citizens’ Dialogue: Too little, too late?
On Thursday, January 10th, 200 members of the public and five leading national and European politicians descended upon Dublin’s City Hall to launch the European Year of Citizens 2013 (EYC 2013) and to take part in a Citizens’ Dialogue.
EYC 2013 was launched by President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, and An Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore TD. The trio spoke about the importance of working with and for the European Union to overcome our mutual problems and concerns. They dealt with one or two easily anticipated questions with carefully prepared answers and made a hasty exit.
Citizens’ Dialogue is an initiative introduced by the Commission as a way of bridging the ever-widening gap between the average EU citizen and the lofty and more often than not distant institutions of the Union.
Vice-President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, and Minister of State for European Affairs, Lucinda Creighton TD, were there to answer the more pointed questions from the public.
The burning issues of the day were the economic crisis, citizens’ rights within the European Union and the future of the EU.
Fr. Seán Healy from Social Justice Ireland voiced the anger of the people with his question regarding the harsh budgets in the five high-risk European states (Ireland, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain). “The budgets in the five countries at risk are all regressive, have taken more from the poor people …decisions have benefited the rich at the expense of the rest of us. The Commission has the power to deal with that issue and didn’t do so.”
Vice-President of the European Commission Viviane Reding responded with “We have given the freedom to the member states in order to take those measures they need to take in order to restore a healthy situation.”
Under the rights banner, most questions related to women’s rights and gender equality. Topics touched upon included the gender pay-gap, described by V-P Reding as “a nightmare and so unfair”, and the rights of women to be protected against domestic violence.
No one made direct reference to the giant elephant in the room relating to women’s health, Ireland’s anti-abortion laws. Even though it is a domestic issue this was surprising, considering Minister Creighton’s well-documented fear of the introduction of ‘liberalised-abortion’ and V-P Reding’s stance in 2011 regarding Hungary’s misappropriation of EU funds for a national anti-abortion campaign. The commissioner was unimpressed with the country’s use of PROGRESS funds and threatened ‘financial consequences’ if they continued with the campaign. It was a lost opportunity to see two leading politicians debate such a highly sensitive issue.
Will the Citizens’ Dialogue initiative be effective in changing how the majority of the 500 million citizens view the Union?
With public opinion of the European Union at an all-time low this programme can’t do any harm. A Eurobarometer poll published in November 2012 shows that the negative image of the EU is at its highest since we joined in 1973.
There has been an increase of 9% in the negative image of the EU since Spring 2011 and public trust of the European Union is at 33% (a 2% increase in Spring 2012 results, but, considerably lower than previous years’ rates nonetheless). V-P Reding herself admitted that “69% of (EU) citizens believe their voice doesn’t count.”
Initiatives like this are a small step in the right direction to eradicating that belief. They generate awareness of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU and what it hopes to achieve during those six months. They also give people a platform to seek answers from politicians. However, more are needed.
Negativity and mistrust are so deeply entrenched in EU-related affairs at the moment that the government can’t really afford not to intensify this citizen engagement program. The Citizens’ Dialogue in Dublin was a good idea but if not followed through could prove to be too little, too late to change national opinion of the European Union.
The idiom ‘learn to walk before you can run’ does not apply in this context. Considering the harsh economic measures being imposed from a Union level, the EU better hit the ground running if it wants to improve public opinion in Ireland and indeed throughout the continent.
Little Youth Engagement at Citizens’ Dialogue
On Thursday, January 10th 2013, a Citizens’ Dialogue was held in Dublin City Hall as part of the launch of the European Year of Citizens. The event was attended by 200 members of the public who sought to have their voices heard by Vice-President of the European Commission Vivane Reding and Minister of State for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton, TD. Citizens’ Dialogues are taking place in 19 locations across Europe, with Vice-President Reding stating that “We were making too many big speeches instead of going out and looking citizens in the eye and asking them questions.”
Hosted by Pat Kenny, the event used the familiar debate concept of The Frontline to bring some structure to the question and answer session. The Dialogue was separated into three core themes, the Current Economic Crisis, Citizens’ Rights and the Future of the European Union. While the two hundred people present were entitled to raise their hands and ask questions of the Commissioner and Minister, social media was also a core part of the process, with Rapporteur Margaret E. Ward tracking tweets to find questions and comments to add to the debate. With only seventy minutes to cover a vast range of topics, much of the debate emerged online, with follow-up questions and concerns being tweeted under the #cdIRL hashtag, used specifically for the event.
Given recent concerns in Ireland regarding the role of social media in bullying and defamation, the Citizens’ Dialogue provided insight into the power of social media to ask questions and instigate open debate. Young people provided a strong online presence, many of them demanding answers about education and employment. However, Cian de Paor, a student who travelled from Cork to attend the event, asserted that the youth of the nation were not represented and went unheard throughout the Dialogue.
“Questions weren’t taken from students, including me. I thought I would be allowed, but not one student got a say.” Mr de Paor further stated that “Our generation is the key to European development and stability; it was unclear why we weren’t the focus.”
In November 2012, the youth unemployment rate in Europe was 23.7%, whereas in Ireland, it stood at 29.7%. In contrast, hte general unemployment rate nationally in December 2012 was 14.6%. As they struggle to find careers in a stagnant economy, Ireland’s young people are suffering to a far greater degree than other sectors of society.
The Central Statistics Office estimates that 87,100 people emigrated from Ireland between April 2011 and April 2012. An estimated 75,300 of these emigrants were aged between 15 and 44, meaning that a very high number of our young graduates and jobseekers are departing Ireland to find opportunities elsewhere. Even at the height of the previous recession, emigrant numbers never reached so high; a peak of 70,600 people emigrated in 1989.
In what should be a concerning truth for the European Union, 2012 saw over 35,000 emigrants from Ireland elect to leave the EU entirely. Despite the international benefits of the Free Movement of Good and People Directives, our emigrants are electing to leave the European Union for farther flung shores, different currencies and entirely new systems of immigration, education and law.
Vice-President Reding, who hails from Luxembourg, stated that 45% of residents in her native country are not Luxembourgers, a fact which demonstrates the capability of the state to absorb migrants and provide shelter. “But the talents that come to Luxembourg are missing in countries that need building,” she acknowledged.
Throughout the launch of the European Year of Citizens 2013, which took place before the Citizens’ Dialogue on Thursday, the “Stability, Jobs Growth” mantra of the irish Presidency of the Council of the EU was ever-present. In spite of President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso’s claim at the launch that “Together, we will do everything we possibly can not to let or younger generations go to waste”, Mr de Paor asserted that at the end of the event, he felt “isolated and useless.” He expressed his disappointment that he had spent a significant amount on travelling from Cork to Dublin and still felt unheard.
While questions during the Citizen’s Dialogue were varied in their scope and the variety of people asking them was wide, no student issues were raised and no questions on youth employment or opportunities were accepted. Journalist members of Youth Media and the Irish Presidency were present at the event to ask questions and report, but no question was accepted from any one of the 25 participants.
Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore commented that Ireland “cannot sustain one in four young people being out of work,” and President Barroso outlined some details of a youth guarantee scheme to ensure that all young people up to age 25 receive a quality offer of a job, continued education or traineeship within four months of leaving education. Minister Creighton later stated that the youth guarantee scheme alone would not be enough, and outlined her belief that young people need to be given more hope for their futures.
At the end of the Dialogue, Vice-President Reding stated that the Dialogue was a beginning, rather than a conclusion. She claimed that 69% of citizens believe their voices are not heard and attempted to reassure those present that this was not the case. A reader poll from thejournal.ie, published on the same day, found that only 6% of people felt their voices are heard. Whether that viewpoint will prevail when more of these events are rolled out across Ireland remains to be seen.
With the completion of all 19 Citizens’ Dialogues, a Citizen’s Report will be released. The full video of the Irish Citizens’ Dialogue can be found at on the European Commission’s Webcast Portal.