YMIP: Engaging with our Union

Citizens’ Dialogue, Dublin

Sallyanne Downes and Clodagh Garry

Sallyanne and Clodagh put together a fantastic video on the Launch of the European Year of Citizens 2013 and the Citizens’ Dialogue that took place in Dublin, combining some great audience interviews with an overview of the events.   If you weren’t there on the day, this will fill you in on everything you missed!

 

EU – Engaging with our Union

Órla Ryan

We live in an age where unprecedented levels of political connection are possible, and not just in terms of technology. Despite this, many people feel disconnected from their public representatives at local, national and international level. In modern democracies, the encouragement of citizen engagement with politicians has become an increasingly common feature.

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

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

In 2012, the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, called for a broad debate between officials and citizens of the European Union. There are over 500 million citizens in the EU. Successfully bringing together a pool of people diverse enough to truly represent this community is quite an undertaking, before one even begins to factor in the element of productive discussion with a view to policy formation.

Since September of last year, five ‘Citizens’ Dialogues’ have taken place throughout Europe, the most recent of these being held in Dublin City Hall on 10 January. This series of public-politician forums, entitled ‘A Debate on the Future of Europe’, will continue until the end of 2013. These dialogues coincide with the European Year of Citizens, the 40th anniversary of Ireland’s accession to the European Economic Community and our six-month Presidency of the Council of the EU.

The formula is seemingly straightforward: a moderator oversees a Question and Answer session between members of the public and Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission. The audience size varies from 200 to 500 people. An indigenous politician is also present for questioning – in the Irish instance, State Minister for European Affairs, Fine Gael’s Lucinda Creighton, TD.

At the Citizens’ Dialogue in Dublin, the debate was split into three sections: the current economic crisis, the rights of European citizens and the future of the EU – with a particular focus on where we hope to be in 2020. Topics covered included the possibility of an EU banking union and Minister for Finance, austerity budgets that target the most vulnerable, restructuring of the promissory note deal, unlinking bank debt and sovereign debt, youth unemployment, retirement age, climate change, gender inequality and the pay gap, discrimination against individuals and smaller EU countries, active citizenship and the idea of a ‘human rights scoreboard’ for member states.

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.

A multifarious list, but one that merely scratches the surface of our Union. Minister Creighton stressed the inclusive nature of the EU at the forum, saying: “Every Irish citizen, every one of the citizens of all member states and candidate countries have a right to influence the direction of our union – to improve it, to make it better for the future.”

Only a small fraction of those present got to ask their question. This is far from ideal but, logistically, was somewhat unavoidable. Such events cannot provide a portrait of the EU, but they can offer a snapshot and the process of citizen engagement has to start somewhere. One issue to consider in terms of the audience is that those who apply to attend are often people who are already interested in politics. This leads to a continuous cycle of the same faces, the same voices and the same sense of disconnect felt by those on the political periphery.

One can easily become disillusioned with politics and the seemingly impenetrable mound of bureaucracy that surrounds it. Vice-President Reding stated that 69 per cent of EU citizens believe their voices don’t count. What so for this silent majority? Are such debates simple posturing, no more than lip service?

This disengagement could well be one of the contributing factors to the steady decrease in voter turnout since the first direct European elections took place in 1979. General turnout in the last elections in 2009 stood at 43 per cent¹. The findings of a Europe-wide survey from 2010 show that over eight in ten citizens believe this figure would increase if voters received more information on the programmes and objectives of European Parliament candidates and how political parties’ programmes impact on people’s daily lives².

In 2012 the European Commission undertook its largest ever public consultation, surveying almost 12,000 European citizens about their experiences with EU rights. Commissioner Reding admitted that almost seven in ten European citizens don’t know what their rights are. The Commission website includes information on rights, but citizens have expressed their desire to receive information from other platforms, most notably television (52 per cent); social networking websites (49 per cent) and ‘Europedia’ – an online discussion forum (34 per cent). One in ten citizens, meanwhile, felt there was no need for extra information to be shared³.

“Politicians are Listening”

As a politician from Luxembourg, the EU’s smallest state, Ms Reding regularly speaks directly to citizens and would like to see this process replicated across the continent and Union at large. “Something which has bothered me at European level is that we are making too many big speeches, instead of going out and looking the citizens in the eye and asking them their opinion.” She added that the EU should involve citizens in the entire decision making process, not just present them with a policy in its final form. “[The Citizens’ Dialogue series] is the beginning of a new adventure together […] where politicians are listening,” she assured.

At the close of the public discussion, Minister Creighton acknowledged that many changes and reforms are needed within the EU as it “certainly isn’t perfect”. She maintained that the Union must acknowledge its deficiencies and strengths alike in order to better itself. As a follow-up to the Citizens’ Dialogue in the capital, her office will organise a number of regional debates across Ireland where individuals, civil society organisations and NGOs can voice their opinions in a similar fashion. Minister Creighton also spoke of the need to improve accountability, democracy and engagement at European level. She said that genuinely involving citizens in the political process would be a challenge, but one that would be met. “The evolution of Europe and Ireland’s place in Europe is an ongoing process,” she added.

Unprecedented change has occurred in both Ireland and the EU since our marriage 40 years ago. Whatever the next four decades will entail, one thing is for certain: citizen engagement is vital. Citizens’ Dialogues are a step in the right direction on a very long journey. Whether or not they will lead to tangible results: time will tell.

¹EU Citizenship Report 2010: ‘Dismantling the obstacles to EU citizens’ rights’

²Eurobarometer Qualitative Survey: ‘European Union Citizenship: Cross-Border Mobility’ (August 2010; as listed in EU Citizenship Report 2010)

³EU Citizens’ Agenda: Public Consultation on EU Citizenship (2012 European Commission survey of 11,598 European citizens)

For more information on the European Year of Citizens, visit the European Commission’s website.

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