Wednesday 18 December 2013

In Search of the Citizen - European Year of Citizens

It was, Commissioner Viviane Reding declared, "A fight against indifference". Speaking at the closing conference of the European Year of Citizens, she correctly noted that the EU is "more than a market", but the story of "freedom, prosperity and stability" no longer worked as a European narrative. Europe certainly doesn't feel so prosperous anymore. From citizen dialogues to reaching out to civil society, the EU is not just trying to reach out to be closer to citizens, but you get the sense that if they could just deliver what people wanted, hopefully a new narrative will spontaneously emerge. Reding didn't say what Europe's new story was - she had to leave quickly for another Citizens' Dialogue in Lithuania.

How to make Every Year a Year for Citizens was the conference's theme, with discussions running from civil society organisation's at EU level to freedom of movement to the upcoming European elections. Hosted by the Lithuanian Presidency in Vilnius with the help of the European Year of Citizens Alliance ("EYCA" - an alliance of national civil society organisations), the conference was very much about how civil society can influence and interact with the EU - and above all the Commission.

And they do have something to say. Organising against the discrimination of the vulnerable in society, speaking out and even intervening in court cases in defense of the marginalised who try to exercise their free movement rights, and advocating giving a voice to 3rd country nationals who come to the EU. Proper consultation! was the cry, not "Insultations"! "Insultation" - shorthand for consulting with civil society groups just to tick boxes without really listening to them - was definitely the word of the conference. EYCA took the opportunity to hand Reding their recommendations for making the EU more open and democratic for citizens.

Here is the public the Commission yearns for - it's active, wants to participate and it has learnt the jargon, from your Charter of Fundamental Rights to your institutional triangles (even if this still proves a barrier to civil society organisations when it comes to knowing who to talk to). They can be disappointed, pleased, listened to or ignored. Most importantly, they talk.

It's a public, but are we talking about European citizens here? At times it felt more like a year of civil society organisations rather than a year of citizens. It's understandable - who else to you invite to this kind of event if not them? Apart from the bloggers, pretty much everyone present represented a civil society organisation (which went some way to slowing down the Q&A sessions, with each audience member taking the chance to explain what their organisation does). But though civil society makes a valuable link between the EU and citizens, you will probably only get that sense of a European public if and when the European elections start to feel European.

One of the most surprising speakers was the new head of the European Movement, Diogo Pinto, who - surprisingly for the EM - said that while the European Parliament does have new powers, it's still rational for citizens not to vote at European elections, because it's hard to see what changes in terms of power. Hopefully having candidates for the Commission Presidency in the election will change this, but it would be a slow process. The political drama of parliaments and elections is where you'll find citizens and a sense of citizenship emerging rather than targets and outcomes.

In future - the theme of citizens will unofficially continue because they couldn't think of a theme for 2014 - it would be good to have a citizens' dialogue as part of the conference (I assume that they were held separately due to falling under different institutions - the Council and the Commission). Having the chance to watch ordinary citizens put their questions to the Commission would bring up interesting issues and would actually be citizens participating.

So was the conference and the Year of Citizens a success? It depends on who you wanted to engage, but there is a sense that a wider public rather than simply campaigning civil society organisations was desired. At the opening of the conference it was admitted that it was "a mistake" to involve PR companies so much because it led to more of a broadcasting campaign than more engagement. After the European election promotion campaign in 2009, I hope the Parliament was listening!

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