Dominik Hierlemann, Stefan Roch, Paul Butcher, Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Corina Stratulat & Maarten de Groot. Under Construction. Citizen Participation in the European Union. 2022, Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung, Gütersloh
The European Union (EU) has a plethora of participation instruments at its disposal. Elections, citizens’ initiatives, consultations, petitions, and dialogues – citizens can participate in EU politics in various ways. But how well do the existing instruments really work? Are they well-known enough to citizens, and do they actually impact EU policymaking? How can the individual instruments be improved, and should new elements be added to the existing toolbox?
This study shows that citizen participation in the EU is a patchwork of instruments that are relatively accessible, but largely unknown among the European public, often have a narrow user-base, are neither transnational nor deliberative enough, and overall create little impact. At the same time, four out of five citizens want to have a greater say in EU policymaking – and the EU and its member states should respond to this demand.
To make participation count, the EU needs to move from a participation patchwork to a participation infrastructure by addressing three gaps:
the awareness gap,
the performance gap, and
the political commitment gap.
In a participation infrastructure, the individual instruments would not only work on their own, but would collectively establish the basis for a functioning participatory EU democracy alongside the representative dimension of European policymaking. Democratic accountability and legitimacy would not only come from elections every five years, but from regular and effective participation by citizens. The future of the EU’s democracy depends on the political will and ability of the Union and its member states to enhance and extend the possibilities for a more visible, more coherent, and more impactful citizen participation within EU policymaking.
Five recommendations for building a participation infrastructure
1. Cultural change - Citizen participation must become an integral feature of EU democracy, rather than simply being a “nice to have” element in Brussels and the national capitals. In the eupinions survey, 78% of respondents agreed that citizens should have a bigger say in European decision-making. The EU and its member states should respond to this wish. However, one of the main problems is that the EU currently lacks a common understanding of the nature, potential and different formats of citizen participation.
2. Strategy - The EU’s institutions and the member states must develop and agree upon a common strategy. This will require a common vision and a shared understanding of the meaning, purpose and benefits of the European Union’s participation infrastructure. The study identifies a number of criteria for good participation, including visibility, accessibility, representativeness, transnationality, deliberativeness and impact.
3. More visibility for EU participation instruments - Joint communication efforts are needed to make the participation infrastructure visible to the general public. Citizens across Europe need to know more about how they can get involved in European policymaking. The eupinions survey results clearly indicate that citizens today have only a vague idea of their participation rights. For example, only about 19% of respondents were able to identify the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) as an EU participation instrument. Fully 95% of the democracy experts we surveyed for this study said they did not believe the existing participation instruments were sufficiently known and used.
4. A central online hub for EU citizen participation - An EU participation infrastructure needs a central, user-friendly and clearly explained online platform for all of its participation instruments. A hub of this kind could provide networking opportunities, facilitate effective communication and offer civic education on the issue of EU citizen participation. According to the eupinions survey, an overwhelming majority of citizens in Europe (71%) find it difficult to participate at the EU level.
5. Digital potential and new participation formats - Modern citizen participation also needs stronger digital components. Digital mechanisms can increase the visibility and effectiveness of existing instruments by allowing them to reach new audiences. In addition, new formats should be used more often and institutionalized. In the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe, for example, randomly selected people from all across Europe participated on citizen panels.
In the absence of a comprehensive reform of citizen participation at the European level, these instruments will continue to have a patchwork nature. This could lead to a situation in which citizens take less and less interest in European politics over time, expanding the gap between policymakers and citizens. "To protect and strengthen liberal democracy at the EU level, we must enable more and better participation," said Janis A. Emmanouilidis, deputy director and director of studies at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.
At a glance: from a participation patchwork to a participation infrastructure
The approach of this study
Part 1: Citizen participation in the EU: a patchwork with potential
I. What EU citizens and democracy experts think: survey results
II. The EU participation patchwork: six findings and three gaps
III. Building a participation infrastructure
Part 2: A closer look: seven EU participation instruments
I. Elections to the European Parliament: the cornerstone of EU citizen participation
II. The European Citizens’ Initiative: an unfulfilled promise
III. Petitions to the European Parliament: a low-profile instrument kept low
IV. The European Ombudsman: more than maladministration
V. Public consultations: systematic input with inconsistent output
VI. The Citizens’ Dialogues: discussion with little formal impact
VII. European Citizens’ Consultations: a learning experiment