France's EU policy elite still ponders consulting the voters
Article published in Europe's World, Autumn 2007.
It remains to be seen whether 2007 will be remembered in France and the rest of the EU as the dawn of a new era for citizen participation. During the French presidential elections, "participation" was strongly promoted by Ségolène Royal, the socialist candidate. She used "participatory debates" and an interactive website to collect voters' suggestions. Her programme included a promise to organise "citizens' juries" to assess elected officials' actions.
But her approach risks being remembered as a short-lived campaigning tactic, designed to appear innovative and open but without concrete results. Although it generated some interest and controversy, it did not take root, not least because Ms Royal failed to win the election. More generally, citizen participation, lacking a solid scientific foundation, has so far failed to become a credible policymaking tool in France; involving the citizens in the governance process is viewed with suspicion, as being somehow demagogic and manipulative. This also holds true of several other EU countries, even though other countries, including Denmark and the UK have organised a number of well-structured quality citizen deliberations.
In theory, active citizen participation in political decision-making is an intrinsic part of democracy. Proponents of participation argue that public participation can enhance active citizenship and contribute to a lively democratic debate, and may even improve the innovation process by bringing new expertise.
In practice, though, citizen input is on the whole limited to the election booth. Allowing citizens to shape policies, or even make decisions directly is viewed by many as risky. It is argued that citizens have little fresh information, limited time to consider issues that are in the general interest, especially as these issues are steadily getting more complex. This sort of thinking means that participatory budgets and citizen consultations are widely seen as best suited to local matters, for which citizens can understand the dimension and impact of a given policy proposal. Most French analysts, not surprisingly, see consulting citizens on matters as complex as EU institutional arrangements as pure folly given the results of the 2005 referendum there.
Yet the question still being asked is: can new methodologies be invented that would allow citizen participation to play a useful role, perhaps even at a transnational level?
This year has already seen the implementation of a handful of "Plan D" initiatives under the aegis of the European Commission's "Plan D', aimed of promoting EU-level democracy. But the signs are that such well-meaning initiatives will make little difference, because they do not meet three essential criteria. First, who talks? Europhiles and eurosceptics are easy to find, but how to engage with ordinary people from all walks of life? Second, is a genuine deliberation occurring, providing new insights, or is it mere repeating what politicians already know from past debates, focus groups and Eurobarometer polls? Third, is anybody listening? On all three counts, recent debates have failed to catch policymakers' attention and clarify thinking about what Europe should be doing.
Nevertheless, solutions to these problems may exist. Rigorous polling methodologies can yield truly representative panels of citizens. Debates that overcome group polarisations can be organised in such a way that a real deliberation takes place, involving a meaningful exchange of arguments. This is what Deliberative Polling ® seeks to achieve.
In a Deliberative Poll ®, a representative sample of people receive objective information about an issue and are then brought together for several days of discussion. Participants' attitudes are measured before and after the discussions, and invariably show significant opinion shifts. Because they involve a truly representative sample, they act as a mirror of society and generate significant media coverage. Policymakers take such conclusions seriously because the sample is scientifically representative and the recorded changes of opinion provide them with valuable information.
By applying Deliberative Polling ® beyond national borders, there is a chance that we can begin to understand what citizens would want for the EU if they could all meet and hear all sides of the argument. Regardless of whether one voted for Mr Sarkozy or Ms Royal, or whether one is in the pro- or anti-EU integration camp, this is something we should all agree is useful.