Citizens need to participate, too
Published in European Voice, vol. 13 no. 24.
Car rental companies know that customers will never clean their cars before returning them. For a simple reason - they do not own them. Such a sense of ownership is what is missing in Europe. Without citizens' input, the European project lacks direction, affects our competitiveness and standing in the world.
Like a slap in the face, the French and Dutch referenda on the constitutional treaty reminded policymakers that talking at citizens is never a clever way to convince. Yet, after two years of so-called reflection, we do not know where citizens really want Europe to go. Member states are divided. And governments show signs of reverting to a less open and inclusive form of negotiation - the intergovernmental conference (IGC).
Democracy, at any level, faces a dilemma : citizens' opinions are based on fundamental values and interests, and they are shaped by their immediate sphere of knowledge and everyday preoccupations. The result is an aggregation of imperfect but legitimate opinions, which citizens voice in more or less official forms of political participation. Imperfect because governed by emotions, personal considerations and partial and limited information. Legitimate, because the people are sovereign. The problem is that humans' imperfections, thus revealed in a democratic system, can lead to populist manipulation. The 50th anniversary celebrations of Europe's original treaties may have given a false sense of renewed impetus, but many know that the "democratic deficit" remains a thorn in the back of European construction. Arguably, this deficit is more perceived than real. European institutions today are democratic per se. They are more transparent than most if not all national governments. Efforts have been made to give the European and national parliaments more say, and to share information systematically. Citizens nevertheless still feel disengaged.
The treaty provided for a "European Citizen Initiative". This would have been a real step towards giving citizens a sense of entitlement. Short of this dose of direct democracy, the buzzwords in Brussels nowadays are "participation", "consultation", "bottom-up dialogue", and "deliberation". The rationale has even led to some well-meaning initiatives. But these will make little difference if the following three criteria are not met. First, who talks ? Europhile and Eurosceptic citizens who are already mobilised, or people from all walks of life ? Second: is a real deliberation occurring, providing new insights, or is it mere talk repeating what politicians already know from past debates ? Third, is anybody listening ? On all three counts, current debates are unlikely to engage citizens. A way forward can be identified. Rigorous transnational deliberations can yield truly representative panels of citizens if methodological precautions are taken. Debates that face up to common group polarisation can be organised such that a real deliberation takes place, involving the exchange of contradictory arguments, not the aggregation of particular individuals' opinions.
Rather than top-of-the-head answers to polls, meaningful opinions can emerge - the product of exposure to impartial information, and to the opinions of balanced panels of experts and politicians. This is what in essence "deliberative polling" does.
It involves selecting a representative sample of citizens, providing them with objective information about an issue, then bringing them together for several days of discussion. Participants' attitudes are measured before and after the discussions, and invariably show a significant shift in opinion.
Some 23 deliberative polls to date have proved effective in giving participants a sense of ownership. In the latest, in Bulgaria, the prime minister announced his intention to organise three more on crucial national issues. Because they involve a truly representative sample, they act as a mirror of society and generate significant media coverage. Policymakers take their conclusions seriously because the representativeness of the sample ensures real legitimacy and changes from the initial off-the-cuff opinions to considered opinions. If such an experiment were to be conducted at the EU level, this could reveal not partial and nationally focused information, but the confrontation of views across borders. It would also contribute to fostering a European public sphere.
Europe can demonstrate that it is possible to further develop democracy to meet the challenges of 21st century global policy challenges. This is possible only by seriously giving citizens a voice across borders and finding ways to feed the results into policymaking.