New models for citizen involvement in government are critical for the survival of democratic institutions in Europe, write Alberto Alemanno and Laura Batalla.
Alberto Alemanno is an Ashoka Fellow and the founder of the Good Lobby; Laura Batalla is the lead for Ashoka’s Changemaker Europe initiative; Claire Davenport, is communications and storytelling manager at Ashoka Changemakers
Today, Europe faces many threats – from economic uncertainty and war on its eastern borders to the rise of illiberal democracies and popular reactionary politicians.
As Europe recovers from the pandemic and grapples with economic and social unrest, it is at an inflection point; it can either create new spaces to build trust and a sense of shared purpose between citizens and governments, or it can continue to let its democratic institutions erode and distrust grow.
The scale of such problems requires novel problem-solving and new perspectives, including those from civil society and citizens. Increased opportunities for citizens to engage with policymakers can lend legitimacy and accountability to traditionally ‘opaque’ policymaking processes. The future of the bloc hinges on its ability to not only sustain democratic institutions but to do so with buy-in from constituents.
Yet policymaking in the EU is often understood as a technocratic process that the public finds difficult, if not impossible, to navigate. The Spring 2022 Eurobarometer found that just 53% of respondents believed their voice counts in the EU. The issue is compounded by a lack of political literacy coupled with a dearth of channels for participation or co-creation.
In parallel, there is a strong desire from citizens to make their voices heard. A January 2022 Special Eurobarometer on the Future of Europe found that 90% of respondents agreed that EU citizens’ voices should be taken more into account during decision-making. The Russian war in Ukraine has strengthened public support for the EU as a whole. According to the Spring 2022 Eurobarometer, 65% of Europeans view EU membership as a good thing.
This is not to say that the EU has no existing models for citizen engagement. The European Citizens Initiative – a mechanism for petitioning the Commission to propose new laws – is one example of existing infrastructure. There is also an opportunity to build on the success of The Conference on the Future of Europe, a gathering held this past spring that gave citizens the opportunity to contribute policy recommendations and justifications alongside traditional EU policymakers.
Around 800 citizens were randomly selected to join the conference, yielding 49 proposals and more than 320 suggested measures. Beyond demonstrating the willingness and ability of citizens to meaningfully contribute to policy discussions, the Conference on the Future of Europe also provides a roadmap for what public inclusion can look like in practice — diverse voices, increased legitimacy and visibility for the EU, and innovative new ideas for policy change.
Some strategies utilised by the conference — language accessibility, citizen assemblies, choosing participants randomly and representatively — can be expanded, built upon, or institutionalised to create stronger mechanisms and pathways for citizen participation. New incentives for systemic, long-term citizen engagement must also be created in parallel.
If the EU can build on the momentum of the conference, it would be a springboard to embed new practices around citizen involvement into its institutions. But to accomplish this, a mindset shift is also needed around what the average person is capable of contributing to policy discussions and how innovative thinking can benefit governments.
Catalysing this shift requires elevating citizens as policy collaborators. We must create new spaces and mechanisms for public participation and engagement with government.
New models for public inclusion like this are essential during this moment of identity crisis for Europe, and the success of the Conference of the Future of Europe is a testament to what can be achieved when power is given to citizens. Europe has the opportunity in this period of instability and uncertainty to empower its citizens – opening up channels where they can advocate meaningfully for the change they want to see in the world and contribute to a better future.