Making citizens more involved in shaping the future of Europe

The European Network of Ombudsmen discussed measures to improve the participatory democracy

Some six weeks away from the European Elections the annual European Network of Ombudsmen conference, took place at the European Parliament in Brussels. The event was dedicated to the participatory democracy in the EU, which importance for the future of Europe is crucial. In the spotlight were pressing issues such as how to make citizen participation meaningful, how to improve the participatory democracy in the EU and can public administrations, ombudsmen and others better involve citizens in decision-making. 

Around 100 national and regional ombudsmen from all over Europe, MEPs, EU officials, representatives of NGOs and media took part at the forum. Surging of populism, Brexit, the low turnout at EP elections in some member countries, credibility of the public institutions were among the discussed topics.

Our role is not just to assist citizens with complaints against their administrations, but it is also to hold those administrations to account at the level of fundamental values, the values embedded in the European Treaties and in the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the host of the event, European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly stressed. In her words, it is relatively easy to do so when times are good, when the rule of law is strong and much harder when the mood has changed and those values are no longer seen as necessarily universal but rather down to political choice.

Mrs O’Reilly pointed out that people choose to participate only if they feel included in shaping the political project and that the outcome will have real, felt, meaning in their lives, noting that for many people across the EU, Brussels is not a place but rather a complex and faraway abstraction that has little to do with their daily lives.  ‘What is the EU?” was reportedly the most ‘googled’ question in the United Kingdom on the day after the referendum, she recalled.

Maite Pagazaurtundua Ruiz, ALDE MEP, stated that the next generation of leaders, need to be included in EU. Young people need to vote, she said advocating for giving space to young people who want to participate. She also opined that what happens in Brussels, should not stay in Brussels and urged “we need to use as many channels as possible to reach and communicate with citizens”.

Saying that populist movements around Europe have done a huge harm, Ulle Madise, Estonian Ombudsman expounded their role in instilling the impression that the politicians, lawmakers, ministers, ombudsmen, judges, civil servants, all public officials they “are there to tease you, not to help you”. In Estonia, I have the opposite experience if I turn to a parliamentary committee or a minister and explain that there is a mistake in the law and some people are in trouble now, and the institutions want to solve it immediately. They simply didn’t know that there is a mistake. This could be our role to bring citizens’ voice and ideas on what should be done much better to those who decide, she emphasised. 

According to Marian Wendt, Chair of the Petitions Committee of the German Bundestag, the issue of how the citizens participate is actually how the petitions committees make them participate. There are no good or bad opinions, when people sign petitions they have a legitimate urge to voice concerns, he underlined adding that it is important that there is a real result of these petitions and they go into the legislative process.

Laura Sullivan is Executive Director of the citizens’ movement WeMove.EU and as she explained it is organisation that is literally trying to move power towards people in European democracy, to really show people that they have the power to change things and get involved.

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