Democracy in Europe must be given new momentum. That was one of the six strategic priorities set out by the von der Leyen Commission. Almost five years later, it must be said that this has only worked to a limited extent. Political polarisation in the member states has increased, public debate is becoming more abrasive, the rule of law remains under pressure in some EU member states and the new possibilities that generative AI provide for democracy are offset by the overwhelming power of the tech giants.

Of course, the EU itself has become increasingly democratic over the course of its history. More power for the European Parliament, new instruments of participation and, most recently, the Conference on the Future of Europe that broke new ground in terms of citizen participation.

But the EU hasn’t had a real democracy update for a long time. Its democratic legitimacy is being questioned more than ever before. Although it constantly talks about being a Europe of the citizens, these citizens have little idea about what is happening in Brussels, let alone how they can participate in the European political process.

What should the democratic Europe of the next generation look like? How can citizens participate? Are we extending old nation-state democratic thinking to the EU or will we allow a completely new approach? The EU must answer these questions if it wants to prepare for the future wave of enlargement, manage the major social transformations, and preserve democracy as the form of government.

The EU has numerous participation instruments at its disposal, more than many member states. Petitions, online consultations, citizens‘ dialogues, the European Citizens‘ Initiative, the Ombudsman and, most recently, the European Citizens‘ Panels.

The instruments themselves aren’t badly designed. But with the exception of elections to the European Parliament, they are barely known and have little influence. No wonder only 15 percent of EU citizens find it easy to participate in these instruments, even though four out of five Europeans would like to have a greater say in European policy. The EU wants to be a union of citizens, democratic, and participatory, but is not perceived as such.

Democratic Participation Landscape Is “Terra Incognita“

The instruments lack visibility and performance, and ultimately there is a lack of political will surrounding them, as the study “Under Construction: Citizen Participation in the European Union” has shown. The EU’s democratic participation landscape is terra incognita for its citizens. People aren’t familiar with the participation instruments, and they don’t know what their purpose is.

In many cases it remains unclear what happens after people take part in participation processes. The actual impact on EU policymaking remains small. Even though a number of improvements have been made there is still a dearth of success stories.

Many of these problems are rooted in a pronounced lack of political will. Flowery words about Europe’s closeness to its citizens can be found in abundance among EU politicians and in statements issued by the European institutions. But there is nothing close to a common understanding among the member states or in the European Parliament of what, apart from elections, constitutes citizen participation.

There is little knowledge even among decision-makers about new forms of participation. And yes, there are still plenty of reservations – sometimes openly expressed, sometimes hidden. Some simply lack the courage to allow genuine democratic innovation. For many decision-makers in Brussels and the EU capitals, new forms of citizen participation are dismissed as “nice to have.”

European democracy won’t improve if it clings to the institutional status quo. When it comes to the protection, stability, and resilience of the European institutions, Brussels seems to be following any bureaucracy’s basic rule: “It’s worked so far, so let’s keep it that way.”

Europe’s citizens need a greater sense of direction and want more democratic participation. If the EU wants to remain effective and capable of making decisions, it will have to adapt its political and institutional setup. This process can only succeed by getting the citizens on board. More citizen participation is therefore essential for the defence and advancement of European democracy.

European Commission Leads the Way

But it’s not all bad news. Following the Conference on the Future of Europe, the Commission organised further European Citizens’ Panels on specific topics with randomly selected citizens. This participation format brings people together from very different corners of Europe – and thus also closer to the EU. A Competence Centre on Participatory and Deliberative Democracy has been created within the Commission and the EU’s participation portal has been redesigned.

The Commission is also writing directives and guidelines. For example, it recently presented its package for the defence of democracy, which includes a recommendation to promote citizen participation. By making many individual proposals the Commission is underlining the importance of the topic and giving member states concrete suggestions on how to update their participation procedures.

The core of citizen participation is political involvement. People must get a sense that they are making a difference by participating, and they must feel that they’re part of a political community. Above all, it must be evident to everyone that there is participation on the really important issues. If migration and integration are being discussed throughout Europe, then participation is needed.

Instead of focusing on minutiae in the development of procedures, Europe’s policymakers must tackle the hot potatoes to protect democracy. Instead of a technocratisation of citizen participation, the EU needs a cross-society debate on the big issues with the participation of its citizens.

Flywheel of European Policymaking

An enlarged EU with 30 or more members faces completely new democratic challenges. More participation by citizens is not a panacea guaranteeing across-the-board enthusiasm for Europe. In democracies, people should be dissatisfied to a certain extent because fundamental problems always exist and need to be debated openly – in stark contrast to Putin’s Russia or Xi’s China. It is only by involving citizens that the necessary change and the major political challenges can be mastered.

That takes courage on the part of citizens and politicians. The European Union must dare to increase citizen participation and actively promote the broader public’s appreciation of that process. Participation must take place on issues and produce results that can in turn trigger public debate.

Democracy thrives on visibility and publicity. This requires political will and a common strategy by all the European institutions. Participation processes must be known and visible – both in the corridors of Brussels and on the streets of Europe. And they must show that policymaking can respond and change. Then citizen participation will become the flywheel of European politics.

Translated from German by David Crossland.

About the author

Dr. Dominik Hierlemann is Senior Advisor for Democracy and Social Cohesion at the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

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