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'Genie is out of the bottle' on citizens' participation  


International dialogues with randomly selected citizens hailed as a success, with strong involvement by regions and local politicians.

Leading members of the European Committee of the Regions have predicted that European citizens will be given a direct role in shaping EU policy, but they have warned that the European Union has yet to demonstrate that it has a clear idea of how it would follow up on citizens' proposals.

Their assessment came as the European Committee of the Regions and the Bertelsmann-Stiftung on 15 February wrapped up a year-long process of dialogues involving randomly selected citizens as well as elected politicians on themes central to the continent's future. The 23 projects involved 20 countries and 400 participants, generating proposals that will feed directly into the work of the Conference on the Future of Europe and that will inform a resolution that the European Committee of the Regions will adopt in March at a summit of cities and regions

Karl-Heinz Lambertz (BE/PES), a former president of the CoR and a serving member of the Parliament of the German-speaking Community as well as a delegate to the Conference on the Future of Europe, said: "My personal take on citizens' participation is that the 'genie is out of the bottle'. One result should be a permanent mechanism – an assembly perhaps – at the EU level." He particularly emphasised the value of citizens' dialogues in addressing the issues faced by border regions and areas with shrinking populations.

His views were seconded by Mark Speich (DE/EPP), secretary of state for federal, European and international affairs from North Rhine-Westphalia. The Conference on the Future of the Europe has "worked well on the local and regional level, but there is room for improvement on the plenary level", he said, referring to Conference meetings bringing citizens together with politicians from national parliaments and the EU's institutions. He backed the creation of a permanent means of directly consulting EU citizens on policy issues, as a complement to representative democracy, but he warned that it "only makes sense to continue with European citizens panels if there is also a previously defined process for dealing with the results". That is currently lacking, he said.

The CoR joined forces with the Bertelsmann-Stiftung in an effort to test and demonstrate the potential that local, regional and international citizens' panels or assemblies, already tested at the national level, can bring to international and EU-level policy debates. The innovative methods used in the events – co-organised with regions across the EU – were based on the principles of inclusive, deliberative, and effective participation, with the involvement of random citizens to ensure inclusivity, discussion of a few core themes to deepen deliberation, and the participation of politicians to help ensure follow-up on proposals.

The results, presented in outline at an online meeting on 15 February and set to be published shortly, showed very high levels of satisfaction and indicated a high probability of implementation by politicians. Anne Renkamp, senior project manager from the Bertelsmann-Stiftung, said that 90% of participants rated the experience as very good or good and 100% said they wanted to see participatory methods of democracy used in future. She said that the number of politicians who had participated – 200 – was "remarkably high" and that some had already acted on citizens' proposals. "Only if politicians are committed to citizens' proposals is implementation possible," she said.

Diana Finkelstain, a member of Iasi city council in Romania and member of the CoR's Young Elected Politicians programme, said that her city had set aside €400,000 to implement projects selected by citizens. "The most important part is that they will have a possibility to watch a timeline on the implementation of the project," she said. "That is to help ensure that it will not end up in a drawer and to give them a chance to collaborate."

Owing to the pandemic, 75% of events were held entirely online or partly online. Julien Pea of Maison de l'Europe en Bourgogne-Franche-Comte, who co-organised a cross-border dialogue with Rhineland-Palatinate, said that "the experience is never as good as when [a dialogue] is physical". Daniela Lörch from the State Ministry of Baden-Württemberg, who was involved in the organisation of a transnational dialogue with six regions in four countries, argued, however, that "online events are just as effective as in-person events" and, in the specific dialogue she helped to organise, were the "only way to bring together people from so many areas".

The process highlighted other challenges. A cross-border dialogue between regions in Greece and in the Republic of North Macedonia attracted local politicians, but not national politicians, said Konstantinos Filippidis, an organiser, while in another project some regions resisted – sometimes on data-privacy grounds – the involvement of a random selection of citizens. Speakers at the concluding event were unanimous, however, in stressing the value of reaching out randomly to people from all walks of life. It is "really important" to get "voices that are not normally heard", said Mr Speich, who added that having "specific, issue-related citizen exchanges on a regional level really could help to improve the quality of the legislative process because you have a feedback loop".

See also: Video of the closing event and CoR video of an inter-regional consultation on rural issues involving citizens of Cantabria and Asturias in Spain. 

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