Elections: The EU Arms its citizens

Article published on Jan. 10, 2014
Article published on Jan. 10, 2014

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The se­ries of Cit­i­zens' Di­a­logues launched by       Vi­viane Red­ing will come to a close in Feb­ru­ary. The Com­mis­sion hopes they will en­cour­age de­bate prior to the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions. That re­mains to be seen.

It's a cold, cold af­ter­noon on 14th No­vem­ber in Mar­seille, yet some 200 peo­ple form a queue out­side of the Docks des Suds, a con­cert hall in the south of the city. “We’re here to see Vi­viane Red­ing,” ex­claims local res­i­dent Geneviève Bon­set-Doutée. “It’s a chance for us to ques­tion her on is­sues that are im­por­tant to us, such as the prepa­ra­tion for the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions, or the nom­i­na­tion of the fu­ture pres­i­dent of the Com­mis­sion,” adds by-stander Annie Gi­raud-Héraud.

The Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sioner for Cit­i­zen­ship, ac­com­pa­nied by the French Min­is­ter of Jus­tice Chris­tiane Taubira, spent two-and-a-half hours re­spond­ing di­rectly to ques­tions from the cit­i­zens gath­ered in the hall, ques­tions such as: “Who at the Com­mis­sion is re­spon­si­ble for aus­ter­ity pol­i­tics?”, “How is it that those re­spon­si­ble for the cri­sis aren't in prison?”, and “What is the EU doing to pre­vent the mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of hu­man­i­tar­ian aide in Africa?”

‘At best, a good ex­er­cise in com­mu­ni­ca­tion’

The de­bate is not the first of its kind but rather the 37th visit since Sep­tem­ber 2012 that the Com­mis­sioner has paid to an EU city, in order to meet and dis­cuss with local cit­i­zens. The di­a­logues, or­gan­ised as part of the Eu­ro­pean Year of Cit­i­zens 2013, are in­tended to offer Eu­ro­peans the op­por­tu­nity to voice their opin­ions di­rectly.

Ex­perts are not all in agree­ment as to the use­ful­ness of the di­a­logues. “It is un­likely that these events will be enough to re-le­git­imise the Eu­ro­pean Union, or to give a real sense of cit­i­zen­ship to its cit­i­zens,” says François Foret, a lec­turer in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the In­sti­tut d’études européennes in Brus­sels. In the lec­turer’s opin­ion, the fact that the de­bates allow only ques­tions to the Com­mis­sioner means that they are ‘at best, a good ex­er­cise in com­mu­ni­ca­tion’ . 

Within the Eu­ro­pean Move­ment the ges­ture is ap­pre­ci­ated but there is re­gret that the di­a­logues did not occur on a more reg­u­lar basis. “They could just as well have been ex­tended to in­clude all com­mis­sion­ers - cit­i­zens need to voice their opin­ions on many is­sues af­fect­ing their daily or pro­fes­sional lives,” in­sists Yan­nick Hoppe, vice-pres­i­dent of the French branch.

Pas­cale Joanin, Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of the Robert Schu­man Foun­da­tion, sees the brighter side: “It’s a great ini­tia­tive! We crit­i­cise Eu­ro­pean in­sti­tu­tions for being too dis­tant from their cit­i­zens but with these di­a­logues they demon­strate that they are close, and ready to talk.” She hopes for fur­ther de­bates in the fu­ture, with par­tic­i­pants other than mem­bers of the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion.

Un­for­tu­nately, the di­a­logues are com­ing to an end, with only a fur­ther eight tak­ing place be­tween now and next March. A re­port on the de­bates will be writ­ten in late win­ter, to be sub­mit­ted to se­nior Eu­ro­pean politi­cians  ahead of the Eu­ro­pean elec­tions. “We’ve done our part, now it’s up to the po­lit­i­cal par­ties to do theirs”, said Vi­viane Red­ing. “But I think these de­bates will con­tinue, in a dif­fer­ent form: we’ve started a move­ment that can't be stopped.”