Active citizenship is the glue that keeps society together. Democracy doesn’t function properly without it, because effective democracy is more than just placing a mark on a voting slip.
You can read here 25 examples of how our members engage in active citizenship and get an idea how you can act as well!
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“I normally work long hours, and at weekends as well, but it’s my choice!” Benedicte Federspiel is a lawyer with the Danish Consumer Council in Copenhagen. Combining a busy, full-time job with her duties in the EESC leaves her little time when she’s not being active – and that she spends with family. It’s a way of life.
Denmark’s Consumer Council, set up in 1947, is the oldest in Europe. After 40 years in the post – 20 of them as director – she knows the organisation inside out. “Younger staff come to me to ask for information and advice,” she notes.
As an independent body with a staff of around 100, plus 83 000 individuals and more than 25 organisations in membership, the Council has a powerful voice in a small country like Denmark.
We are heard on everything of relevance to citizens and consumers. We cover all the topics: food, medicines, ﬁnancial services, chemicals, telecoms, energy, data protection ... The consumer sector touches almost all aspects of life.” Members range from green campaigners to educational organisations to elderly people. “Through all our activities we are reaching out to ordinary citizens and helping them to help themselves.”
Taking things further
The Council has some 400 voluntary ‘market agents’ who monitor product and service providers at local level. It also coordinates a survey panel, polling 3 000 people all over the country. It receives a huge volume of general queries and complaints, and works with the ﬁnance, real estate and travel industries on joint bodies that deal with individual grievances. “We can do something to take people’s problems and complaints further, for example to parliament, the consumer ombudsman, or asking TV broadcasters to take them up,” explains Ms Federspiel.
Much of her work relates to the EU, which regulates the single market. She is a past president of the European consumers’ organisation, BEUC, and of ANEC, which defends consumer interests in standardisation setting. When it comes to implementing EU legislation, “We talk to politicians and lobby them to vote for what is good for consumers. We try to give the consumer opinion on everything that might end up as legislation in Brussels, and we say when draft Directives are not good enough or need to be revised. In Denmark, it is accepted that politicians should hear all points of view, be it from industry or consumers. That is part of a democracy,” she argues.
We can empower consumers to some extent, but we also have to protect them. We can’t all be smart. How do people understand whether an ingredient is potentially dangerous?”Two magazines, on general consumer advice and on ﬁnancial matters, publish tests on products and services. “We have to have experts to argue each case – you cannot just have nice well-meaning people. We have to base our arguments on evidence, and be professional.”
The Council performs a vital function in Danish society, insists Ms Federspiel. “Our impact is huge.” Staff answer hundreds of requests from ministries, or help MPs to draw up proposals, pointing out areas which will improve the lot of consumers. “I get quite exhausted thinking of all the things we are doing!” she smiles.
Don’t just sit back
The Council also has a high media proﬁle, regularly approached by journalists for its point of view. “We are a voice they need to hear. But a lot is about trust. If we were to lose trust, or publish something that is not thought through, we would disqualify ourselves.
“If you want to live in a society where you can say ‘I have done my bit’, it’s important to be actively doing something. It’s too weak to sit back and say ‘Everything’s going in the wrong direction’.
“I chose to go into consumer affairs because I thought it was so interesting, and I still do!”
Topics are changing all the time, she explains, bringing in new challenges – such as nanotechnology, privacy, and the digital world. “There are no limits.”