Over the decade since the Treaty of Lisbon came into force, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has played a key role in encouraging a more participatory democracy in the EU and enabling people to have a greater say in the policies that affect their lives, including through the European Citizens’ Initiative.
The Lisbon Treaty has made the EU more efficient, transparent and democratic, and generated new opportunities for a stronger partnership between the EESC and European institutions. The EESC has honoured the Treaty’s ideals by fully supporting participatory democracy as part of the solution to the challenges currently facing Europe.
In recent years, governments at all levels have involved citizens more frequently in participatory processes. In a number of EU countries, regions and cities, various approaches to participative democracy have even become a routine complementing the works of representative parliaments, assemblies and councils. At EU level, citizens’ dialogues on Europe and its future have also become a tool used by EU institutions to listen to citizens' ideas. All this is positive, but there is the risk of confusion, said Luca Jahier, president of the European Economic and Social Committee.
An EESC opinion in 2015, drafted at the request of the European Parliament, noted the economic, social and political challenges, along with greater civic unrest, that were creating “growing divergences” in Europe.
Thus, there is an urgent need to promote what unites the people of Europe as opposed to what divides them. This will be a long process and should begin immediately, the opinion stated, while also noting citizens’ “limited trust” in European institutions.
The EESC called on the EU, as a priority, to better exploit existing European treaties to improve policies and to strengthen the EU internally and externally. The EU also needs reforms to reinforce the sense of a common purpose and of ownership of the European project by increasing people’s involvement in EU policy-shaping and decision-making processes.
President Luca Jahier insisted:
The upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe is a good opportunity to make substantial steps to upgrade the art.11 of the Treaty, but we should be careful about raising expectations that may not be met. We should build a thorough, coordinated deliberative process that would start with the EU programming cycle in October and end with the State of the Union speech and the topics to be discussed should be of interest for ordinary citizens.
One proposal would be to give citizens the opportunity to elect Members of the European Parliament from transnational lists of European parties, instead of voting for national parties only.
The EESC proposals include reinforcing the euro area, completing the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), and consolidating civic participation, democracy and accountability.
Trust could be rebuilt by explaining to citizens the advantages of the EU and by listening to them and to representative civil society organisations and answering their demands and expectations.
Having a say
In line with this approach, the EESC has been actively involved in the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) in its role as a forum for debate to support dialogue with civil society organisations.
The ECI enshrines, for the first time ever, a direct transnational democratic procedure. It enables citizens from different Member States to come together to suggest concrete legal changes in any field where the European Commission has the power to propose legislation.
In an opinion, the EESC described the Treaty of Lisbon, and the introduction of the ECI, as a “milestone on the road to a people's Europe that is real and feasible, where the public has genuine influence”.
In this context, the EESC called for “clearer rules of procedure based on the principles of transparency, openness and representativeness”.
As a tangible contribution to making the ECI accessible, practical and effective, the EESC organises an annual European Citizens’ Initiative Day. The event provides an opportunity to assess the state of implementation and the effectiveness of the ECI.
The Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force on 1 December 2009, aims to make the EU more transparent and democratic. It reforms the EU’s internal and external policies and, by giving the European Parliament further legislative powers, ensures greater democracy in EU decision-making.
It also reinforces the EESC's role as a bridge between civil society and the EU institutions, in particular in relation to facilitating participatory democracy and the European Citizens' Initiative.