Democracy needs to be worked at. That is to say, our democracies are ever evolving, which is perhaps one of the primary reasons for the current Conference on the Future of Europe.
For the EU, the story has already been many years in the telling; over successive European elections, for example, of low turnouts, the oft remarked upon democracy deficit, the realities of Brexit and the challenges of keeping member states in line, on the rule of law, on financial limits, on implementing EU regulations. It can all point to one thing for some: The EU needs to be closer to the people. It needs to be understood, seen, heard, felt.
That of course, is where cities are – the level of government closest to the people – as was pointed out by Dario Nardella, President of Eurocities and Mayor of Florence, in a debate on fostering democracy in the European Union at which he also shared details of new research by Eurocities.
According to Nardella, this fact accords cities a “special responsibility” to contribute to the Conference by “bringing to the table our experience of working directly with citizens and our understanding of their hopes and concerns.”
“For cities, citizen participation is not a goal in itself. It is an essential tool that allows us to truly govern and react to the critical challenges ahead,” said Nardella.
In the context of the pandemic and the climate crisis, Nardella further pointed out that Europe needs its citizens’ engagement and innovative capacity more than ever.
The new Eurocities study, City administrations paving the way to participatory democracy, which reviewed participatory practices in over 170 cities, found that almost all towns have established some form of participation. More than half of them have very advanced models that offer their constituents the chance to co-design specific policies.
The research highlights four critical conditions that make participation successful in cities. This can be an essential lesson for Europe’s approach to participation.
- Firstly, a fundamental condition is the city administration, the way it is structured and its ability to support and coordinate activities on citizen participation.
- Secondly, political will is decisive to provide a vision and to turn project proposals into action.
- Thirdly, a key aspect is the direct involvement of civil society as a close ally to ensure that the participatory processes are inclusive and representative.
- Fourthly, offline and online communication is a determining factor for the success of participatory democracy.
“As cities, we believe that the Conference on the Future of Europe should lead to the creation of a European Participation strategy. Europe should use the momentum of the Conference to continue the exercise of participatory democracy. It should lead to a new way of working with cities and citizens, bringing Europe closer to people,” concluded Nadella.