The missing link

“Think about it: What is the only thing European citizens never do together? We travel, get married, buy property across the continent, but we never do politics together.” These sentiments, expressed by Alberto Alemanno, a professor at HEC Paris, in an interview for Euronews help elucidate a little bit the idea of involving people more in politics.

According to Alemanno, the problem for the EU is not one of democracy – the oft talked about ‘democratic deficit’ – or even legitimacy per se – rather it is a question of “intelligibility and actual participation”.

Despite, one of the highest EU voter turnouts for years at the European elections last May, people’s understanding of how the EU actually works remains very low. For Alemanno, while “[m]ultiple avenues of participation exist”, these “channels remain little known” and “underused by EU citizens”.

Meanwhile, Luc van den Brande, the author of the EU report ‘reaching out to EU citizens: a new opportunity’ suggests that there is a clear need to set up “meaningful participatory democracy” that would provide “citizens with the possibility to become protagonists of political action within the Union.”

The EU may have survived its mid-life crisis – the poly-crises brought about by “economic and social challenges, mounting Euroscepticism and extremism and unprecedented signs of popular mistrust in the European project”, as van den Brande puts it. But now that confidence in the EU is returning to a 10-year high, what future lies in store for this most crucial of organisational principles: the place for citizens in the EU’s political architecture.

Van den Brande suggests that working with local and regional authorities would be the best way to connect EU politics with citizens, because they already operate in a way that is seen as closer to the people.

Indeed, city administrations offer existing structures to reach out to and listen to citizens, and moreover many cities are already carrying out innovative projects that can act as inspiration to decision makers at other levels of government.

“I think that Europe has to empower cities,” says Ricardo Rio, mayor of Braga, “because the biggest transformation initiatives come from citizens, come from the cities, and if we give cities the resources so they can foster these policies, Europe as a whole, and the world as a whole will benefit from it.”

Braga participatory budgeting for youth

In the last five years, the city of Braga activated the Participatory Budget ‘Tu Decides [You Decide]’, an initiative aimed at promoting greater participation of young people and at increasing their contribution to the development of the city.

​“I think that Europe has to empower cities”

This year winning proposals included one to teach Olympic style boxing as an educational tool to contribute to the physical, psychological and social development of children and adolescents; and the creation of an e-sports academy with the ambition of having teams from Braga playing in the various national championships and to organise a league between schools to help capture youth talent.

As Ricardo Rio explains, “in Braga we try to strengthen the participation mainly of the youngsters, because they are the future and they are probably the ones who are more apart from government affairs”. And for Rio the scope of essential projects for greater citizen engagement includes bigger, ‘international’ challenges like climate change and sustainability.

Cities across Europe are working on many similar ideas to involve people in politics. For example:

Decide Madrid

Decide Madrid is a digital platform aimed at providing city inhabitants with a mechanism for political participation. This platform has already engaged thousands of citizens in projects ranging from urban planning to participatory budgeting.

The principle of the project to decide how to shape the Madrid you want to live in, has led to green-lighting ideas such as turning plastic waste into fresh asphalt for the cities roads; reducing fossil-fuel consumption and energy bills by installing photovoltaic panels on public buildings; and making space to park bicycles outside school doors.

SynAthina – Athens

SynAthina is a common space that brings together, supports and facilitates citizens’ groups engaged in improving the quality of life in the city. By coordinating the invaluable resource of citizens’ groups, the city of Athens actively listens to the needs of its people and is thus revitalised.

Concrete impacts of the project have included programmes to reduce the risk of marginalisation faced by refugees by, for example, offering Greek language classes or non-formal education to prepare children for Greek schools; a mobile unit for homeless people to be able to wash their clothes; and offering free support to young people who want to start a social enterprise, through things like consulting and support services.


A conference for cities, people and Europe

One of the earliest ambitions declared by Ursula von der Leyen, ahead of her Commission presidency, was to find a way, beyond voting in elections, to increase people’s participation in politics and make sure their voices are heard and listened to. The idea that she suggests, for a two year long ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’, would effectively be a series of participative programmes with European citizens.

In any project in government it’s crucial to have a connection with citizens
— Ricardo Rio, Mayor of Braga

However, as Ricardo Rio points out “in terms of the implementation of European policies cities are the best links to the territories and obviously can have a bigger role than the one they have now.”

Citizen engagement is an area of work that EUROCITIES, the network of major cities in Europe, has focussed on over the last two years by working with its member cities. This has led to joint work with the European Commission on reaching out to people via a series of citizens’ panels that offered policy makers a set of specific recommendations, namely to:

  • focus citizens’ attention sharply on specific, concrete issues rather than more abstract concepts such as ‘the future of Europe’;
  • make part of the EU budget available for citizen-led initiatives, using a participatory budgeting approach to allow residents to identify, discuss and prioritise how EU public money is spent;
  • use an e-participation digital platform to directly involve citizens in EU related decision making.

In addition, the network recently held a conclusive event in Paris that will lead to the publication in January of EUROCITIES principles on citizens engagement to support local governments in their work in this area.

As Ricardo Rio says, “in any project in government it’s crucial to have a connection with citizens, to have a higher proximity, to have a strategic alignment and even to reinforce the trust of citizens in their politicians and in the government institutions”.

Cities might just be the missing link that the EU has been looking for.

Alex Godson Eurocities Writer