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Shaping Europe from the bottom up
by Christos Mouzeviris
2018-06-07 04:31:07
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Building a democratic European project and European identity requires shaping Europe from the bottom up: that is the challenge for Europe today.

The idea of shaping Europe from the bottom up was at the heart of the discussion surrounding the Closing Conference of the European Year of Citizens 2013, in Vilnius, Lithuania.

During this workshop, the importance of European identity, as well as the process through which to shape it, were the primary topics of discussion. Initiatives such as encouraging the participation of students in various exchange programs, the increase in mobility for all European Union citizens, and the engagement of EU citizens in voluntary projects across Europe were all acknowledged as key factors in creating such an identity.

“We should learn how to combine our national identity with our European one,” was one of the main ideas put forward in this event. In order for that process to take place, not only should the EU invest in a new self-image campaign but the important role of local communities in promoting an active European citizenship should also be acknowledged and encouraged.

eur0001_400One of the main obstacles in achieving this combination of identities is the common practice, among local and national politicians, to use the EU and its institutions as scapegoats in justifying their policy failures, while taking credit, exclusively, for every success case.

One issue brought up in the discussion was the importance of culture and how it positively impacts in building a sense of common European identity. Neither the single currency nor the single market can ever unite a mosaic of nations in such a way as the promotion of a constant cultural dialogue and exchange.

A need for a new participatory strategy

Certain new tools recently introduced by the EU Commission, such as the European Citizens' Initiative, were also discussed and explained to participants. The EU Commission seems to support a new type of participatory strategy, built from the bottom up, aimed at encouraging a more active participation of citizens in European politics, providing them with new participatory mechanisms, such as the ECI.

The main purpose of such initiatives is to create a forum for Europeans to debate, citizens to be heard and fulfill the potential of their EU citizenship. Initiatives such as the ECI have the potential to become agenda-setting tools, in the cases which they are broadly embraced by European civil society and the issues they put forward are debated and lead to concrete policy changes.

Various surveys conducted in Italy, but also at a supranational pan-European level, enquired citizens as to their expectations regarding the EU’s work and their aspirations for Europe. The overwhelming majority of respondents referred to employment, security and the guarantee of a sustainable exploitation of national resources.

Throughout 2013, at least eight citizens’ dialogues were organized in Italy and many others across Europe, debating the future of each region. The main idea put forward by the Commission was that, if citizens were disgruntled with Europe, this was mainly due to its policies being negatively perceived and communicated by national governments.

Sadly, Europe does not have enough funding available, in the form of a considerable independent budget, for instance, that would allow it to implement the policies that would respond most effectively to people’s needs.

One Europe, equal citizenship rights

One fundamental issue raised during this debate concerned the voting rights of those Europeans living in other EU member states: the initiative “Let Me Vote” focuses on the limitations that many expatriates experience while residing in an EU member state outside of their own. These citizens contribute towards the economic and social fabric of their new countries, yet do not often enjoy the same rights as natives. Being able to fully exercise the same rights in all member state is a fundamental condition in encouraging the free movement of citizens and reshaping Europe.

Many lose their right to vote in their national Parliamentary elections, after having lived abroad for a certain number of years. Under current national legislation norms, they are also not allowed to vote in the Parliamentary elections in their new country of residence (although they can vote for local and European elections).

Mr. Philippe Cayla, President of Euronews Development, presented this situation to participants, arguing that voting rights across Europe should not be made dependent upon nationality.

All EU citizens must have the right to vote in the countries of their residence. “Europe already registers a very low voter turnout in every European election and we must be committed to improving that record”, he said. Such move would give a “full sense of a European identity and the notion that EU citizens are not immigrants”.

Building a European identity through a mobile population

On a more positive note, participants at this Closing Conference mentioned that interest in European politics is higher among mobile citizens, or people who have migrated to another EU country. Being mobile is a life-changing experience and these people become the best ambassadors for EU and Europe.

Mobility within Europe is crucial in creating a European identity and extended voting rights, or the lack of them, is certainly a limitation to the rights of EU citizens. “Besides, if we want to promote greater pluralism and elite rotation in each country, the inclusion of other EU nationals in the election debates and campaigns, as well in the decision-making process, could be very positive,” Mr. Cayla continued.

One of the main obstacles Europe is faced with, when encouraging its citizens to participate in European affairs, is their general lack of interest in public life. This problem is largely connected with the deterioration of elites’ political legitimacy as perceived by different European public opinions and a consequent detachment of public life.

As they move from country to country, they not only become increasingly aware of different national issues and ways in which they could be resolved, but also of transnational issues that affect their home country, the countries they have settled into, and even Europe in general. Thus, one of the most effective ways for Europe to increase citizen participation in European politics is to encourage people to work, study and travel abroad.

There is a general lack of ownership of the EU project on behalf of its citizens, which can possibly be demonstrated by a lack of overall intra-European mobility. The absence of coordination and synchronization between national institutions and organizations from different member states is to be blamed, and that is where the efforts in finding solutions must start.

At the moment, only an estimate of 2% of Europe’s population is either mobile or dislocated in another EU member-state, which explains why not enough legislation and change has taken place, since these people are a minority. Increasing awareness of European issues is easier with a mobile population, which is accustomed to thinking outside of its own national reality.

The political culture of Europeans is changing and must endure further changes in the upcoming future. Increased public responsibility, awareness and fulfillment of our duties as citizens must be cultivated and upheld, in order to make the European decision-making process and its institutions more democratic.

Now that the economic crisis has started to impact on increasingly more EU households, people demand to be heard and consulted throughout the decision-making process of their governments. Therefore, Europe finds itself at a critical juncture, a moment of transition.

Citizens do have the power to organize themselves to demand being heard and to call for change, as the cases of Ukraine, Bulgaria but also Poland and other recently-joined EU member states continue to show us. Naturally, online public consultations do not pose a lasting or successful solution, as they are often non-binding. Therefore, in order for change to happen, citizens must take things more seriously with further actions.

The power of communication

Europeans do not always understand what the EU does and how it affects their lives, or what its consultations mean. This is yet another obstacle that the EU faces when trying to communicate its functions, procedures and decisions to its citizens. Simpler vocabulary, repetitiveness and commitment must be applied to mitigate this problem.

The fact that Europe struggles to “sell” itself, particularly the European Union institutions, to its own citizens was another topic discussed at this forum. Using Italy as a case in point, Mr. Alessandro Giordani, Head of the sector “Communication, information and networks” of the EU Commission Representation Office in Rome, explained some of the main obstacles Europe is currently faced with.

“The economic crisis has changed the environment and attitude dramatically, for any attempts to promote Europe as a solution to its citizens,” he stated. The EU Commission needs to change the process through which has been presenting Europe to populations up until now.

In other words, a lot of work must be undertaken in reshaping our continent from the bottom up.  But “if we do not change ourselves and our tools, the world will force us to change,” as Andris Gobins, the President of the European Movement in Latvia, stated, closing the debate.

The world is changing fast and Europe must be ready for change and be prepared to keep up with the rest of the world. Failing to do so, will mean fewer opportunities for our future generations, minimizing Europe’s role in an ever increasing globalized world.


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