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Despite a common misconception, the European Citizens’ Initiative is not the alpha and omega of EU citizens’ engagement in EU decision-making.  There is a variety of other mechanisms that allow EU citizens to influence EU agenda.

For example, an average civic society organisation would hardly ever opt in favour of a logistically as challenging high-cost way for influencing EU decision-making as collecting 1 million signatures  across the European Union – it is much more likely that this organisation would rather:

a)       contact a member of European Parliament who would then suggest to the European Parliament to come up with its own report asking the European Commission to propose a legislative initiative on some subject (the European Parliament has good track record in complying with such requests);

b)      Participate in public hearings, consultations organized with by the European Commission or by European Parliament on some specific type of a new legislative proposal;

c)       Contact its national government when it is pondering its national position on some new directive or regulation proposed by the European Commission and deliberating its most likely response in the framework of the Council of the EU.

It is the later method – taking part in EU decision-making via shaping the national positions on EU level  – that was subject of a research that was conducted in three EU member states: Czech Republic, Latvia and Poland.

The report uncovered an uncomfortable truth: that there are few civic society organisations that are capable of participating in shaping the national positions at a stage when the European Commission has already come up with a draft. This problem is particularly acute for smaller member states, such as Latvia, that do not provide enough financial support to  civil society organisations that would enable such organisations to not only share their expertise on the local and national level issues, but also to provide strong argumentation for the European Union’s policy.

Those few who do participate – tend to struggle. First of all, it is usually a challenge to find a list of EU issues where the national government is elaborating its national position. Second, some governments (or even some ministries within the same government!) tend to view the draft national positions as a confidential document, and does not allow a civic society organisation to look inside. Those civic society organisations that do manage to make their views known to their national government – they are hardly ever informed on whether their expertise has been taken onboard in the final edition of the national position and what happens later,  when the national position has left the country and landed in the preparatory bodies of the Council.

So to be brief: overall it doesn’t seem to be working that well. Nevertheless, the research has also uncovered some inspiring success stories of citizen engagement and also some fascinating experiments in making the process work better both for civic society organisations’ and the government officials involved.  There are also specific recommendations for each of the three member states to improve their systems of consulting the civic society organisations on EU matters.

Our organisation organized an opinion survey in Latvia about the preferred means of taking part in EU decision-making in September, 2014. In the context of citizen participation, Latvia is a particularly important country as it is in Latvia (along with Italy) where the citizens feel most sceptical about whether their voices are heard at the EU level.  Out of different engagement methods 9% chose public hearing, 9% – shaping their government’s national position, 14% – European Citizens’ initiative, 16% – contacting a member of European Parliament elected in Latvia.

There were two more popular choices. What were they?  22% – no answer; 33% – prefer not to engage in EU decision-making at all. That’s bad.

To me the results of the survey signify that the EU and national government should work on strengthening all methods of civil dialogue – not just the European Citizens’ initiative – important though it may be. And one of the most meaningful methods accessible to national civic society organisations:  a meaningful engagement on EU policy at the national level, as advisors of their governments on issues that need to be defended in the Council and in negotiations with the European Parliament.

 

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