Fri Dec 20th, 2013 at 04:14:52 AM EST
So let's unpack this step by step.
The EYCA Policy Recommendations for improving EU citizenship form the end product of the European Year of Citizens Alliance (EYCA). They were presented to the European Commission last Friday, December 13. The EYCA was formed, as previously explored, in 2011 through the bundling of 'civil society organisations' and the liaison of the European Economic and Social Committee, a consulting body for the EU. The over 60 members of the EYCA represent numerous national and internationally active organisations. The initiative itself was started, and funded, by the European Commission with the aim to "foster citizens' participation in the democratic life of the European Union".
Thus, an exercise initiated by the European Commission, through an alliance funded by the European Commission, resulting in a report predominantly written by NGOs under the auspices of the EU-funded umbrella organisation.
The word missing in this summary is, of course, citizens.
The issue of how reliable NGOs can actually represent citizens came up briefly during the conference in Lithuania (although it also got quickly dismissed). And while I look favourably to the suggestion that involved NGOs are at least in the trenches to represent their constituents, the point remains that active citizenship at the EU level is currently done, at best, through large interest groups - and even they hardly have a toehold in the decision making process.
I thought this was one of the painfully visible aspects of a conference on participatory EU citizenship. There were a few more.
One of them is how ET got invited in the first place. This was not, as one might assume, through the EYCA (they haven't responded to my query), but as far as I've gathered an initiative from the Lithuanian ministry of foreign affairs, under the guidance of the relatively new vice-minister, Vytautas Lekevičius, who wanted to give the conference some zest. So much from the EYCA to generate active citizen participation. In their defence, apparently the budget they got from the European Commission didn't even suffice to organize panel sessions in all nations, some of which were organized purely on voluntary basis.
Therefore for regaling the EYCA conference in Vilnius, I should start with the institution where the headache kept returning:
The European Commission
On Friday, vice-president of the European Commission Viviane Reding appeared for a speech in the Lithuanian Parliament and was then handed the EYCA proposals. You can listen for yourself here, after the 10 minutes mark.
Reding's speech was singlehandedly responsible to agitate me into more activity on Twitter, and some messages got picked up by the EYCA Twitter account and found a number of retweets, something that showed me that even the EYCA didn't shy away from critical notes.
What really took the biscuit was what happened a brief little later. Reding voiced in her speech: "I wanted no more speeches, but politicians who listen directly to citizens' concerns, to hear their ideas."
Yet Reding, a politician, standing in a room representing hundreds and hundreds of citizens' organisations, received the policy recommendations to improve her much cherished citizen participation, then exited stage left, not waiting for an actual discussion of the final document and questions from the floor. Neither did she attend the press conference for questions. In her acceptance speech Reding remarked only that the recommendations will be 'analyzed and reflected on in the 2014 report on EU citizenship by the European Commission'.
Actually being present at the conference was thus rather helpful to get some answers. I got the impression that many high-level attendants didn't fully realize there was a troop of picky bloggers / journalists scattered throughout the delegates, and I had dressed relatively neat to blend in a bit. So I approached Ylva Tivéus, director of Citizens at the Directorate-General Communication of the European Commission, directly over coffee. Blankly I asked her what the point was of analyzing and reflecting on recommendations, if there weren't any implementations at the EU level that would involve citizen participation during the legislation process. She's now on record that the EC will include implementations on EYCA recommendations in its 2014 report. Let's wait for that. Politics is a glacial affair.
What followed next was more headache and does not leave me particularly hopeful. Next I queried Tivéus after EU's elections and whether the new Commission would be included in writing these implementations. The short answer on that is simply no. Tivéus remarked that the current Commission aims to finish the new citizens' report in the coming months, before the elections, and make it part of Reding's "legacy". What comes next, is conjecture. Plus ça change...
As insult to injury: to the bafflement of the present NGOs, there remains no budget assigned to allow the EYCA to operate in 2014, effectively ruling them out to respond or keep track of their own recommendations in 2014.
To further illustrate: Reding's imperial walkout from the Lithuanian Parliament is not unique, I was told. A Dutch delegate recounted that the exact same thing had happened when Reding had visited the Netherlands: after a speech of pretty words Reding had immediately departed for lunch with the Dutch Queen, leaving the participating organisations behind, boiling with frustrations.
Talk about frustrating, I've come away with the clear impression that the clampdown of the EC on providing information is institutional and rather frightening. For example, this was visible during panel sessions with multiple speakers and chaired by members of Directorate Generals. On the rare occasion of vocal feedback from the audience, I observed one chair dismiss and exclude this spirited commentary almost offhandedly and the panellists weren't asked to respond.
Yet another practical example: on Thursday, after the first panel session came to a close, attendees were asked to submit questions for the debate on Friday morning. Questions were to be put in an impromptu yellow mailbox, left on the stage. Adding name and hotel of residence was demanded. Privately we wondered if the owner of a too critical question would find himself whisked away during the night. By the time we had readied our questions, we found to our bafflement that the yellow mailbox already had been taken away. We hounded our pretty liaison officers to find it and to deposit our questions. That in itself was wearisome and typical. But none of the questions we submitted were asked during Friday's panel session, and Viviane Reding was not attending anyway.
So much from the EC to generate active citizen participation. In other words: schizophrenia on full display.
A picture without Viviane Reding. Your ET representative is poised at the outskirts, ready to dash, and dressed in a somewhat contrasting bright blue.