Public Participation in the EU and Elsewhere – Results of a citizens' forum

by Julia Reichstamm

Students sharing their personal experiences with public participation

When thinking about the EU, one minor, but nevertheless crucial aspect tends to be forgotten: the many possibilities of public participation. As many knew little about this topic, the interest of students participating in Prof. Lenschow’s seminar on the EU’s various models of public participation was very high and showed itself in heated debates in the group projects. Kicking off the event with a citizen’s forum one quickly could see that the student’s general perception of the EU was mitigated: while 69% saw the EU as a democracy, another 59% agreed with the statement that the EU is a big bureaucracy. A shockingly high percentage, namely roughly a third of the students, saw the EU as captured by lobbyists. Question number two invited students to think about what they would do if they would be asked how to improve public policy-making. Large consent, with 81%, was given that the best option would be to invite independent experts to participate in advisory commissions on critical issues like climate change or demographic change. However, also inviting the relevant stakeholders to influence the activities of public authorities at different stages of the policy cycle or bringing critical issues to a public vote, were options supported by approximately half of the participants. The only economic approach, which was to raise the salary of politicians and thereby improve the quality of decision-making, enjoyed a very low percentage of endorsement. The last question was about which form of public participation is perceived to be the most effective. Unsurprisingly, 46% voted for taking part in elections. The outcome that however surprised me was the fact that only 8% of people saw participating in a social movement aiming social/political change from the bottom of society, such as protests, as effective. Another setback for democracy was that 16% of people would rather abstain from elections, as “effective participation of individual citizens is an illusion”.

The two above-mentioned, surely negative, results were also displayed in the group projects, where groups were working on different questions. While the questions were clearly intended to find out more about the various ways students participate in the EU, or rather how they could, all groups ended up talking more about participating in elections and comparing the differences in their respective home countries. In conclusion, one can see, that there was little to no knowledge about ways to directly participate in or influence EU law-making – after the seminar however, students were well informed about such ways, as for example the EU citizen’s initiative.