May 19. 2024. 1:36

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EU citizens’ panels likely to stay, but need to be adapted, experts say

EU citizens’ panels introduced after the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) mean deliberative democracy experiments will continue at the EU level, but they need to better adapt to citizens’ expectations and become more inclusive, experts say.

Following the CoFoE, the EU-wide democracy experiment which allowed Europeans to share their views on the future of Europe, the European Commission introduced citizens’ panels asking citizens to deliberate on upcoming legislation.

The panels consist of around 150 randomly-selected citizens from all 27 member states asked to discuss the issue of food waste, virtual worlds and learning mobility.

The first panel led to 23 citizens’ recommendations to reduce food waste, while the second and the third are ongoing and will close at the end of April.

“We are taking their ideas into consideration while drafting our policy papers,” Commissioner for democracy Dubravka Šuica told EURACTIV in an interview, adding that the idea is to “make citizens feel that they can influence drafting European policies”.

“I think we managed,” she said.

However, experts and civil society organisations cautioned on the success and impact of this recently introduced deliberative model.

According to Perle Petit, analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC), the EU citizens’ panels are “a clear sign that citizens’ participation is – in one form or another – here to stay in the EU’s decision-making structure”.

However, it remains to be seen “whether their aim is to improve democratic decision-making in the EU or relations between the institutions and the citizens”, she said.

Topic selection

In her view, a ‘bottom up’ element giving citizens a say over what topics are discussed in the panels would benefit the process.

The themes of the citizens’ panels are currently decided by the Commission, which invites participants to work first in small groups and then in plenary sessions on recommendations that the institution can consider when drafting policies and initiatives.

However, some of the topics chosen, such as ‘virtual worlds’ and ‘learning mobility’, are more complex to discuss.

“‘Virtual worlds’ has been the most problematic so far, with the topic requiring future-orientated speculation on the problems that this field might produce, based on little expert input about the realities of the matter,” Petit told EURACTIV.

Civil society organisations have also criticised the way topics were chosen for the discussion, pointing to the fact that these topics do not necessarily reflect the priorities of European citizens.

Involving civil society organisations

“We need to focus more on citizen-led agenda setting,” Patrizia Heidegger, deputy secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau (EBB), said during an event organised by the European Economic and Social Committee at the beginning of March.

In her view, the Commission should survey citizens’ concerns and better involve civil society organisations when selecting the topics for the panels. More civil society involvement would also diversify the expertise in the panels, which tend to fall on academia and think tanks, and increase the quality of deliberation, Heidegger said.

According to Alexandrina Najmowicz, secretary general of the European Civic Forum, a similar issue emerged during the Conference on the Future of Europe as well, where civil society organisations were not actively involved in the citizens’ panels.

“This seems to be the same situation with the citizens’ panels that are now ongoing,” she told EURACTIV, adding that more engagement of civil society organisations would also help make the assemblies more inclusive.

“Random selection has its limitations when it comes to really reaching out to groups that are at the margins of the society,” Najmowicz said.

Work in progress

According to Petit, some of these issues stem from the attempt to organise the citizens’ panels in a short period of time and within the current mandate of the Commission.

“Rather than adapting the process to the topics themselves or reflecting on how to design a new process […], the European citizens’ panels are replicating the experience of the CoFoE on a smaller stage,” including some of its problems, she said.

The Commission is expected to continue with this deliberative process in the coming years.

“This means that we can expect the European citizens’ panels to continue to improve over time,” Petit said.