Friday, 9 May 2008

European Commission wants to “debate” Europe

It is well known that the European Commission has been attempting to deal with the citizen’s lack of trust in the EU. It has responded to the European Council’s call for a period of reflection in June 2005 after the ‘No’ votes of the French and Dutch referenda, by adopting “Plan D for Dialogue, Democracy and Debate.” Under Plan D, the European Commission co-funded six trans-national projects aimed at connecting citizens with decision makers, for a total amount of €4.5 million. These projects organised debates across the EU which has amounted to nothing else but EU propaganda.

On 2 April, the European Commission adopted a communication, “Debate Europe, building on the experience of Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate.” The Commission’s approach, it claims, will be widened and deepened in 2008 and 2009 with the intention of showing that it has learned its lesson about listening and communicating with EU citizens. The European Commission has made clear that it wants to change the idea that EU affairs “are too abstract and disconnected from the national public debate to be of interest to the citizens” and “to overcome the divide between national and European issues.” The Commission communication refers to the European Parliament elections and to the ratification and entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty and taking into account the events of 2009, there will be an increased importance in communicating with citizens in order to provide them with misleading information on the European Union.

The Commission will put forward several actions at both the national and EU level in order to promote a general and permanent debate on the future of the European Union among European citizens even though it continues to support only federal integrationist debate. ‘Debate Europe’ will hold citizens’ consultations organised by civil society in each Member State. The objective is to send the citizens’ conclusions to elected politicians, political parties and foundations. A debate between citizens and politicians will be organized to discuss the proposals contained in the citizens’ platforms. The Commission’s main aim is to increase the involvement of citizens in the EU decision making process and to provide citizens with access to information in order to enable them to contribute, it says, more actively to the debate about the European Union. The EU is seeking to involve citizens, social partners, civil society in the Union democratic life but this is misleading. Only organised citizens' groups can attain the expertise needed if they want to influence the EU in a specialised field and NGOs, citizens organizations who lobby the EU institutions are largely funded by the Commission and will therefore not be critical of the EU project. Obviously, the European Commission is not only concerned in getting citizens involved in decision making but also in making the EU more popular. According to the Commission, ‘Debate Europe’ will strengthen the Commission's endeavours to explain the added value of EU policies to citizens such as “internal market related success stories – roaming mobile charges, low cost flights, closing the gap in regional development, environmental protection and the fight against climate change.”

The Commission has also stressed that ‘Debate Europe’ will benefit from the EU regulation on political parties and foundations as “the development of European political foundations, will play an important role in involving citizens in a permanent, genuine and informed political dialogue.” However, it should be recalled that political foundations which do no support further European integration will not be able to get any EU funding.

The Commission has proposed to co-fund several civil society projects in 2008 and 2009 under ‘Debate Europe’ not only at the EU level but also at national level. ‘Debate Europe’ will have a budget of €7.2 million. Soon, the Commission will publish a call for proposal for new projects. However, the UK’s portion of the fund to be allocated under ‘Debate Europe’ will not reach those who are critical of European integration.

The European Commission has stressed that “Public support for the EU can only be built through lively and open debate and by getting citizens actively involved in European affairs.” According to Margot Wallström, the European Commission had learned a number of lessons from the no votes and from the period of reflection, it has “listening better, explaining better and going local.” It is ironic that despite this, according to a Global Vision/ICM poll 74% of those surveyed in the UK, the people still want their say on the Lisbon Treaty in a referendum yet are not being heard. A more democratic Europe has been promised. In order to achieve a democratic Union which is closer to its citizens, a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty should have been held in all Member States.

Nevertheless, despite the refusal of referendums in Europe, the Commission wants to spend €7.2 million of taxpayer’s money in engaging EU citizens in EU affairs. The European Commission is keen to promote debate on EU issues but delicate issues such as the budget reform would be left to be publicly debated after the Irish referendum. The debates are never informed and are constantly focusing on EU achievements but not on real problems. In order to not jeopardise the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty, the so called open and informed debate would be simply focused on the EU’s popular measures so that debate of delicate issues would not be promoted. Important issues such as how the Lisbon Treaty would be implemented would not be debated in public.

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