On the evening of the 8 May, Civil Society activists from all over Europe, from as far as Northern Sweden and Barcelona, gathered at Europe House in London, with one aim: to find concrete solutions to the democratic deficit of the EU.
The initiator was European Alternatives, a pan-European organization which provides transnational solutions to our common challenges.
The event they organised in London was part of a series of citizens gatherings, under the common title "The Citizens Pact", which aims to find solutions for bridging the great gap between the EU and its citizens.
The conclusions from these debates will become part of "The Citizens Manifesto", which will be introduced to MEPs at their most susceptible time: exactly before the European Parliament elections.
The Civil Society
At the event in London there were 8 tables, each focusing on a different aspect involved in democratizing the union.
I had the great pleasure of moderating the table on "Mobilizing and Uniting the Civil Society". A topic I feel strongly about, and which I know is crucial to ensuring democracy in any and every society.
A number of very bright and enthusiastic Europeans honored me, by joining this discussion. Here are the conclusions from our debate:
GLOCAL - Think Global, Act Local
Most citizens are not aware of their rights, and of their obligations, they do not even understand how important their vote is.
The turn-out at regional and national elections in recent years keeps falling, and none more so than at the European elections (only recently the first EP elections in Croatia achieved only 20.75% turn-out, in a country which overwhelmingly voted in a referendum to join the EU recently).
In the case of the EU, the citizens do not even understand what they are voting for, and what powers and decisions are made at the Institutions in Brussels.
This is because there is not much debate and education on citizens rights, powers and obligations, and also because what people really want to know is how the big policies will affect THEM, their family and their community, something which is rarely communicated.
It is possible to educate society and to explain how national and EU policies will directly effect them, by having a network of knowledgeable and enthusiastic activists in the regions.
The most successful political campaigns have not been those which are centralized, but those that have managed to create a network of activists at a local level. Activists which explain the relevance and importance of the big policies in the local area, region, or town.
The "Obama Mamas" were a very successful group of local activities which explained Obama's election promises and policies clearly, simply and from the point of view of their community.
What we can learn from them is that this community of activists was already in place, it was not created by the Obama Campaign, but rather some of the existing civil society structures were simply catalyzed and united.
Another example is the very successful Spanish "15-M Movement" (more commonly known as "Indignados", due to the media preferring this name), which politicized a large part of society, including people of all classes and walks of life. They achieved this without access to any major media, without even leafleting, or approaching people, but simply by organizing local assemblies, which citizens could gain information from.
Indeed there are many civil society organisations at a grass-root level, based in all parts of Europe, in all regions. They have access to the local communities, they have activists which are interested in the big policies coming out of the EU, which also understand their local area.
What these organizations need are support and resources to match their enthusiasm and to quantify its effect.
And this brings us to the next point:
In order to achieve a politicization of society, the citizens need to be educated and aware of their rights and obligations, at least of why their vote matters.This can be achieved through, for example, assemblies, events, social debates and social media.
As discussed in the previous main point, the grass-root, bottom-up initiatives, have access to their local communities, and are the ones that best understand it. From a EU point of view, they are able to actually reach the citizens in all regions, beyond the Euro-enthusiasts and political geeks in the "Brussels Bubble".
The EU cannot micro-manage civil activism, debates and education in all regions, but it can support existing organizations in these regions.
The "European Citizens Initiative" for example, is a good project of the European Commission, however with no funding for its promotion, very very few people have even heard of it. As a result, the ECIs have so far gained few votes, and those are primarily from the "Brussels Bubble" - the community of people interested in EU politics.
So very well, we have reached the point where we understand we need to educate citizens on their rights and powers, and that this can best be achieved by communicating how it will affect them and their community, and also that the EU needs to be more pro-active in reaching out to all citizens, in all regions (not just the Brussels Bubble), through the local networks.
However, the organizations themselves need to be more pro-active as well. Currently there are thousands and thousands of "pro-European" organizations doing quite similar things - writing articles, making events, organizing debates, and usually refusing to co-operate due to certain vested interests.
In order to achieve a greater reach, and to spread a united message, the many civil society organisations need to collaborate. Inevitably there are vested interests, fights for funding and strange notions of "competition" in this non-profit sector where there cannot and should not be competition in the way that there is in the for-profit business sector.
It is a difficult task, but what can be done to get more collaboration and unity is to:
Create a common vision, a common campaign, which many organizations, initiatives, and individuals can gather around while maintaining complete independence of their organisation.
Keep an open-mind, and understand that we are all working voluntarily for an ideal, we all have the same vision. Competing, or simply not collaborating defies the purpose. This is especially true of those organizations aiming for a more united Europe, but which themselves do not want to unite!
The EU can also help in this by creating initiatives, campaigns and distributing funding in such a way, and with such pre-conditions, which require collaboration between a wide alliance of organizations.
The European citizens feel more than ever distant from the EU. They do not understand how it affects them, or how they can affect it. If the EU wants to address this huge gap and the democratic deficiency it has to learn from other political institutions and campaigns and develop a network of local activists.These should not be pro-EU, but simply fair and realistic about the EU.
It needs to educate, not from the perspective of the well-versed in EU-lingo "Brussels Bubble", but from the perspective of the local people. It needs to get in touch and provide support to the grass-root civil society organisations. Perhaps most of all it needs to encourage networking and partnerships between those organisations.
With special thanks to all participants for their insightful contributions:
Gareth Bell - UK Campaign for Europe
Prisca Merz - Director of End Ecocide in Europe
Virgina Lopez Calvo - Civil Society Activist
Andreea Anastasiu - Writer for OneEurope
Leo Klinkers - Creator of European Federalist Papers
Tamara Flanagan OBE - Director of EU Matters
Marc Cases Martin - Director of Esplais Catalans
Agamemnon Apostolou - Editor for OneEurope
Francesca Lacaita - European Federalist Activist