human development, social justice and sustainable social systems
A look into the changing political landscape
The 2019 European Parliament (EP) elections came and went, giving what many hope to be a breath of fresh air into the policies, priorities and direction of the European Union (EU). While the voter turn-out has been celebrated as a strengthened support of the EU1, the results reflect a general rejection of the traditional mainstream parties. The political landscape is undoubtfully changing, but will it reveal a new EP ready to step up to the challenge of reviving the EU and its democratic values?
In the last several years, there has been a feeling of disconnect between the EU and its citizens. On the one hand, people have been questioning the Union’s legitimacy, often expressing that their voice is not being heard or that it matters. On the other hand, the EU was not visibly doing much to convince them of the opposite. And with Eurosceptics and populism movements being able to comfortably settle in-between, there has been a growing threat to the sustainability of the European project as such.
The 2014 European elections projected this tendency as they recorded the lowest level of voter participation, especially amongst young people. The underlying problems were claimed to be a lack of information and interest in EU politics.
Issues, such as Brexit, have since put the EU in the heart of the discussion, and so have strong initiatives by civil society organisations to reach out and actively involve citizens. The results have not been late to follow, as witnessed by the YouVoteEU project run by a consortium of partners, including the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS). Its web platform Yourvotematters.eu aimed to ‘raise the participation of voters in the 2019 elections and to connect voters with current and future EU policies’. Amongst else, it enabled citizens to compare their stand on issues against those of MEPs and political parties to find who best represents their views. In the eight months running up to the 2019 European elections, the platform recorded more than 1.6 million users.
Such campaigns can be credited with aiding a dialogue and increasing both interest and political participation of the European citizen. In contrast to the previous elections, the 2019 ones had the highest voter turn-out in the last twenty years, which in turn, had an effect on the political composition of the European Parliament.
A shift in political balance
The parties Renew Europe and the Greens (now the third and fourth biggest political forces in the EP, respectively) are considered to be the winners of the elections. Their advancement dismantled the dominance that has long been enjoyed by the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) coalition, creating a new political landscape. And though a feared shift to the extreme right did not take place, the EP is now more fragmented and finding political compromises on an EU level could prove challenging. This can already be observed during the plenary sessions held up to date, as the voting behaviour of MEPs displays not only division between political families, but also within them.
At the same time, the gradual trend of an increasing EP influence is expected to continue throughout this term. For starters, Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen promised MEPs a right to legislative initiative, stating that proposals favoured by a majority in Parliament will be taken up by the Commission.
A louder citizens’ voice
In parallel to the high election turn-out, driven by the younger generation2, there has been a significant increase of civic activism. Citizens are loudly reiterating the call for improved democracy and adequate action to pressing issues (climate change, economic growth, immigration policy, etc). In addition, they have also been more eager to learn about their EU citizen rights and how they are being safeguarded. For example in the last year, Your Europe Advice3 run by ECAS has seen a 30 percent rise in enquiries received from citizens, based on questions connected to their right to freedom of movement (including entry procedures, residence & work issues, transfer of social security and country of insurance when moving from one Member State to another).
It is clear that to revive the idea of the EU, citizens and the wide-spread movements demanding change must be at the heart of its decision-making process. A promising start was Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen’s announcement that she wants “citizens to play a leading and active part in building the future of the EU”, for one, by having their say at the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe. But to really make this a meaningful process and not just another dialogue, citizens need to be offered realistic opportunities to influence EU policy-making. Currently, there are three methods for such participation – petitions to the European Parliament, online public consultations and taking part in a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Given that we are in the age of technology, these methods could and should be expanded. Digital platforms present a unique opportunity to complement our representative democracy with better participatory democracy and transform the relationship between decision-makers and citizens into more of a partnership for the co-creation of policies. Working in the field of European democracy, ECAS calls on the new EP and European Commission to harness the potential of digital tools, especially for crowdsourcing mechanisms, and use them to strive towards a more engaged European citizenship. This is one way to assure that citizens are on the EU radar not just around election time, but in between as well. And only then can the EU’s future legitimacy and sustainability be strengthened and improved.
The European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) is an international, Brussels-based non-profit organisation with a pan-European membership and near 30 years of experience. Our mission is to empower citizens in order to create a more inclusive and stronger European Union by:
Promoting and defending citizens’ rights;
Developing and supporting mechanisms to increase citizens and citizen organisations’ democratic participation in, and engagement with, the EU.
Communications and Outreach Coordinator
European Citizen Action Service (ECAS)