On 15 December 2023, the European Committee of Regions (CoR) organised an event titled ‘A new chapter for participatory democracy: Paving the way for the future’ aiming at strengthening the democratic foundation of the EU at local, regional, and national levels while boosting citizen participation ahead of the European elections in 2024.

The moderator Silke Toenshoff, Head of Unit of Events and Local Dialogues at the CoR underlined the challenges faced by democracies while commending the adoption of the Defence of Democracy package last week, which includes a recommendation on civic participation. She also highlighted the significant impact the EU AI Act would have on the future of democracy.

In a video message, President of CoR (PT-PES) Vasco Cordeiro said that the solutions to the challenges, such as climate, inequality, and safety, start at the local and regional levels and invited all the participants to the 10th European Summit of Regions and Cities, which will take place in Mons, on 18-19 March, to exchange ideas, visions, and best practices. 

The Vice-President of the European Commission Dubravka Suica sent a video message saying that “Democracy strives on citizens’ ability to strive at all levels of governance.

Participatory democracy is a powerful tool to strengthen our representative democracy and to defend our democracy. We see the outcomes of the Conference of Europe in positive sense. The Programme of the Commission this year and next year are based on citizens’ recommendations. We had a number of pilot series of Citizens’ Panels. There are more to come in 2024”. She also mentioned the importance of the Democracy Package, which aims at building resilience, increasing transparency, and strengthening electoral processes. “This would increase citizens’ trust while creating an opportunity for citizens to voice opinions and contribute to policymaking. Innovative deliberative practices decrease gaps between citizens and representatives. There should be clear rules on citizens’ engagement, inclusiveness, media literacy, and providing feedback to citizens,” she added.

Domenec Ruiz Devesa (ES/S&D), Member of the European Parliament (EP) and co-rapporteur on the European elections 2024 highlighted the importance of strengthening European citizenship in regional levels and the need to strengthen cooperation between CoR and EP and to give a bigger role to CoR as was the case in the Conference of Europe. “The upcoming elections will be critical, especially because it represents a paradox from the political side. Although responses given by EU responses to several crises the EU is facing since 2019 were remarkable and given in a spirit of solidarity in contrast to the Eurocrisis response 10 years ago (i.e., joint defence purchasing, Green Deal, minimum wages, recovery plan and measures to ensure energy supplies and anti-inflationary measures), Eurosceptics and far-right parties are on the rise. Are policies overshadowed by politics due to bad communication? It seems that voting patterns in terms of identity are more prevalent than public goods delivered. Hence, we have to better communicate what we have done and strengthen the European dimension of political debate”, he commented.

He also referred to his report on 2024 elections that was approved during this plenary, which proposes a number of things to make elections more European. The first proposal is that all European political parties should have programmes to generate a debate at the European level as climate change, security, digitalisation, migrations, viruses, and weapons don’t have borders. These programmes should be visible with logos and names of European political parties in the ballots at national level as well as political advertisement. The second proposal is for European political parties to enter into an agreement to nominate their “Spitzenkandidaten” for the Presidency of the Commission. Clear political rules on how to proceed after elections are introduced. For instance, the European political party, which gathers the largest seat in the EP, takes the lead in negotiations to form a majority. “President Jean-Claude Juncker was a common candidate proposed by the European Parliament in 2014 but leaders such as, Angela Merkel and David Cameron was not in favour. So, it was not a given. In 2019, the EP didn’t have a common candidate and that allowed the Council to propose a random person, little known to the general public-the German defence minister. To avoid this in the future, legal reform is needed, and the EP has to take responsibility to make this happen”, he explained.

The third proposal calls on the European Commission to include EP, CoR and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in participatory democracy exercises, such as Citizens’ Panels. Furthermore, the Committee of the Regions’ European Network of Regional and Local Councillors, and the European Commission’s “Building Europe with Local Councillors” networks shall be merged and utilised to communicate better about European policies at the local level ahead of EU elections (including feedback, surveys, etc).

Finally, a common declaration by the Presidents of CoR, EESC and EP regarding participatory democracy proposals and common points of elections should be put together and adopted by March 2024.

François Decoster (FR/Renew) Mayor of Saint-Omer and President of CoR gave a concrete example on how citizens (families, teachers, pupils) from Saint-Omer take collective decisions regarding the name of a new school. According to him, the key to success in such participatory democratic practices lies in the ability of politicians to keep their promises whether or not they like the choice of the citizens. He also stressed the importance to translate European jargon into local level and by showing the results of European policies and their added value (not only explaining why institutions were created and how EU processes work). For instance, the flood crisis that occurred in France 3 weeks ago was addressed through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and such EU actions having a direct impact on citizens’ daily lives shall be visible to citizens at the local level.

Answering to a question on European values, Devesa said: “European values are not optional. As in every constitution, values are translated by public policies. Democratic and pro-European parties have a different interpretation of freedom, equality than other parties. Denying the question of migration would be denying fundamental rights of migrants, which would be crossing the limits. This is why it is important to have EU mechanisms to control rule of law, fundamental rights, and democracy, which is linked to the disbursement of EU financing. We have to be firm with EU values and actively transmit these values. This can be done through the network of EU councillors. The November conclusions of the Council of Ministers on European citizenship education are equally important to achieve this.