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Public consultations — an essential tool for bringing the EU closer to its citizens

Source: European Commission

The EU’s political system is built on the principle of representative democracy. The EU institution that most obviously represents this principle is the European Parliament, newly elected in May 2019. Another less well-known principle, which is nevertheless included in Title II (‘Provisions on democratic principles’) of the Treaty on the European Union, is the principle of consulting citizens and representative associations in all areas of Union action. The institution that mainly carries out these consultations is the European Commission, when it assesses existing / prepares new legislation. ECA Member Annemie Turtelboom was in charge of an audit of public consultation activities carried out by the Juncker Commission, published in September 2019. Below she explains how the public consultation principle applies to the EU’s institutional context, and provides insights on how the Commission has used consultations over the past few years.

By Annemie Turtelboom, ECA Member

Liberal democracy is facing a global crisis

In a politically and socially challenging environment, authoritarian rule is increasingly hailed as the way forward, often at the expense of parliamentary representation. However, the problem in today’s world is not only the rise of strongmen, as identified by dozens of female world leaders in their open letter in February 2019 pointing out that strongman rule often goes hand in hand with the erosion of women’s rights, but also the decline of some existing democracies. While these issues have long seemed very distant from Europe − the cradle of democracy − they are now closer to home than ever. Growing EU-scepticism is one of the symptoms of Europe’s ailing democracy. But what is the cure?

EU election system gives citizens a say

Every five years, EU citizens get to vote for their representatives to the European Parliament. This is a crucial opportunity for the EU electorate to express themselves on the EU’s main direction. The ensuing five years will bring regular output from the EP, the Council and the Commission on policies and programmes and their implementation. In between elections, the political landscape in the EU offers various democratic participatory tools ranging from referendums, through other forms of consultation (e.g. Eurobarometer surveys, focus groups, public hearings) to Citizens’ Dialogues and citizens’ assemblies with randomly selected participants. .

But where can citizens regularly provide input on EU policy-making?

This is where public consultations come in. They are the Commission’s preferred means of engaging with citizens on a regular basis. These non-binding online surveys are designed to collect information and opinions from all EU citizens, allowing them to have a say on upcoming policy initiatives or existing programmes. This creates a two-way street between EU institutions and citizens. The Commission is not the only EU institution to ask citizens for their input on (anticipated) output. The ECA also makes use of surveys to complement its audit findings, for example in working on its special report 30/2018 on passengers’ rights — where citizens were consulted on the effects of policy — or special report 14/19 on the Commission’s use of public consultations, published on 5 September 2019.

Box 1 — Main findings of ECA special report 14/2019 on the Commission’s public consultations

- Commission’s framework for consulting the public is of a high standard;

- The performance and participants’ perception of the audited consultations were satisfactory;

- Lack of overall strategy as to when to consult stakeholders and when citizens;

- Commission did not systematically publish its consultation strategies or other advance information;

- Consultations are not using a variety of communication channels to reach their target audiences ;

- Participation higher when the survey was made available in all EU official languages;

- No clear criteria for deciding whether consultations were in the ‘broad public interest’ and thus translated.

- Commission’s data analysis was satisfactory, but checks regarding the validity of responses were limited.

Reaching out to citizens is no new phenomenon…

Reaching out to citizens is actually a basic value of the European Union and is reflected in the Treaty. According to Article 11, the Commission has a duty to consult citizens and representative associations in all areas of Union action. Citizens’ growing distrust towards the EU and its decision-making process (see Figure 1) prompted the Commission to take a renewed interest in Article 11 in 2015. The Juncker Commission made it one of its primary objectives to render the EU and its law-making more democratic and transparent. This was reflected in its Better Regulation objectives, published on 19 May 2015, which stressed the Commission’s commitment to engaging more effectively with EU citizens. In 2018 the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked the Commission first among all OECD countries for citizen engagement in law-making (1).

Figure 1 — Eurobarometer figures on citizens’ trust in EU institutions

Citizen participation in public consultations remains low

Despite giving citizens the opportunity to participate in EU law-making, public consultations only yielded an average of around 500 responses in 2015 and 2016 and 2 000 responses each in 2017 and 2018, excluding the top consultations for each year (see Figure 2). The top consultations were:

  • 2015 : PC on EU nature legislation (Birds Directive, Habitats Directive) — around 550 000 responses;
  • 2016: PC on the European Pillar of Social Rights — around 16 500 responses;
  • 2017: PC on modernising and simplifying the common agricultural policy –around 63 000 responses;
  • 2018: PC on summer time — around 4.6 million responses.

Figure 2 — Number of public consultations done by the Commission and their outreach

Our audit showed that, on average, the Commission carried out more than 100 public consultations per year. We found that just over a third of the 26 public consultations examined by our auditors received over 1 000 responses, while over a third received under 75.

The public consultation on crime prevention had the lowest response rate, with just three replies (see Figure 3).

Figure 3 — Participants in the 26 sampled consultations

Top public consultation by far…

The public consultation on summer time arrangements, which took place in August 2018, received responses from all 28 Member States. With 4.6 million participants, it attracted more interest than any public consultation ever conducted by the Commission. The outcome was clear: 84 % of respondents were in favour of ending the twice-yearly clock change. To put this into perspective, however, less than 1 % of all EU citizens participated in the survey.

…but only in Germany and Austria

Geographical imbalance was a major issue during the summer time consultation: 70 % of responses came from Germany and 6 % from Austria, the two countries that also ranked first and second regarding the proportion of the national population taking part (3.8 % and 2.9 % respectively). Although the Commission tried to boost participation when the consultation was underway by focusing on the nine countries that were heavily under-represented, geographical imbalance remained a problem. For example, while Germany had a response rate of 3.8 %, in more than ten EU Member States, including several larger ones, the response rate was around 0.001 %.

Public consultations are not representative for the entire EU population

Given that participants are self-selected, public consultations do not provide a representative view of the EU population. In light of this, it was surprising to hear Commissioner Bulc say after the public consultation on summer time: ‘Millions of Europeans used our public consultation to make their voices heard. The message is very clear: 84 % of them do not want the clocks to change anymore. We will now act accordingly and prepare a legislative proposal to the European Parliament and the Council, who will then decide together.’ Or to hear President Juncker state: ‘The people want it, we do it.’

Before launching the public consultation on summer time, the Commission did not provide a consultation strategy or any other advance information, except for a follow-up to a European Parliament resolution. The outcome could have been different had the Commission informed citizens adequately in advance about the objective of the consultation and the intended use of its results.

ECA reviewed consultations and conducted a survey

In addition to the public consultation on summer time, we reviewed 25 other online consultations, conducted between 2016 and 2018 by five Directorates-General and covering issues such as the environment, migration measures and agricultural policy. We assessed whether they were effective at reaching out to citizens and stakeholders and how the Commission made use of the citizens’ contributions. We also examined the design of the Commission’s framework, how the Commission prepared and conducted the public consultations, and how it provided information about the consultation work. We also set up a panel of experts to enhance our analysis and help us focus on particularly relevant areas.

Box 2 — Promoting the dissemination of special report 14/2019 on the Commission’s public consultations

On 5 September 2019, we issued the special report on public participation in EU law-making. Its publication has been encompassed within a communication which included a promotional video: https://twitter.com/EUauditors/status/1169543190422196225 and the publication, for the first time in the history of ECA, of interactive visuals accompanying the social media campaign to promote the special report: https://public.tableau.com/profile/ecalab#!/

The special report has been presented at a seminar to the European Economic and Social Committee (26/09/2019), to the European Parliament Committee on Budgetary Control (08/10/2019) and to the Council of the European Union Working Party on Better Regulation (09/10/2019).

In addition, we conducted a perception survey to find out how participants felt about the consultations. We received 2 224 responses from participants in 15 of the public consultations sampled by the ECA. Our survey showed that that 65% of respondents were satisfied with the consultation process, but only 40% were satisfied with the Commission’s feedback, which was often late, incomplete or only in English.

Box 3 — Some participants reactions on public consultations

- Respondents are in favour of a democratic process promoting active EU citizenship:

Apart from voting for the European Parliament, there are very few opportunities to have a say in how the EU deals with issues, so having an input into an EU public consultation helps to fill the democratic gap.

- Respondents often learned about public consultations through civil society groups:

…if it weren’t for organisations and foundations, I would never comment on any subject because nothing reaches me, e.g. questionnaires.

- Respondents call for adequate publicity to raise awareness of public consultations:

Certainly, as well as reaching out to citizens electronically, a public campaign is also important in order to involve those citizens who are most interested.

- Respondents like questionnaires tailored to citizens in all EU languages:

In a new survey, which I have to answer, the questions should be in my mother tongue: Danish. The wording should also be easier to understand, as not everyone has a university-level education.

- Respondents want more feedback on the outcome of public consultations:

I don’t receive a summary of the opinions. The outcome of the consultation is unknown.

- Respondents would like the Commission to be more accountable:

The European Commission needs to be balanced in addressing the issues, trying to obtain from citizens not just a positive, optimistic response to its questions, but also concerns and criticism.

Public Consultations in the EU: still far from curing the perception of a democratic deficit in the EU

We at the ECA also noted in our 2018–2020 Strategy that the ‘…perceived distance between EU citizens and institutions is now an existential threat to the EU.’ The Commission’s initiative to ask citizens for their input on EU policy-making — in between elections and on a broad range of topics — should therefore be applauded, as emphasised in the OECD 2018 report. Similarly, any initiative aiming at reducing the distance between EU citizens and its institutions is most welcome. Public consultations, despite their limitations and implementation difficulties, are certainly a step in the right direction. No surprise then that the ECA is also slowly but surely increasing its use of public consultations.

But we in the EU should not be complacent. Public consultations are an essential tool to bring the EU closer to its citizens, but their potential is far from fully exploited. That is why we made a number of recommendations in our report. Most importantly, for the new legislative period, the Commission needs to ensure that their consultations reach significantly more people. Other recommendations we made relate to better monitoring and ensuring that selected activities complement each other, stating the aims of the consultations more clearly, diversifying consultations through general questionnaires and specific questions for specialists, and applying high standards for data processing and protection to prevent external manipulation. We also recommended complete transparency on the intended use and the outcome of the consultations.

Having fully accepted basically all of our recommendations (one sub-recommendation relating to translation into all EU languages was only partially accepted), it will be interesting to see what steps the new Commission takes to create — as stipulated in Article 11 of the Treaty on European Union — an open, transparent and regular dialogue. Progress in this area will be necessary to achieve the ultimate goals of public consultation: better regulations and policy-making for EU citizens so that they gain more trust that the representatives elected to the European Parliament and people selected for the EU do the best possible job in the public interest. Using the results of public consultations may not necessarily make that job easier but should increase the impact of policies for EU citizens. It may even inspire other EU institutions to make more use of the potential created by direct dialogue with the citizens.

(1) OECD Regulatory Policy Outlook 2018, OECD Publishing, Paris, p. 48.

This article was first published on the 4/2019 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors

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