European elections: Careful what you promise, citizens are watching


By Allan Päll, Secretary General of the European Youth Forum, and Petros Fassoulas, Secretary General of the European Movement International
This piece has been published previously at EurActiv.com

In January, the European Parliament elected its new president and vice-presidents, committees were reshuffled, and power sharing between political groups was renegotiated.

It offered another reminder of the disconnect between what happens in the ‘Brussels Bubble’ and the lives of the vast majority of European citizens – that the issue of the day (or at least four rounds of voting) over here can pass without really registering across the continent.

Yet, halfway through the mandate of this current crop of MEPs, these political power games will impact what gets done over the remainder of their term. They won’t be without impact on future legislation.

The mid-term reshuffle and shifting party leaderships should remind us that our participation in European democracy is not, and should not, be limited to a brief debate and ballot cast every five years.

We are worth much more than that, and so are the issues at stake. In between elections in the EP arena, ideas compete, political arm-wrestling takes place, and important decisions are taken that shape our societies, affect our everyday lives, and greatly influence citizens’ trust in politics at the European level.

Those of us involved in these processes have a responsibility to ensure they are not confined to the home of the EU institutions; that they are not highlighted in election season and forgotten in the interim.

What can be done to change this? Journalists and broader media institutions have an essential role in providing consistent, clear, engaging coverage of what happens in the EU’s only directly elected chamber. Political leaders themselves must commit to making dialogue with citizens a running priority, not just a cyclical consideration.

But civil society organisations must also work to invigorate the relationship between citizens and the EP – we have to ask how their interests are being approached, and examine how MEPs are working on the causes they were mandated to champion in 2014.

Prior to those elections, many organisations published pledges and manifestos. Campaign excitement was high and promises poured in: as a candidate, if elected, I will “promote initiatives and legislation that will provide effective protection to whistleblowers”, “will work to establish a comprehensive framework to achieve gender equality”, “will protect young workers, volunteers and interns, will fully implement the Youth Guarantee scheme, and will lower the voting age to 16”, and the list goes on.

Citizens had demands, and MEPs pledged to achieve them.

Two and a half years later, civil society organisations can help bridge the EP-citizen gap by ensuring that these promises are not forgotten: a political version of the performance review, a “health checkup” for our democracy.

As a recent example, the Youth Forum and the European Movement International have partnered with the IHECS School of Journalism and Communications, as well as a number of civil society organisations, to scrutinise the progress so far: the On Our Watch project offers a platform to ask what has been achieved and what was left out, what was debated and what was kept quiet, which MEPs championed key causes and which ones stood in the way?

Civil society organisations have a ‘watchdog’ role to play in holding the Parliament accountable for progress made since 2014 – and indeed, in commending and recognising the work of many MEPs in pushing important causes forward.

Through projects like On Our Watch we want to show that this can be done collectively, that as citizens’ interest intersect so can our efforts. When we look to inform citizens, generate debate, and look at what remains to be done before the 2019 elections, we can present a united front in telling MEPs that their promises were heard, their work is under the lens, and there is much to do in this current mandate.

At the half-term point, our dialogue and advocacy must be ongoing, just like our commitment to defend our visions and values. And if ‘together we are stronger’ applies to EU member states, we firmly believe it applies to civil society organisations too.