On 22 November 2017, in the context of the Lifelong Learning Week, On Our Watch hosted a debate on the role of civil society in stimulating citizens’ engagement with European politics and the 2019 European elections.
The debate was kicked of by a short presentation of the On Our Watch project. Bringing together more than 30 civil society organisations, the On Our Watch platform offers citizens the opportunity to see what the European Parliament has achieved since the 2014 elections, and to check up on the progress made against politicians’ promises and citizens’ demands. The reflections and tools on the On Our Watch website are a basis for discussion and dialogue with citizens and form the basis for an interactive and cooperative platform ahead of the 2019 elections.
The debate was introduced by Krystyna Łybacka MEP and Brando Benifei MEP, who elaborated on their interaction with civil society in their work as Member of the European Parliament. This was followed by an interactive debate with panelists Kristen Aigro (European Youth Forum), Petros Fassoulas (European Movement International), Brikena Xhomaqi (Lifelong Learning Platform), Pamela Bartlett Quintanilla (Greens/EFA) and Tycho Vandermaesen (WWF) moderated by Ruben Loodts (Otherwhere).
The debate with panelists and audience reflected on the role of civil society and politicians in engaging citizens and discussed the different approaches and tools, including civil society pledge campaigns and manifestos and the On Our Watch platform. All angles were represented in the debate, with politicians, political parties, civil society and citizens sharing their thoughts.
A few notable conclusions, comments and questions emerged from the open debate:
How to engage citizens?
• What are the issues that trigger the interest of citizens?
• Showing the concrete impact of action and engagement is key for citizen engagement – citizens need to see that taking part is useful.
• Citizens are in the first place occupied with their day-to-day concerns, such as employment and local issues. Regional, national and European political issues are not necessarily at the front of their minds and actions.
• National member organisations of European networks can be prone to the same communication style as national politicians: if it’s good it’s from the national governments, if it’s not ‘blame it on Brussels’.
• The multitude of tools available is not necessarily problematic: different tools or organisations could reach just another group of citizens that hasn’t been reached by other tools yet. It’s important to include the ‘unusual suspects’ as much as possible both from the political parties and civil society perspective.
• Democracy costs: democracy and citizen participation will not thrive if not supported financially.
What about civil society manifestos and pledge campaigns?
• A manifesto is the backbone of the engagement of a civil society organisation with the European elections, as it captures the aims of the organization and is the basis of all following actions.
• Pledge campaigns are tricky to design: do you include broad demands for a larger audience, or more specific demands for concrete action of a smaller audience? A broad framing of demands gives you the opportunity to start a dialogue with those (candidate) MEPs that sign your campaign, even if they have acted against these exact same demands in the previous legislature.
• To make the pledge campaign more effective, they should however be coupled with concrete actions that an MEP could do when taking into account their competences and (human) resources. The human resources an MEP has available also determines how much engagement with civil society and citizens they can organise.
• A very visible follow-up to signed pledge campaigns, with events and media, will more likely draw the attention of MEPs than other kinds of follow-up.
What do we dream for the 2019 elections?
• Even more cooperation and collaboration of civil society – such as On Our Watch!
• Spitzenkandidaten reaching out to civil society instead of the reverse
• More European topics in the debates
• Thinking outside of the box constituted by rules of procedure and the treaties – what could we change fundamentally for more engagement and two-way dialogue?
• More young candidates and youth voting in the elections