On December 3rd, European Alternatives, a European transnational organisation promoting alternatives to the current European construction process launches its Citizen Manifesto. Interview with Alessandro Valera, Head of Policy and Participation at European Alternatives.
Article by Maxence Salendre
Article originally published on Le Journal International
Following three years of citizens consultations, debates and panels, they propose a citizen answer to the crisis advocating for a new legal and political agenda which covers various topics from financial reform, work and welfare to media pluralism, migration and detention.
Le Journal International : A citizens’ manifesto. What for exactly?
Alessandro Valera : The EU has become a quasi-state. It takes care of an increasing number of decisions which affect our lives. Because the European Union is becoming a state, at European Alternatives we believe that its inhabitants need to become active citizens. There is no real democracy without active citizenship. It is of the responsibility of all to check what is done at the institutional level and this is what the Manifesto does.
JI: In what way is the Manifesto different from the other participating tools available in a democracy (elections, petitions…)?
A.V.: At the moment, the only real tool we possess is the right to vote for the European parliament every five years. But the European parliament is one of the only parliaments in the world which does not have power to initiate legislation. It is more a consultative body. This in a way explains why turnout has been decreasing since we started voting in the European elections in 1979. It illustrates both the lack of popular interest on European issues and the lack of trust. People don’t think their vote can help changing things at European level. Before 2009, people had difficulties understanding who was responsible for what in the EU. Now (especially in the Eurozone), citizens start to see what the EU is responsible for. They start seeing that there are problems which must be solved by the EU only.
Raising this awareness is our objective. With the Manifesto we wanted to take a chance to make these elections meaningful. At the moment, European elections concentrate popular anger toward national issues on the EU. We often hear the media talking about the democratic deficit. This means that Members of the European parliament (MEPs) need to be elected by Europeans based on their answer to European issues not national problems.
For these reasons we try to breach this gap and in three years we tried to involve citizens to make them express their views and priorities. We want to silence criticisms about the non-involvement of citizens about the EU. There is a timid but growing interest in EU issues and we try to collect them in this document.
JI: Is such a participative approach a way to bring citizens back into the field of decision-making? How could you secure this commitment and involvement in the future? Are you still in contact with some of the people who participated in the Manifesto?
A.V.: The Manifesto has a four pages long “thank you” list. This shows the number of people who are involved. The Transeuropa network was created out of these panels. When people realised the importance of what we were doing, some decided to join us and created local European Alternatives group in their own city.
But we do not want only politically active people to join us. We want to be inclusive and before the European parliament elections we will organise caravans that will go through the EU, stop in cities, present the manifesto, organise public hearings on it. We will take people’s input. We will listen to people who do not see that their issues are to be solved by EU legislation.
We had such an example with Italian tomato-farmers. There was a protest in southern Italy about “made in Italy” tomatoes which were collected in China and then sent to Italy to be packaged there. Farmers tried to protest but it didn’t go anywhere. This is exactly the type of problems on which the EU can have an effect (international trade, tariffs, quality of food products). But the farmers were protesting locally and were not addressing the right decision-maker. We told them that they should be careful at the coming European elections. These only happen once every five years and they might want to look at their candidates’ programmes to see what they propose on the topics that are dear to you.
JI: When turnout is so low, what do you do to get people interested in EU issues?
A.V.: We do not try to take a picture of EU appreciation. There are better tools for that (Euro barometer, European parliament elections). Instead we are trying to gather different people who are politically active at local and national levels and make them see that their struggles are connected to wider and bigger issues. We do not think that leaving the EU or sending back migrants is the solution to our problems. We talked to many people from different communities, we tried to be as inclusive as possible and we tried to connect their opinions.
Let us take the topic of “work” for instance. We would set up a panel; invite everyone (i.e. using local newspaper and social media to advertise the event). People were asked to participate according to the World Café method. With a trained moderator they discussed their main problem about the topic with other participants. For the topic of “work”, one table would speak about youth unemployment, maternity or paternity leave, contracts…. And we would try to find issues. We collected the opinions of many citizens (EU passport holders and migrants – everyone interested in the EU). People were invited to discuss these ideas and turn them into meaningful policy proposals.
JI: Talking about the proposals. Among the topics covered are social and economic rights, fiscal and economic policy i.e. very technical issues. How did you manage to explain these technical issues to everyday citizens who might not possess all the necessary knowledge to have a full grasp of these topics?
A.V.: The most difficult topics were legal and financial reforms. There was a constant dialogue between experts (academics, practitioners, policy development experts) and citizens. We made sure there were always experts to explain people the technicalities of a topic. We tried to put together two very different needs which often seem conflicting. On one hand one might struggle to be inclusive and to foster participation but what happens is that the result is often too watered-down, too idealistic, too detached from reality. Such a result would mean coming up with a manifesto that is just a series of ideal scenarios and would stop here. There would be no continuity.
Instead we tried to follow the concept of “pragmatic utopianism”. This means one doesn’t negotiate his/her values; they remain the same but he/she must adapt them to the practical, pragmatic world. In the methodology, this translated as a three years collection of proposals. We then gathered experts who took all the proposals in one area, went through them and assessed what the EU could do with these proposals. They translated the embryonic proposals into proposals that could be seriously considered by the European parliament. To further give backing to the proposals by the citizens we then organised some Mani(fests) which corresponded to stalls installed in ten European urban squares where we would stop passers-by and ask them to vote on their favourite proposals. We got over 2,000 votes and these are reflected in the proposals.
JI: So you collected citizens’ ideas. Did you add other topics, how did you decide which topic would go in the manifesto?
A.V : This three years process ended up in organising more than 60 citizen panels in EU countries. We wanted to show that even if citizens could only see the “nasty” aspect of the EU (bailout of banks, austerity etc.) there were less well-known areas in which people had a say (minority rights, migrants, LGBT, Roma people, workers’ rights, media pluralism, organised crime…). Most of the issues were covered during the three years.
Toward the end we added the environmental topic because it was impossible not to mention it. We applied a similar methodology. There are many more possible topics but there is still room for improvement in the manifesto. It is not set in stone, some issues are discussed at EU level, our idea was to have a manifesto which could be updated every two years so that it could be fluid and could bridge all the differences existing between EU countries. It’s not an over-arching, all inclusive project. It has to be updated.
JI: How do you ensure that politicians play their part of the game?
A.V.: On December 3rd we will present this to the European parliament. We already received attendance confirmation from several MEPs. The more appeal this has, the better it is. We don’t want only one party or one family of party to attend. We cannot force politicians to hear what we say. However we can use our power of congregation, of civil society organisation to advertise about candidates who will pledge to respect and defend the citizen manifesto.”