Verena Ringler leads call for an #EUCitizenCommissioner

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The European strategy expert, and proposed candidate for Austrian EU Commissioner by opposition party NEOS, Verena Ringler, has led a call for an EU Citizen Commissioner, to support citizen relations and civil society.

The call seeks to impress upon incoming EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the need to appoint a Vice President and Commissioner for citizen relations and civil society, and build upon her own support for the creation of a citizen’s assembly. Read the call in full below or find out more here.

 

Why we need an #EUCitizenCommissioner now

Three reasons why President-elect Ursula von der Leyen shall seize the moment and appoint a Vice President and Commissioner for citizen relations and civil society.

A few days ago, Ursula von der Leyen promised the Members of the European Parliament a citizens’ assembly which could take place within the framework of an EU Future Conference. That is important. However, the President-elect should now go much further and appoint an EU Commissioner for citizen relations and civic space.

A Citizen Commissioner is needed to build relations of trust and cooperation to vast constituencies across the EU after these past weeks, and to institutionalise the field of citizen relations in order to lift citizen and non-profit Europe’s overall potential. Compared to other Commission fields such as competition or trade, the field is legally, structurally, financially and politically fuzzy at best, and fallow at worst. This Commissioner’s mandate and scope of activities would be derived from Articles 2, 3, 10, 11, 13 and 17 of the Treaty on European Union, which voice the principles and fundamental values of the EU and their implementation by the European Commission. Citizens’ trust in the EU is the weakest link in the chain while exhibiting the greatest potential for a strong EU.

Citizens today get active in their free time for three reasons. First, they want to renegotiate the line between common and particular interests. Secondly, they aim to enrich political projects or democratic life and processes by harnessing the “wisdom of the crowd”. Thirdly, they intend to trigger large-scale transformation processes such as the climate and economic transition from below, including with the insights and input from our academic and business worlds.

While some citizens work with organised, classic civil society such as the Red Cross, many today are active in campaign groups like change.org, or, as randomly selected citizen panels in regional or constitutional processes. Furthermore, pan-European groups like the Good Lobby, More in Common, European Alternatives, Mitost, or the European Youth Parliament have for years co-shaped democratic life and intercultural civic work across borders in the EU. Also emerging fields like the “Shared Economy” or social innovation are often dealt with by civil society, and last but not least, a myriad of local initiatives and salons complement today’s European arena of active citizens and of civil society initiatives.

 

Why an EU Citizens Commissioner, and for what? – Three reasons:

Reason Nr. 1: Build trust.

The EU now needs to regain confidence and close the gap between the EU and its citizens after the rocky procedures towards appointing the leadership of the next legislature in the EU. In May 2019, 51 percent of eligible voters went to cast their vote in the European elections – more than ever before in the EU of 28 member states.  Groups and initiatives had mobilised up and down the Union— starting with CEOs of listed companies, and running the gamut from the Central Association of German Crafts and Trades to the pan-European “Alliance4Europe” cultural, sports and business initiative all the way to the open-air “Pulse of Europe” citizen groupings on central city and village squares. These new, powerful alliances that have emerged from our societal centres, including our academic and business world. People across the board need a long-term framework in which they can co-shape the course of European integration.

Reason Nr. 2:

Secondly, citizen relations and civil society should lead– not lag on– the EU’s priority list.

Both national politics and EU institutions systematically underestimate the potential of active citizenship, civil society and participation. In the EU’s committees, these points are still placed behind in a reflexive way.

  • This blind spot became phenomenally exposed in 2017, when European Commission President Juncker presented five scenarios for the future of the EU. A few weeks later, a hastily appointed special adviser, Luc van den Brande, was asked to patch together an addendum to the scenarios. His report, “Reaching out to EU citizens – A new opportunity,” was hardly noticed at the time. In substance however, the report would to this day make a good working basis and roadmap for an EU Citizen Commissioner.
  • Or, take the Erasmus programme for students and mobility programmes for young people, apprentices and start-ups: in times of disruption, political decision-makers could well tap into the thoughts and warnings from today’s “Erasmus Europe” circles. However, these programmes are not run strategically. There are no interfaces of “Erasmus Europe” with big picture EU reform processes.
  • Citizens are seismographs on the major issues that politics must address, and hence the EU’s best and cheapest early warning system. Citizens have been taking to the streets about climate, technology and social issues for years before e.g. the EU Reformist group published their 2019 report along these three foci themes. Thousands marched for digital civil liberties in the freezing winter in Sofia, and for pluralistic values in the heat of Barcelona.

The know-how needed to successfully shape Europe’s future lies in the minds of its 500 million citizens, and Europe’s contemporary civic arena is abundant with best practices and proofs of concepts.

Hence, citizen relations should be seen as a strategy portfolio. Europe’s citizens should be involved in reform considerations from the outset and at eye level, so that acceptance for difficult measures but also a sense of legitimacy are fostered early on. Citizens also belong in the process that the von der Leyen Commission will have to convene in order to bring economic and ecological interests in one room.

Thirdly, 30 years into the Maastricht Treaty, we need an EU “Non-profit Single Market” in order to harness 500 million Europeans’ Know-how and European commitment

Regardless of whether someone is potential grantmaker rich in resources, or an NGO rich in ideas and commitment—cross-border, Europe-wide action is complicated and difficult for both. Today, an EU non-profit Single Market in its infancy at best. A great deal is possible and necessary under company and tax law in order to raise the potential of Europe’s non-profit-making sector. So far, all there is only a nascent EU associate statute, a pretty unknown European Cooperative Society (ECS), and an ongoing EU Philanthropy Initiative. But there is no centralized, profound process in place to create the EU’s Non-profit Single Market in order to harness non-profit Europe’s amazing potential.

Besides creating the non-profit Single Market, a Citizen Commissioner would also professionalise the field of citizen relations, civil society and participation. The field is currently suffering from so-called “projectitis”, i.e. short-term, small initiatives, often realized by committed and brave individuals or mini groups. They lack systemic impact and interfaces to political or institutional Europe.

Most non-profit funding schemes are limited to two to three-year concrete projects, preferably without personnel or institutional costs involved. In non-profit Europe, one individuals is expected to develop ideas, build organisations, lead people, inspire the many, influence politics, master communication and – not trivially – raise project funds to begin with. This constitutes an overload while at the same exposing professional neglect of a critical policy field. Institutional, long-term financing and funding models for non-profit work are rare. There is also a lack of venture capital models for so-called “civic entrepreneurs”, even though those schemes have proven successful in the world of for-profit start-up companies. Furthermore, academic research and also proper didactics on the field remain the exception across the EU. We would need full-fledged university departments, continuing education offers, and training opportunities.

 

Summing up, anyone wanting to leave citizen relations, civil society and participation to national, regional, or random initiatives in today’s EU is at best naive, at worst negligent. This field need to be worked on in a structured, strategic and sustainable manner. An EU Citizen Commissioner will strengthen the active pro-Europeans and thus the entire European Union.

 

Verena Ringler is an EU strategy advisor based in Innsbruck, Austria. www.europeancommons.eu

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