‘Accountability’ has several meanings, depending on the situation it is used in. In his article “Analysing and Assessing Public Accountability. A Conceptual Framework”, Mark Bovens claims that accountability for the European Commission for example is not only synonym for ‘clarity’, ‘transparency’, and maybe most importantly: ‘responsibility’, but that it includes concepts like ‘involvement’ and ‘participation’ as well.
How can concepts like involvement and participation be implied by the European Commission as part of accountability, when the leaders of the Commission, notably the President and the Commissioners, are not even elected by popular vote?
Moreover, as they are not elected by popular vote: who will hold the President and the Commissioners accountable when a (political) mistake is made? Who will be held responsible? Growing interest in these questions comes from the lack of transparency and accountability of the system. This might therefore be a deficit that runs parallel to the democratic deficit.
A solution could be to make the Commission leaders accountable to the European Political Parties. Realistically however, a solution might never be found. Therefore, a better use of 'infopolitik' is imperative. Infopolitik “…implicitly acknowledges both that the EU institutions should take pro-active communication seriously, and that the nature of that communication should be grounded in accurate and impartial information” (according to de Gouveia and Plumridge in European Infopolitik: Developing EU Public Diplomacy Strategy).
1) Participation versus Consultation
When talking about participation - to involve and to engage citizens in the decision-making process on a European level - there is confusion about terminology. A policy brief by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) puts forwards clear definitions in Engaging Citizens in Policy-Making: Information, Consultation and Public Participation (2011).
People consider asking interested citizens what they prefer as active public participation. It is not however, because “asking the interested citizen” falls under consultation. Consultation is seen as a two-way process by the OECD brief - it is a top-down professional or bureaucrat-led process around a limited framework, asking for feedback from the citizens. At best, consultation produces choices from which the selected consultants can choose. Worst case scenario would be that community preferences are ignored, because they do not fit a preconceived model of “what the public needs”, designed in the minds of bureaucrats, politicians and professionals.
Participation on the other hand is a process of setting up structures, within which professionals or bureaucrats become facilitators of a broad-based deliberative process. It is a process of actively engaging the citizens in the decision-making process. Participation is more difficult and time-consuming than consultation. It requires the leaders of the process to have the commitment to public participation and at the same time also to have the techniques to enact it. It requires skills in working with groups, but also skills in keeping the lobby group representatives or vociferous individuals to dominate and unduly influence proceedings.
2) Communication and European leaders
Touching upon the aforementioned infopolitik, we say that the communication strategy of the EU institutions needs to be re-evaluated and adapted. People are keen to receive information, but will focus on issues that are most important to them personally. In general however, debates on European issues tend to revolve around technicalities and legal issues, which do not have an impact nor do they inspire involvement from the people. Therefore communication should not be focussed on technical details which will disconnect the citizens.
The EU faces a need for more effective mechanisms to improve the deficits they face, in order for the citizens to become more involved. At the same time, there is a need for development of the inter-institutional communication strategies and of the current political discourse, as these elements contribute to the disconnected image of the EU institutions and their representatives to the citizen.
US presidents (past and current) are more known to European citizens than their own European leaders. Moreover, in any period leading up to a US presidential election the primaries are closely followed by people in Europe, to see which candidates will enter the presidential elections on behalf of their party. European elections do not generate the same amount of interest, involvement and participation. This is for a small part due to a lack of infopolitik, but largely because European leaders are chosen by default, and not directly by the citizen.
To have an election mechanism like in the US, where the leaders are directly elected by the citizens, will benefit the citizens and the leaders in the EU. It directly addresses the issue of democratic deficit and accountability, and would increase participation and the involvement of citizens as well.
3) European Public Sphere
In addition to the need for the EU to address the deficits they face, the EU cannot continue its integration process without appealing to the consensus of its citizens. This consensus could be born via the ‘public sphere’. The public sphere is a social area in which private citizens come together to discuss matters of common concern. In the public sphere a public opinion will eventually be formed. As the public sphere is a precondition for realising popular sovereignty, this mechanism can be used in working towards better European elections.
For example, at the moment we can see that the national political parties in Europe have candidates for the European Parliament and most of them have manifestos – very good, very clever, and full of excellent ideas. However, there are not too many ‘European’ faces, or personalities, who can promote these manifestos to the European voters. In addition, the European political parties cannot be considered as political parties, because the European Parliament elections are done at the national level, with little help from their Brussels-based secretariat.
Europe needs a strong political project. Citizens require such a project in order to protect them from dealing with an abstract, complex and technical system. There is certain discrepancy between how 'participation' is seen at the European level, and how it is defined by others (for example by the OECD, as showed earlier). This clearly shows that the EU needs to work on getting the citizens involved, on diminishing the deficits they face.
A lot has already changed with the Lisbon Treaty, in which the mandate for the European Parliament especially increased. However, the EU needs a more invasive change – one that puts the role of the leaders of the political parties in the European Parliament at its centre.
We propose an innovative system where candidates for the European Commission Presidency are chosen through primary elections, like in the US. Practically, each European political party will compose their candidate lists internally, and will have a final ‘champion’ candidate for the European Commission Presidency after the primaries. The ‘champion’ candidate of the winning party of the European elections will then be appointed the next leader of the European Commission. This will firstly give a face to the European parties and its politicians, and secondly increase citizens’ involvement in the European project.
We also suggest that the winner of the aforementioned primaries officially appoints who will be head of each national list (for the European Parliament elections) of the party belonging to the overarching European Party.
Dan Luca and Nienke van Leeuwaarden / Brussels
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