Listening to citizens
Debate in Brussels focuses on the way forward for a better European future
Maria Koleva, Brussels
13 May, 2017
On Europe Day in Bozar, the iconic culture space in the heart of Brussels, took place a lively citizens’ dialogue with the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and other politicians and NGO leaders on the “way forward for a better European future”, as the organisers from Civico Europa specified. An informal group of opinion leaders from across Europe, Civico Europa’s idea is to give a new impetus to the European project in a radically changing world and to reinvent the link between European citizens and their political leaders.
Most probably the enthusiasm of the French presidential elections outcome two days ago gave the inspiration for most of the debate to be held in French.
President Juncker also expressed his satisfaction with the choice of the French people. According to him, Macron was elected because of his pro-European message. He acknowledged that for the first time in such elections, Europe was at the centre of the debates. Juncker, who was Prime Minister of Luxemburg from 1999 to 2013, has also said he has always won elections by advocating for Europe.
He also touched upon the existing persuasion among the European citizens that everything is in the competence of Brussels and that Brussels is responsible for everything that is happening in their countries. It misleads a lot of people, but Brussels does not interfere in everything, just where it makes sense, he said. We can convince the Europeans to live in harmony with Europe, but this presupposes that we end with the Brussels bashing, Juncker opined. He pointed out that it is important to listen to people and that the Commission has held more than 200 citizens’ dialogues like this so far and stressed the need to build permanent channels for communication with citizens. Announcing that the Commission plans to set up a web page where the Europeans can contact the executive body directly, he promised that the replies to all their inquiries will follow within 15 days.
Juncker also stressed that the arguments of those who have problems with Europe should be heard “so that we can better explain Europe”, but still excluded the need of debate with the extreme-right.
During the debate, Juncker said he is backing up the idea for Erasmus for media and for democracy as part of the "Erasmus for All" initiative. Responding to a question on the Western Balkans, he ensured: “it is vital that we keep these countries in the EU orbit, they need a European perspective.”
On the red tape challenge, he commented that his Commission is reducing the level of bureaucracy and has repealed up to now 48 pieces of legislation. This Commission is proposing 23 initiatives per year, the previous one – 130, he asserted.
Europe has to be talked and we can not talk about Europe between the walls of the European Parliament or in Berlaymont only, have to go out to the citizens to leave our campuses as people from academia, also as businesses we have to start talking with the people, said Danuta Hubner, Polish EPP MEP, chair of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs, former regional policy commissioner, who has been professor in economics since 1992. According to her, there needs to be created a counter-narrative of what the populists are disseminating for years. We should have as many platforms as possible that would allow people to get together and to express what they expect from Europe. In her words, if people agree on the future of Europe it will be easier for the politicians also to better respond to people’s needs and demands, because Europe is always being created by all of us.
On her part, Maria Joao Rodrigues, Portugese MEP and Vice President of the S&D group, author of the report on social rights pillar, and also former social minister of Portugal, noted that there are huge expectations of citizens on what Europe can do about their living and working conditions. Our main goals in the European Parliament when we listen to the civil society and I believe these are the main concerns of the European Commission, is that everybody who is employed in whatever kind of job needs to have two things – a labour contract with decent working conditions and access to social protection. If we have more and more of our citizens not able to benefit from and to contribute to the social protection, then our welfare systems will not have a future. This is now a big initiative coming from the European level but responding to citizens’ expectations. We need a strong social pillar to give a future to the EU, she accented.