EU watchdog raises concern that citizens struggle to relate to “Brussels”
Populism can be checked by strengthening rule of law, says the European Ombudsman.
Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual
EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly has conceded that for many Brussels is “not a place but rather a complex and faraway abstraction that has little to do with their daily lives.”
Speaking in Brussels, she was reminded that after the EU Referendum in 2016, the question ‘What is the EU?” was said to be the most Googled question in the UK.
The Irish official said, “I have no idea whether that is true or not but it is certainly true that many citizens in many Member States have little emotional attachment to, or knowledge of, the role of the EU in their lives other than what some Eurosceptics and populists may tell them and which may not be necessarily true or fair.”
Her comments come ahead of the European elections in May where so-called populist and nationalist parties are expected to do well.
The Strasbourg-based watchdog cautioned, “It can be intellectually lazy and a denial of reality simply to dismiss ‘populism’ as a product either of racism, political careerism, or some other malign instinct.
“Populism is hardly unique even in relatively recent European history and its causes invariably relate to the same issues, economic instability, cultural change, inequality, fear of technological disruption to traditional jobs, plus the perception that people’s concerns are ignored by the so-called elites in power.”
She was speaking at the European Network of Ombudsmen conference where one of the issues was whether citizens feel they can shape EU decision.
The event brought together over 100 national and regional ombudsmen from all over Europe as well as MEPs, EU officials and others. It discussed measures to improve "participatory democracy" in the EU.
The ombudsman, who chairs the European Network, cited a recent discussion paper by an inter institutional body of the EU, the “European Strategy and Policy Analysis System”, that looks at an array of global trends to the year 2030 and the challenges and choices faced by the EU.
On populism, the paper says “One of the main drivers of populism is perceived government unresponsiveness rather than the desire to install authoritarian regimes.
“The slogan ‘take back control’ was powerful in the UK as in the US and elsewhere because it spoke to many people’s emotional sense of lacking control, of having decisions made that did not include them and did not speak to their basic needs.” Emily O'Reilly, European Ombudsman
It is this frustration that outsiders can tap into and feed in disinformation to destabilise our systems – but it is not a frustration that cannot be remedied.”
The study also notes how politics needs to be ‘relatable’ to citizens, something O’Reilly said is “brilliantly understood by populists, but a political style that EU institutions in particular – as the paper also notes with commendable understatement - ‘do not easily master’.”
Once in government, the paper says populists are “often tempted to hollow out the rule of law and certain basic freedoms including the press, therefore gradually eroding democracy. Strengthening the rule of law will therefore protect us from such populist erosion,” it adds.
O’Reilly said, “The slogan ‘take back control’ was powerful in the UK as in the US and elsewhere because it spoke to many people’s emotional sense of lacking control, of having decisions made that did not include them and did not speak to their basic needs.”
She asked, “How do we encourage administrations to engage with their citizens when it comes to decision making at national or European level? What can we do to make sure that people feel they have a real say in how their lives are governed and that their votes and voices matter?”
The official, who probes cases of EU maladministration, adds, “Much of my work has been about the breaking of barriers between the EU institutions and EU citizens.
It ranges from gentle reminders to respond to a single communication to attempting to open the decision-making processes to greater public view and participation.
Knowing that our work has a high purpose is the key to action, innovation, and to a drive for positive and concrete outcomes.”