What role will citizens play in this new era of uncertainty?

Written by Emily O'Reilly on 5 July 2017 in Opinion

Recent events may have injected greater confidence into the EU, but in what political direction this confidence will play out is unclear, writes Emily O'Reilly.

Emily O'Reilly | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

None of us will pretend, or can pretend, that we have all the answers to the question of how to restore citizens' confidence and trust in the European project. This is the issue that has taken up a lot of time and mental energy in the European Parliament and throughout all of the EU institutions and member states.

Last year, following Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump, it became quite common to discuss the crisis as 'existential' and to worry about the domino effect of both those events on other EU states, as one by one, EU citizens went out to vote in various elections.

Yet here we are - one year after the Brexit vote - and the centre is still holding. 

The expected electoral gains for far-right populist parties did not materialise, UK Prime Minister Theresa May did not get the mandate for the so-called 'hard Brexit' she had asked her citizens for, and the pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron marched on his election night to the sound of the EU anthem, Ode to Joy.

In the United States, Trump is being taught the limits of his presidential authority through the confident assertion of many strong democratic US institutions and notably the courts and the media.

Some have speculated that rather than making the EU even more fragile, the twin events of Trump and Brexit may have made it stronger by providing a contrast to what we experience now and forcing a re-evaluation of the benefits of membership and unity.

We live in an age of quite extreme political volatility and predicting anything with confidence is increasingly difficult.

The voters in many states have not just become unknowable in terms of their likely voting preferences, but they are also highly experimental with their votes - willing to give promising newcomers a chance, but equally quick to banish them if they fail to deliver what they promised.

Recent events may have injected greater confidence into the EU, but in what political direction this confidence will play out is unclear. A lot of attention is now being paid to the future development of the Eurozone, and much of this will no doubt become clearer after the German elections in September. But the question for today is what role the citizen will play in all of this and how will their voices be heard? 

Many British people are only now becoming aware of the possible implications of Brexit whether for healthcare for pensioners in the south of Spain, adequate staffing levels in their own health system, or many, many other issues across multiple sectors of public and private life. 

Perhaps exploring why they didn't know, or did know and voted to leave anyway, would answer the questions implied by this event. In the end UK citizens essentially had to take a bet on their future on the back of a blizzard of sound bites and competing information, facts and propaganda.

Separating out the responsibility of the EU institutions for this lack of engagement and understanding from the responsibility of the member states is an important task for all of us. Informed decision-making must be a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.

As European Ombudsman, much of my work is spent in encouraging the EU institutions to be more open. 

We can however sometimes overstate the degree to which we need this to be universally, comprehensively successful. 

Most people are too busy getting on with their daily lives and looking after their families and their jobs to care what a particular Commissioner or DG is doing or whether they get to see the minutes of a working group meeting as it prepares legislation for the Council. 

But what they do care about is that there is somebody in their name paying attention to this and pointing out any difficulties, or opportunities, that may arise because of it.

We may now be entering a period of significant change in the Union, although this is still unclear. It is said that no good crisis should go to waste and if change is in the air and if Brexit could bring an unexpected belief and vision boost to the Union, then everyone with the capacity or the duty to do so, should put the needs of the citizen to the forefront as that change is managed.

People want control, they want agency. They want to be treated as they are entitled to be treated, as the primary focus of the work of the state and of its administration. They want to be treated as citizens - not customers. 

It has become almost a cliché of debates such as this one to state that what is needed in trust, but that is the essence of stable citizen-focused democracy. 


About the author

Emily O'Reilly is the European Ombudsman


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