EU can reconnect with citizens through public action at local and regional level

The European project must be re-launched with the support of local and regional governments, writes Frédéric Vallier.

By Frédéric Vallier

12 Dec 2014

Developing a close relationship with the people and bringing them all together in the decision-making process – which elected representative would not aspire to making grassroots participation a reality, yet this now seems to have been eclipsed. Many people today feel removed from the choices being made on their behalf, with no account of their needs taken at any level by policymakers.

Local councils and administrative bodies are close enough to the local population to provide them with the services they would expect, but what people really expect from their elected representatives is a vision for the future of their area – the role elected representatives and political leaders fulfil at every level of responsibility. Mayors and local councillors are developing this vision. They do not simply administer the areas they are responsible for – their role is also to mobilise all the local players, those people engaged in civilian society, business leaders, captains of industry, as well as in the fields of art and culture, academia and research, which is where they have a major role to play in reconnecting people with the political decision-making process.

"Countries are divided in every way, whereas local communities and the people living in them come together in every way" – Édouard Herriot

We at the council of European municipalities and regions (CEMR) propose to build on this pool of elected representatives who have a close relationship with their people in order to reconnect citizens at every level with public action. Taking this approach a step further, we have organised a conference being held in a few days' time in Rome, where the focus will be on active participation, bringing all the people of Europe together, including, in particular, those people from social groups that are still poorly represented in the decision-making process – especially women, young people and migrants.

In concrete terms, it is our hope that this major event will table 25 proposals designed with both elected local and regional representatives and European institutions in mind. We need to see how, together, we can reconnect the people of Europe with the European institutions. By way of example, we are calling on the commission to make the European citizen initiative much more flexible and give everyone the opportunity to influence the process for developing policy. We are also asking the institutions to increase the budget for the 'Europe for European Citizens' programme to a symbolic level of €1 per citizen. It is also our hope that the institutions will initiate a broad, ongoing debate, involving all its citizens, on the future of Europe, supported by local district and regional councils and their representative bodies, as well as organisations within civil society, to raise awareness of the benefits of European integration.

Turning our attention to our towns, cities and regions, we are calling on local and regional elected representatives not only to bridge the gap between men and women in terms of political and economic decision-making, but also to offer all their citizens equal opportunities to take part in local public life and become engaged citizens.

Mobilising all the local players – public bodies, civil society, schools and universities, and businesses – in their areas is aimed at developing a genuine model of government through partnership, a model for a Europe that acknowledges its citizens and their local and regional governments as being the bedrock of European democracy. Isn't this just what the EU should be now?

In a situation where the EU is at risk and under pressure from ever more threatening challenges – economic and social recession, inequality, scepticism, xenophobia, nationalism, populism and growing disillusion with the institutions, the question of active participation in our communities is no longer just one of a number of issues – authorities and representatives at every level are required to promote it.

"We are not bringing countries together, we are bringing people together" – Jean monnet

Europe is, more often than not, seen by its own leaders as a union that brings member states together, forgetting that it needs to bring people together from a great diversity of regions to promote its development. The values promoted by the founders of the European project are too easily forgotten and, to quote two of the fathers of European integration, Jean Monnet, who had the following to say about the European project: "We are not bringing countries together, we are bringing people together", and Édouard Herriot, founder of the CEMR, who said, "Countries are divided in every way, whereas local communities and the people living in them come together in every way". Let's together make these two maxims our guidelines in the process of building a Europe that strives to be ever closer to its regions and citizens.

Since its founding, the CEMR has promoted a Europe based on regional development and the ability of the regions to manage their own development with the support of the member states and Europe, which is why we support the notion of a decentralised vision of society that recognises local development as being the essential driving force for economic development.

As a result of the economic and financial crisis, there are nagging doubts in various parts of Europe regarding the ability of member states to respond to current challenges. Such doubts must invariably be resolved by implementing a new model of governance involving all levels of responsibility in a partnership approach that acknowledges diversity and solidarity.

It is our belief that European integration need not be a barrier to local and regional initiatives. Too many regulations in recent years have been coupled with a desire to deny diversity, which is why the CEMR is calling for the needs and characteristics of the regions to be given greater consideration in setting EU policy. Bolstered by the leverage and large numbers of our members and our shared expertise on a range of policy and technical issues, our focus is to be on our skill as a 'centre of expertise'. We aim to hold constructive dialogues with organisations, contributing to each stage in the decisionmaking process and being involved in developing ambitious, sustainable public policies that promote regional economic and social development.

 

Read the most recent articles written by Frédéric Vallier - EU policymaking: The time has come to make the role of cities official

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