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'Brussels spends our money on pet projects for which it has no mandate'

Lack of engagement with citizens undermines the positive work of the EU, writes Malcolm Byrne.

Malcolm Byrne Fianna Fáil Councillor

“THE BRUSSELS BUREAUCRATS spend our hard-earned money on pet projects for which they have no mandate.”

A common refrain not just among eurosceptics, but even among supporters of the European Union who fear the lack of engagement with citizens undermines the positive work of the EU.

Fails to communicate

While the Union has transformed our lives through making it easier to travel, study, do business, it continues to fail to effectively communicate its successes and to generate real interest among those outside of political and interest group bubbles in its many initiatives to improve how we live.

The horsetrading over EU budgets is not the theme of conversations at water coolers or kitchen tables.

How can we motivate individuals and communities to really engage in the European decision-making process? It has to be about more than simply voting in European elections or listening to media speculation as to how Brexit or CAP Reform or EU Structural or Cohesion Fund spending will impact?

Participatory budgeting

My local council in Gorey, Wexford faced challenges around how to engage young people in what local government does and the decision-making processes in which we are involved.

We decided that, rather than tokenistic consultation exercises, we would set aside a small budget and gave it to the young people (supported through local youth structures) to decide on how the money be spent. They ultimately chose to develop a successful festival but the interesting part of the exercise was how young people debated priorities and learned about the process involved in implementing a decision.

Many other local and regional authorities across Europe and the world have carried out similar exercises in participatory budgeting. Porto Alegre in Brazil was the first city to do it in 1989. The Icelandic capital provides funding for projects suggested through the Better Reykjavik online consultative platform.

Up to 5% of the budget of the city of Paris will be determined in a participatory fashion. Berlin, Seville and many other locations have involved citizens in determining how some of their local finances should be spent on parks, on health, on culture, on sport.

A vote open to all citizens

The European Union should now look at such an approach right across the Union in order to engage citizens in the issues that affect all Europeans but also about how the European Union works. Why not set aside a significant sum from the next EU Budget – say, a billion euro – and organise a vote open to all citizens to determine how the money be spent?

The vote could run in parallel to the next European Parliament elections or using some form of secure technology. Even tele-voting could be considered (we do it for the Eurovision song contest).

A series of options as to how the money could be invested would be presented to voters. These could be decided by the Parliament. These could look at issues that affect all of us as Europeans, for example, dealing with the refugee crisis, climate change, energy security, increasing the sustainability of rural Europe, improving health outcomes and tackling cyber crime.

Interest groups could then campaign to convince voters as to the merit of each investment. A media campaign could focus attention on voters’ choices (there is a role for the European Broadcasting Union in emphasising public sector broadcasting). The billion euro could be allocated to one project or allocated proportionately.

The EU, like many other bodies, regularly engages in competitive calls around investment in particular areas. This is no different, except that it is the citizens of Europe who will make the decisions.

Engaging citizens

I am confident that such a Europe wide referendum will really engage citizens in the issues or projects in which they have to make the choice to invest but it will also inform as to how decision-making processes actually work as well as creating Europe wide co-operation in addressing challenges that face us all across national boundaries. I see the vote and the process as not only determining how the money is spent but also in highlighting what European citizens would like to see the institutions address as well as being a very effective exercise in outlining the merits of European co-operation.

The proposal may be radical but it is not new and as Europe needs to really engage its citizens, if that process is not radical, the EU will grow increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of voters.

Malcolm Byrne is a Fianna Fáil Councillor in Wexford and part of the European Young Leaders programme.

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About the author:

Malcolm Byrne  / Fianna Fáil Councillor

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