Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The closing conference of the European Year of the Citizens 2013.



The year 2013 was proclaimed as the European Year of the Citizens by the European Commission. It is an initiative focusing on the rights that come with EU citizenship. 

Over this year, dialogue between all levels of government, civil society and business was encouraged at events and conferences around Europe. The purpose was to discuss those EU rights and build a vision of how the EU should be in 2020. (europa.eu)

The launching of this initiative took place in Dublin last January, as the country was holding the EU Council Presidency, but the closing conference took place in Vilnius Lithuania, as part of the Baltic country’s presidency, between the 12th and 13th of December 2013. 

Around 350 participants participated from various EU NGOs, governmental and European institutions. On Lithuania’s initiative, several representatives of the EU Eastern Partnership countries’ NGO sector also participated, as well as a number of bloggers. I was very honored to be one of those invited by the Lithuanian Presidency of the EU Council. (EU2013LT)

Lithuania has a historic tradition with its citizen journalism, today’s blogging, and the samizdats that were being published during the country’s struggles for independence from the Soviet Union. Like the "Sąjūdis News" (Lithuanian: Sąjūdžio žinios) written by a group of reformist, pro-democracy and independence activists. (Wikipedia)

It is heartening that a group of bloggers from across Europe were also invited and included in the conference, though I believe that such incidents should become more often from now on. Europe has a number of very competent bloggers that like the Sąjūdis can influence the European political reality, given the chance.

The main topics of discussion were how to rebuilt Europe “from the bottom up,” discussing the role and future of civil society organisations in building Europe’s future, focusing on the upcoming European elections in 2014 and how we can we boost citizen’s participation in them. But also fostering EU citizens’ rights and finding new ways for citizens to influence European policy makers.

There have been many key speakers in the conference, like the European Commission’s Vice-President Viviane Reding, Lithuania’s Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius, Minister of Justice of Lithuania Juozas Bernatonis and Emily O’Reilly the European Ombudsman. 

From the start of the conference the discussions were focused on how to encourage us all to be active citizens, creating a “Union of the People”. Raising awareness on our EU citizens’ rights was one of the most discussed topics, as well as the effect that the economic crisis had on how citizens view the EU institutions and how we can restore faith to them.

“The attitudes of the people can change, if people feel that their concerns are heard,” stated Ylva Tiveus, Director “Citizens”, from the Directorate General for Communication of the EU Commission. 

Involvement of the citizens in the decision making process, especially that of the younger generation by teaching them about the functioning of EU institutions and reviewing the treaties was proposed by some participants. 

Europe should build a bridge between civil society and EU institutions. Especially since 50% of the citizens believe that they can make a change on EU level, if they are given the opportunity. The EU must come closer to its citizens and for this to happen, their voices must be heard in Brussels. 

Europe should focus on promoting its identity and promoting active citizenship in all local communities and the cooperation of various NGOs between EU states. It should secure the rights of citizens residing in another EU member state and those of minorities, eliminate poverty and give special care to the most vulnerable, in order to eliminate inequalities. 

European culture should be used as a way to unite people, while citizen mobility and engaging in volunteering will also contribute to the creation of a more active European citizenship.

Because of the crisis the European population does not feel ownership of the EU project. For this the lack of synchronization between national institutions and organizations is to blame and all states must cooperate intensively to solve such issues. 

Mr. Vytautas Landsbergis, former Head of State of Lithuania, mentioned that we should be concentrating on the significance of being in the EU, while understand what it means to be a citizen. Citizenship should not just be on our passports, but we should practice “responsible engagement”.

We should be proud of Europe plus its cultural richness and contribute to it. The Vice-President of the EU Commission Mrs Reding also supported this idea and proposed that every year from now on, should be dedicated on the citizens. 

Mrs Reding stated that the lack of information and complacency are the greatest challenges that Europe has to overcome, in order to achieve its goals. The European Year of Citizens changed the way politicians connect to citizens and for the first time in 2013, people had the chance to confront their politicians.

The European elections in 2014 will act as a “moment of truth” for the citizens’ participation in the continent's politics. In these elections, the citizens will be asked what kind of Europe they want and their answer will shape the EU. 

The European Ombudsman Mrs O’Reilly added to Mrs Reding’s comments by expressing that EU citizenship does not replace our national one. Active citizenship is in decline both on European and national level and that clearly states that the crisis in our continent is not just economic, but a social one as well. 

The EU Ombudsman receives many complaints from citizens on the lack of transparency in EU institutions. That reveals the extent of the damage of the image of EU in the citizens’ appreciation, but also their will to participate and get involved. 

“The EU is a work in progress, but its achievements must not be forgotten,” stated Mrs O’Reilly.
The civic society is very important in creating active citizenship and the internet is one of the tools for citizen expression between elections, engaging voters in debates on EU, European and national related issues. 

It is crucial to have the European civic society getting organized through the various portals on the internet, just as we are experiencing now days in the Ukrainian protests. In this way, we can counterweight the various businesses lobbyists that promote their interests in a European level.

The internet can help to organize and mobilize people, but it is only a first step towards a functioning new democratic model for Europe. We still need political parties and a government to achieve such goal.
Education programs in schools must also play a role in educating and informing our youths on their rights as citizens, but also focus on creating a European identity. 

The debates continued over the two days of the conference, giving an opportunity to every participant in expressing their views. Most of us bloggers admitted that such ideas were for long circulating in Europe’s social media and such ideas are not something new. 

The question is if this time the EU Commission and our governments will uphold their promises and materialize the plans that for years us bloggers, but also NGOs and European Think-Tanks were debating on. 

You may wish to read on the Launching of the European Year of the Citizens 2013 that took place in Dublin in January here.  There will be a follow up article on the OneEurope website, with further reports on the conference.

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