The last two days have seen a unique gathering of European citizens and NGO representatives from all major civil society sectors discussing how to create a fairer, more socially-focused and sustainable future for Europe. Organised by the Civil Society Contact Group (CSCG) – of which Culture Action Europe is a member – and DEEEP, this assembly brought together the ultimate stakeholders of decision making, the citizens, just days before the European Council of Heads of State and Government meets in Brussels.
The first European Citizens’ Summit fills a democratic gap in European decision-making by adding a participatory, inclusive debate long neglected by European Summits. Citizens are becoming increasingly disillusioned – unhappy with politics and decision-makers. Yet, and as the Summit’s 400 attendees showcases, given the opportunity, people want to be involved in the processes that shape their lives.
Today only 33% of EU citizens trust the European institutions. This is a legitimacy crisis and a failure. It is time for European leaders to wake up to what matters to real people, and to ensure that their hopes, fears and priorities are put above Big Business and the language of unaccountable and faceless markets.
“All across Europe our environment, our health, our social protection, our gains in gender equality and human rights, our education and healthcare systems, our culture and our role as global citizens are being eroded in the name of economic crisis and austerity. We believe this is a false dichotomy and urge our political leaders to stop it and listen. Re-connecting to citizens is about first listening to them, and acting to take on their priorities and defending their interests,“ said Monika Kosińska, spokesperson for the EU Civil Society Contact Group.
“This initiative is unique because it brings together organisations active in a variety of sectors such as social, environmental, developmental, gender, public health, education, human rights and culture. There is an urgent need to re-connect citizens with the European project. Brussels’ credibility does not only lie on its ability to address economic and financial challenges,” pointed out Paul Dujardin, Director of the Bozar Center for Fine Arts.
Today’s counter Summit examined where the boundaries of the free market should lie. It reminded that one of the driving aspirations of the EU is to generate the type of economic prosperity capable of delivering well-being, social cohesion, and quality employment – within and beyond Europe’s borders – in a way that reduces poverty and advances environmental protection. “The EU is bound to look back at the peace-building project that brought it together right after the Second World War and start thinking of Europeans as 500 million citizens, not as 500 million consumers,” concluded Saskia Sassen, Professor of Sociology from the University of Columbia (US).
This Citizens’ Summit has, for the first time in the 60 years since the creation of the EU, managed to channel Europeans’ voices and concerns into concrete, urgent demands directed to EU leaders: minimum income; political and economic transparency; adequate public care; reduced inequalities and enhanced integration; real and lasting gender equality; higher levels of environmental protection; a fair and human-faced global trade; and the full respect of the citizen’s right to participate in the cultural life.
Business as usual is not an option. Europe is heading down a dead-end street and citizen engagement is necessary for a much needed U-turn in the right direction. It is high time for Brussels to reconnect with people by reinforcing active citizenship, democracy and participation in decision-making.