1. Civic participation is always limited, in all types of democracy and at all levels of decision-making. As already noticed by Benjamin Constant, citizens have many interests in modern societies, and politics is only one of them - and rarely one of the most important at that. The level of civic participation in Western democracies can be seen as a continuum (Barnes et al. 1979): at one end of the spectrum, a certain amount of citizens have no interest in politics at all - they do not read newspapers, are not and do not want to be informed about public issues, and they do not vote, petition, or demonstrate...; at the other end, active citizens are informed about and discuss politics, vote, get involved in political parties, trade unions, NGOs and civic associations, and use all "forms of contention" (Charles Tilly). Between these two limits, most citizens simply try to understand public issues and participate through conventional electoral events.
The major difference between the EU and national democracies, in this respect, is the fact that the apathetic category is much larger at the supranational level. Eurobarometer polls frequently show that a large part of European citizens do not feel informed about European issues and do not understand its political system;1 furthermore, turnout in European elections is much lower than in national elections. Alternative forms of participation, such as petition, lobbying, going to court, etc.,... are the manifestations of organised interests and groups, which benefit from strong financial and/or conceptual resources (Kohler-Koch 1997).
2. The suggestions made by the white paper are not likely to curb this trend. Indeed, they are only designed to stimulate the involvement of active citizens and groups in some precise procedures, and not to enhance the general level of civic consciousness and participation. True, some proposals have been made to encourage the clarification of European issues and the development of the discussions around them, but they generally remain rather vague and long-term prospects, while reforms to facilitate the direct participation of organised groups are clear and can be immediately implemented. Far from breaking with the Community method, these participatory mechanisms constitute extensions of existing practices, and are underpinned by the same philosophy.
3. First, most of the changes which, under the existing treaties, can be done in the short term are directed towards sectoral actors. The rhetoric of "civil society" tries to convince us that these reforms concern all citizens, and not just the classic "interested parties", but, in the White Paper, there is a constant hesitation between a universalistic, and a functional, conception of participation. On the one hand, the words citizens, civil society, people, general public, etc., are frequently used, but on the other, most concrete proposals concern organised groups. The different techniques of consultation used by the Commission and other institutions are still understood as instruments to involve "stakeholders" and "interested parties" (p. 15); co-regulation implies "actors most concerned" (p. 21); communications strategies should seek a dialogue "with those affected by European policies" and focus on "key targets" (Commission 2001b, p. 14 and 17)... The logic of negotiation between the institutions and some limited groups directly affected by their actions - be they pluralist, lobbying or corporatist practices - remains the core of "participation". Moreover, the concept of civil society itself is given a very organic definition. It is a set of functional groups with particular ends: trade-unions2 and employers, NGOs, professional associations, grass-roots and community-based organisations, charities and religious communities. Yet, general actors who defend a global view, such as political parties, are not mentioned in this checklist - even though they have similarly not been included among the "public authorities" which are considered not to be part of civil society, either.3 The only mention of political parties is a very vague and rhetorical sentence which paraphrases the treaty and states that they "are an important factor in European integration and contribute to European awareness and voice the concerns of citizens" (p. 16). The contrast is striking between the importance given to sectoral groups and interested parties and the ignorance of general actors.
4. The concept of participation promoted by the white paper is limited, moreover, to non-decision.4 Though the report argues several times that participation should be encouraged "throughout the policy chain" (p. 10), concrete proposals actually focus on the consultative, pre-decision stage. Indeed, the Community method, which is at the centre of the paper, makes a crucial distinction between the actual decision, which is reserved to the elected bodies (the Council and the EP), and the rest of the policy process. Upstream, the Commission uses its monopoly of initiative to try and forge compromise; downstream, the same Commission implements these decisions and controls their respect by Member States. Focusing on its own role, in the paper, the Commission suggests developing upstream participation: at the stage of consultation, policy-proposal, policy-shaping, and the direction of the political debate, etc.. It also suggests the structuring of "channels for feedback, criticism and protest" (p. 15) and recalls how "individual complaints about breaches of Community law are important" (p. 25) but does not make any concrete proposals to develop participation in the implementation and evaluation of policies. True, the preliminary stage is often the most important one in the shaping of a decision. But while social dialogue and co-regulation might lead to actual decisions being taken by organised groups, other actors are confined to non-binding procedures.
5. Beyond these sectoral elements, the concept of participation, as defined by the white paper, is something of a misnomer, as all instruments of participation mentioned are, in actual fact, the reverse side of the practice of consultation. In this framework, citizens are not given a real right to be consulted.5 Both the initiative of participation and the choice of the consulted groups remain firmly in the hands of the institutions.6 True, the paper argues that a code of conduct should be adopted to determine who, how, when and upon what to consult, and even envisages more structured partnership arrangements in some fields.7 However, it is not precise and does not specify who will adopt this code, nor does it explain how the openness and representativity of the consulted groups will be guaranteed. Nothing, in these possible reforms, seems to break with the classic methods used by the Commission, or with the philosophy which underpins it - i.e., that participation can only be initiated by the institutions, is limited to non-decision, and mainly directed towards sectoral actors.
1 When asked whether they are satisfied with democracy in the EU, many people answer that they have no opinion, a classic sign of subjective incompetence.
2 As all
citizens are, actually or virtually, workers in modern societies, trade unions
may be seen as
3 See the distinctions made in the Report of Working Group on Consultation and Participation of Civil Society, Rapporteur: M. Kröger, pp. 9-10.
4 With the exception of the "social dialogue" which gives "social partners" the right to produce norms and co-regulation.
5 The idea of granting citizens a genuine right to be consulted was supported by a report of the EP on The Participation of Citizens and Social Actors in the EU Iinstitutional System, Rapporteur P. Herzog, adopted on 29 October 1996, Doc. PE A4-0338/96. On this idea, see (O. De Schutter 2000).
6 In the same spirit, communications strategies supported by the white paper remain largely top-down: they insist on citizen information by the institutions, on "genuine professional communications" (Commission 2001b: p. 5), while bottom-up expression is limited to some new media gadgets.
7 The working group which focused on Consultation and Participation of Civil Society was very prudent on the idea of "accreditation schemes" for NGOs, which were seen as "too exclusive and even placing in jeopardy open access to consultation processes" (p. 18).