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European Ombudsman answers NECE’s questions

We are honoured that Ms Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, accepted our invitation to contribute with a keynote to this year’s NECE Conference in Marseille. For the latest edition of the NECE newsletter she was so kind as to answer a few questions regarding citizenship education, the European Citizens’ Initiative and the new Rights and Values programme proposed by the EU Commission.

  1. Citizenship education has gained increasing prominence on the European political agenda over the last several years, partially triggered by terrorist attacks and the fear for radicalisation among young people in Europe. How important is it for the future of Europe that education goes beyond labour market preparation, and enables people to become active, critical, responsible, democratic and European citizens?

It is essential to the future of the EU that there is a shared understanding among citizens about where it comes from, what is stands for, and where it is heading. This understanding enables citizens to be active and engaged.

Citizenship education can contribute to this by instilling the importance of values such as equality and non-discrimination and by informing people of their civil and political rights. As a whole this can generate a common sense of belonging and community.

But education alone is not enough. External factors, such as inclusive political discourse, play a role, too. People also need to believe that society is working for them, that there is equal access for all to education, healthcare, or the workplace.

Increasing the opportunities for citizens to engage is a question for public authorities at the local, national, and EU level. EU institutions – with whom people tend to be less familiar – have to work extra hard to reach out to citizens and demonstrate that EU values are not just nice words on paper but are also working in practice.

  1. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is currently undergoing a legislative revision. A broad alliance of civil society organisations is currently campaigning for an increase in the structural involvement of the European Parliament in the follow-up to successful ECIs. How important is the role of the European Parliament in the follow-up to successful ECIs in your view and do you agree with the call from this civil society alliance for a debate and vote in plenary for every successful ECI before the Commission adopts its formal response?

It is no secret that the ECI fell short of initial expectations. There have only been four successful ECIs in the six years since it was set up. Issues to do with collecting signatures or concerning the lack of advice to organisers undermined its potential to become an empowerment tool for citizens. Many of the practical grievances have been addressed in the European Commission’s draft proposal to revise the legislation.

But the key to making the ECI a living, political instrument remains citizen engagement. One way to help achieve this would be to have a debate after a successful Initiative, allowing ECIs to become a springboard for public discussion on topical issues. It is up to Members of the European Parliament to shape the draft ECI legislation as they wish, but making discussion on successful initiatives an integral part of the process would validate the efforts of the ECI organisers and demonstrate that the EU institutions are politically engaged. The European Parliament, which represents EU citizens, would seem to be a natural forum for such debates. 

  1. The European Commission plans to include a Rights and Values funding programme in the next Multi-Annual Financial Framework post-2020 with the aim of promoting European values and the protection of civic space within the EU itself. How do you view this plan, and what is important to keep in mind for its further development?

It is a reflection of the times we live in and the situation in some parts of the EU that such a funding programme has been proposed. Politics have become increasingly polarised and polarising in recent times. The role of civil society organisations – which this programme aims to bolster – is more vital than ever for filling the gaps left by that divided political landscape. Their very success in shaping public discourse or influencing opinions means that they have come under pressure in some Member States. The EU’s budget negotiations are a proxy discussion for important questions about what direction we want the EU to go in. In other words, do we want a Europe where NGOs and other civil society bodies can carry out their work without interference from the state? Do we want a Europe that supports those seeking an inclusive and fair society? The Commission has sent an important signal in proposing this fund. It is now up to Member States and others to demonstrate the value they attach to promoting equality, rights and citizen engagement.