Citizen participation refers to the engagement of ordinary citizens, alone or as part of a group, to change and improve their community life. It occurs when citizens attempt to influence policy makers in order to improve the “living well together” principle. The sources of these movements can be multiple: they can be part of institutionalised frameworks; they can be initiated by members of the civil society organisations, or by policy makers themselves. They can also come directly from the citizens in a bottom-up approach.
Being a citizen implies having a legal status, which go together with rights and duties, but also being given the opportunity to participate actively in the democratic life of the community or the state in which one lives. This Observatory aims at promoting such active dimension, this lively citizenship which builds and perpetuates our democratic societies.
We believe that citizen action contributes significantly to the political life of the State as well as maintaining and improving the ability of citizens to living well together. Citizens can act in particular through their right to vote, to be elected, to petition or to protest, but also by exercising their freedom of association, which allows them to integrate a community. The latter are very diverse as they range from the neighbourhood associations whose actions are very local, to large transnational non-governmental organizations; together they form together civil society, a cement that is essential to any democracy.
Fostering the activity of civil society essentially means promoting the defence of the general interest and thus mitigating the shortcomings of our representative democracies, which are often pointed out for their lack of commitment to the participation of citizens to decision making. The challenge here lies in the use of participatory democracy to complement our representative democracies with citizen deliberation, not only by that of elected representatives.
While the European Union is currently assailed from all quarters for its lack of proximity with the European populations, it appeared logical and essential to create the status of European citizen. It was introduced in 1992 by the Treaty of Maastricht – which came into force in 1993 – and represented a critical step in building a more inclusive and social Europe.
In all its activities, the Union shall observe the principle of the equality of its citizens, who shall receive equal attention from its institutions, bodies, offices and agencies. Every national of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union. Citizenship of the Union shall be additional to national citizenship and shall not replace it.
Article 9, Treaty on European Union (TEU)
Thus, EU citizens have a number of rights defined by the TEU and the TFEU, which allow them to participate actively in the political life of the European Union: they have the right to vote and to be elected in local and European elections in any Member State and under the same conditions as nationals of such Member State. They also have the right to petition the European Parliament, may directly address to the European institutions and have access to EU official documents.
The Lisbon Treaty also established the European Citizens' Initiative, which allows at least one million citizens to call directly the Commission to present new proposals for action. This gives citizens a right of initiative that is similar to that of the European Parliament and the Council.
Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.
Lisbon Treaty (Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.), Article 11, paragraph 4
European citizens can therefore choose between a wide range of possible political actions, be it at local, national or European level, which embodies the idea of citizen participation.
The aim of this Observatory is to promote it and generalise it.