Citizens and the EU: preliminary lessons from Transeuropa Caravans on how to reveal this difficult connection

An article by: Tony Venables

In May this year, 4 out of 5 groups of young transnational activists toured over a dozen countries in the run-up to the European elections. As we wait for the final caravan to start its journey of the Mediterranean in the autumn, we are now analysing the results. We will be highlighting a score of best practices-local or regional initiatives which can inspire people in other EU countries and the policy makers-particularly related to freedom of movement and migration across Europe. If this is a continent of diversity, it is also one of contrasts within and between countries, but everywhere there are creative local projects. Despite a hostile climate and a shrinking civil society space, active European citizens have decided not to rely on the authorities to find their own solutions. What projects like Caravans can do is to support local activists? They are not alone and can be better connected across Europe.

 At the ECIT Summer University on 2-3 September there will be a chance to discuss the results of the project and to compare it to others using trains, bikes and other ways of reaching beyond borders and attracting attention. The debate will take place in a new co-working space near the European Parliament, which should learn lessons from those cross-crossing Europe about how to turn a bureaucratic and institutional European Quarter into a civic space belonging to the citizens.

Everywhere you hear that the main reason people do not vote in the European elections is that the EU appears too remote from their everyday concerns.

Everywhere you hear that the main reason people do not vote in the European elections is that the EU appears too remote from their everyday concerns. A first step to encourage a further increase in turn out at the next European elections would be to follow the Scandinavian practice of offering a large choice as to where, when and how you vote, whereas most EU countries offer none. Information on offer before the 2019 elections about the impact of the EU in your region should be further developed to make the connection and try to underscore the relevance of the EU to everyday life. But how to reduce the gap between the citizens and the European Institutions and go further to educate European citizens with the sense that it is they ultimately who own the EU?

Here are some initial pointers in that direction based on the results of the Caravans project so far:

  • Advice deserts

 How come such unequal access to the potential advantages of Europe with some- mostly educated young people in urban areas- well connected and close to EU offices, European debate and civil society activity and others in industrial towns or rural areas without any trace of the EU? Any European tour highlights such contrasts. More research is needed and experimental funding for grassroots initiatives to fill advice deserts – especially those in border regions, for example – where the EU and its legal framework is highly relevant to large sections of the population relying on their European rights.

  • Techniques and training for engaging the unengaged

Transeuropa Caravans were by no means the first or the only project recognising that to engage people you don’t start by talking about Europe but ask them to participate in a game or a quiz, organize  an action or performance or join in a meal. Gadgets are important and do work. They should be collected in a repository, updated and scaled up. But you also need people like the teams recruited for the Caravans’ routes who are motivated by engagement and public performance and also trained to follow up and explain how Europe connects to the particular circumstances of someone’s life. The difficulty is not so much that people are ill-informed. Explaining the scope and limits of the EU and its impact on someone’s particular circumstances or interests requires huge knowledge and experience. These very valuable techniques and people using them should be kept on board, not just in the run-up to European elections.

  • Advanced democratic participation

 In order to raise a discussion about Europe and action beyond one’s immediate horizons, the most fertile ground is where participatory debate is already happening. Look out for urban development schemes where disused buildings have been occupied and become community centres. Then there is the village of Saillans near Lyon where a citizens’ list has taken power and practices an Athenian style direct democracy. These democratic centres of excellence are more varied in form than most people think and can be found either within a territory, a single building, a collective of organisations or a new political party. Those involved can gain strength by being interconnected across Europe and those seeking to reform the EU Institutions   can learn from their practical experience.

  • Connections across borders

The Czech Center for Integration of Foreigners or Crossroads in Sweden are organisations based on the principle that their door is open to all migrants whether they are EU citizens or third country nationals. They follow tend to provide under one roof a range of services from immediate help and shelter to language courses or legal advice with residence and employment contracts. There are also similar initiatives and intercultural centres across Europe which break down barriers between migrants and local people. There should be a European eco-system and more operational means for networking and sharing among local organisations and resource centres providing services to EU citizens and migrants and defending their rights. There may well be lessons from the Nordic Council for the EU in the way officials use evidence from complaints to tackle barriers to freedom of movement and work in partnership with non-profit advice centres.

This should not just be a one-off project: follow-up with decision-makers and scaling up of the results are vital.

Members of the European Parliament, a representative of the Finnish EU Council Presidency and a judge from the European are coming to the ECIT Summer University in Brussels mentioned above, just after the summer holidays. A first draft of the report on best practices will be discussed. We will be testing out an educational and training programme for active European citizenship. The final report will be done once the fifth caravan has completed its tour and presented to the major Transeuropa Festival being organised by European Alternatives in Palermo from the 6th – 10th November.

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