Three steps to engage Europeans with the EU

Mathew Lowry
7 min readDec 6, 2017

We know What we need to do. Shall we explore How?

This is the third of several posts posts written in reaction to Luc van den Brande’s Reaching out to EU Citizens: A New Opportunity, which points out that (my emphases):

to regain trust, citizens need to feel that they are the protagonists of policymaking and not just the passive recipients… the European Union needs to be where its citizens are: in local communities… must trigger and foster a new dialogue directly with the people … Develop new means of participative democracy … involve ‘non-organised citizens’, as well as organised movements … and enable them to develop proposals that can be … submitted to public authorities for further development

OK, but How?

My first post criticised this — and thousands of reports like it — for making grand, simplistic recommendations of What should be done, yet ducking the question of How.

Brande’s bulletpoints illustrate this perfectly, as if he did the Hard Work by recommending a common [interInstitutional] dialogue, communication and outreach with citizens”, rather than figuring out How to build it.

As it happens, while van den Brande was presumably sending his report to the printers, I helped organise a workshop at this year’s European Week of Regions and Cities (EWRC) to explore how his own Institution - the Committee of the Regions — could achieve exactly that.

The full workshop report provides all the slides — this post simply sets out the policy participation process I presented to the attendees.

First, develop an online Community of Practice

This must exist first, and it’s a no-brainer: even if the policy participation process (below) failed, a successful online community of practice would be hugely beneficial for everyone involved in developing Europe’s regions — i.e., the sort of people who attend the EWRC year in, year out.

The workshop attendees certainly thought so:

40% of the attendees would likely or certainly get involved in such a Community, and another 50% might, for predictable reasons.

The most obvious way of building this community is to launch a co-creation process for the EWRC, just as DG INFSO pioneered for their IST research conference in 2002. But I presented plenty of other examples from across the EC. This is no longer a difficult challenge if you know what you’re doing.

Given this Community of Practice, policy participation processes can begin:

Step 1: hold local participation workshops

Local organisations launch the process, with local campaigns promoting local participation workshops.

Such workshops face rewards and credibility issues:

Treaty-based credibility

How do I know my contribution will be seriously considered, and not binned by some bored bureaucrat who can’t be bothered reading it?

Local conversations on improving EU policies

Credibility comes from the workshop framing: the workshop’s goal is to harvest ideas and perspectives that the CoR can use to improve an upcoming EU policy, for which they are preparing a CoR Opinion (their Treaty-based contribution to EU legislation).

The conversation is local — how will this policy affect us, and what can we tell Brussels that can help improve it?

But the workshops include a representative from the Brussels Bubble — ideally, the local CoR Member — so they bring Europe to the Regions to listen.

“bringing Europe to the regions to listen”

The CoR is a participative body with a Treaty Obligation to “bring Europe to the Regions, and the Regions to Europe” to improve EU policies impacting Europe’s regions and cities, so this process is them doing their job. That gives this participation process far more credibility than most, which are generally run by communications teams with no influence over policy.

Rewards for participation

What do I get out of attending?

Two slides from October
  • local visibility (above left): authors of good ideas, submitted online beforehand, are given the mike at the workshop to explore them with other locals and the Brussels Bubble representative(s)
  • EU visibility & policy traction (above right): the authors of the best ideas (“Delegates”) are first networked together online (“bringing regions together to exchange ideas” — see Step 2, below) and then flown to Brussels to bring their ideas to the Brussels Bubble at the next EWRC conference (“bringing the regions to Europe” — Step 3).

Note: the CoR already oversees a Europe-wide series of local events in May linked to the EWRC, so this builds on a pre-existing infrastructure.

Step 2. Bring new blood for the online community

But if the local workshops are held in May, and the Delegates come to the EWRC in October, what happens in between?

Between May and October, Delegates and their ideas are introduced into the online Community of Practice (see First, develop an online Community of Practice, above), which is co-creating the next EWRC event during this period.

“bringing regions together to exchange ideas”

This gives an interesting job to the Online Community Managers:

  • networking Delegates together to identify common interests and complementary ideas
  • guiding them through the complex world of EC policies and programmes
  • introducing them to Brussels Bubble Denizens online
  • helping them prepare their contribution to the EWRC, stakeholder workshops and any other relevant events

Step 3. Bring new blood to Brussels

By the time the Delegates arrive in Brussels, therefore, they are members of the online community and have their ‘event programme’ planned.

They bring to the Brussels Bubble their regions’ best ideas concerning the upcoming EU policy, and build networks between their region and both the Brussels Bubble and other regions.

“bringing the regions to Europe”

And they report back using their Newcomers’ Eyes:

Lessons learnt from the 2016 & 2017 EWRC blogging competition

New stories about the EU from ‘people like us’

While the goal is to improve EU policy through public participation, I started this post with a quote from Brand’s report for a reason: apart from making “citizens feel that they are the protagonists of policymaking and not just the passive recipients”, this process opens the Brussels Bubble to new audiences through the Delegates’ stories about their EU experience.

their story is far more compelling than anything anyone inside the Brussels Bubble could tell

These Delegates are not Brussels Bubble Insiders — to everyone outside the Brussels Bubble, they are ‘people like us’.

This makes their story — starting from their suggested idea to a local workshop, right through to coming to Brussels and speaking at the EWRC — far more compelling than anything anyone inside the Brussels Bubble could tell.

What did the regions think?

Launching such a project without enthusiastic regions would be pointless, so I asked the workshop participants whether they would get involved, and what centralised support from the EU Institutions they would most like to receive:

A solid third of the workshop participants were Likely or Certain to get involved in a pilot project to test the process, with another third Possible. Most wanted promotional support and/or training in return.

Even given the self-selection inherent among those attending the workshop, it’s clear there are enough regions to pilot the project.

Lip Service?

I originally suggested the workshop to ascertain the interest of the regions, as I assumed that the other side of the project — the Brussels Bubble — sincerely wishes to engage with those from outside it. Brand’s report, after all, is hardly the first to call for greater citizen participation in EU decision-making.

As my next post will explore, however, that may be a false assumption. In the vast majority of cases, the Brussels Bubble only pays lip service to the idea of greater citizen participation in EU decision-making: they’re far more interested in talking about it than actually doing it.

(Update: here’s that post:

and here’s another one:


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