Alberto Alemanno is a legal scholar and civic advocate specialising in the European Union
Today the European Union is no longer perceived as a problem-solver but as the cause of its crisis. To many the EU appears insufficiently transparent and too distant from its citizens.
Yet its policy process is not only more open- on average- than any national system, but it also provides for more participatory opportunities. As national politicians pretend to govern us from the capitals – even when some key decisions are taken in Brussels –citizens don’t see why and how they should actually engage with the EU institutional machinery. Literacy about the EU is modest: 63% of EU-citizens have little or no knowledge of their EU law rights and, as epitomized by the low voter turnout during the European elections, active citizenship remains limited. The corporate world seems instead more aware and cosy with the EU. Amid the multiple EU participatory channels there are an estimated 30,000 corporate lobbyists operating in Brussels dominating the EU policy process. While NGOs have gradually been included into EU policymaking, they are typically under-staffed and, due to their pan-European orientation, struggle to connect with citizens. In short, they are ill equipped to effectively represent the interests of 500 million plus European citizens on issues such as consumer rights, climate justice or gender equality. As a result, a disturbing civic empowerment gap is emerging. Political power is increasingly distributed unequally: citizens and NGOs speak with a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive governments, while the powerful few speak the language that policymakers readily understand.
The key question is can we citizens do something to change this dynamic?
Thanks to the information revolution, technology and emergence of the ‘do-it yourself’ ethos, lobbying is no longer a prerogative of well-funded groups with huge memberships and countless political connections, but is something that anyone can do. As a remedy to the frustrations of representative democracy, lobbying works and can work for all. Citizen lobbying might involve either individual actions, such as writing to your officials or posting a provocative blog piece online, or collaborative action such as when skilled volunteers, lawyers, academics or other professionals help an NGO working for the public interest. Whether you call it pro-bono or skill-based volunteering, the idea that students, academics and professionals (young and old) can use their skill-sets on a voluntary basis, is gaining momentum.
Across the globe, journalists, graphic designers, communications specialists, accountants, business students and many, many more (including carpenters, plumbers and other trades) are dedicating a portion of their time (at no cost) to assist non-profits to work for important social causes. Volunteering might come in the form of writing a business plan, drafting a press release or running a social media campaign. The key is to channel individuals’ skills and talents towards causes they believe in.
In the US the skill-based volunteering movement is in full swing, pioneered by organisations like the Taproot Foundation (making business talent available to non-profits working to improve society). In Europe the movement is perhaps more patchy but gaining momentum fast. While the youngsters increasingly lack a sense of agency or ability to make an impact in the world, the attainment of education and the accruing of skills is no longer a preserve of the most privileged in society. In the EU today, in the age group 30 to 34, 30% of men and 40% of women have tertiary education. In some Member States, these figures exceed 50% and sometimes even 60%. This does not even take into account those persons who go into skilled education (i.e. vocational and applied education). Themajority of people in Europe today possess socially and economically valuable skills of one kind or another.
Lobbying by the Citizens for the Citizens
The connection that remains to be made is explicitly linking skill-based volunteering to EU democracy.To make that connection, we recently established The Good Lobby, a platform enabling anyone, be they a student, academic, lawyer or other professional, to provide assistance to NGOs advocating for important social issues. The Good Lobby intends to unleash the potential in each of us to contribute to a more equal representation of interests in the policy process.
This is not about “good” vs. “bad” lobbying. It is about including citizens into the most important decisions affecting their lives, making sure that everyone can sit around the table and have a say.
As we bring all these actors together we hope to pioneer an innovative form of EU democracy.
Alberto Alemanno is a co-founder of The Good Lobby which pairs expert volunteers with NGOs working on social and political issues in Europe.
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