EDITO: To build inclusive democracies, we need genuine civil dialogue

08 March 2024 | Op-Ed

Since Monday, we have been celebrating Civil Society Week at the European Economic and Social Committee. This year’s theme: rise up for democracy. The choice of this theme comes amid the acknowledgement that democracy is threatened from within, with the growing success of regressive, anti-democratic forces across Europe, and the sense among EU leaders that European democracy is threatened by foreign interference. While there is no question that we must ‘defend democracy’ every day, and now more than ever, we believe it is key to understand the root causes of its erosion in order to fight the right battle.

At ECF, we’re clear that the best way to defend democracy is to enact it – to make it real, for everyone. Today’s democratic processes are failing to properly answer the problems people face, be they economic, social, environmental, or countless others. Public services and social policies, the core pillars of cohesion and inclusion in our societies, have been diminished in the hierarchy of priorities, in favour of economic and financial interests, and do not provide the necessary safety net and response to vulnerabilities.

As a result, people are left to fend for themselves, but too often they are without the means, power or agency to do so, leading to precarity and insecurity. And, when they try to push back through protest, civil disobedience, or by joining an association, they are often met with myriad forms of repression – police violence, protest restrictions, smear campaigns and more.

The success of the far-right, and indeed of disinformation campaigns, is that they speak to some legitimate grievances that governments largely ignore or deny. They tell those who are fearful about their future that by excluding others, their problems will be solved – a very problematic approach which creates a hierarchy in people’s access to rights and dignity.

The truth is that, for a democracy to be strong, and for it to be worthy of its title, it needs to listen to the people and deliver on their needs. That means opening up spaces for dialogue that can enable people to influence the course of the political choices that govern their lives, other than merely at the ballot box.

At Civil Society Week, we focused on how creating genuine, structured civil dialogue can bring people’s voices to the table. At least 1 out of 5 Europeans engage or volunteer in associations in Europe – that is over 100 million people! Many of these people are from vulnerable and unrepresented groups and those who have lost faith in electoral politics. These associations and NGOs are a huge resource – a vital channel to open real civil dialogue and contribute to develop proper policies that are key to rebuilding trust.

We’ve been calling for structured civil dialogue at the EU level for nearly 15 years, and momentum is growing. Last year’s Council of the EU conclusions on civic space, and the EESC’s recent opinion on civil dialogue are real signs that some in the EU are starting to listen.

As the momentum grows, so does our motivation. This is clear in the Civil Society for EU campaign ahead of the European elections, which unites more than 200 EU and national CSOs to call for Civil Society Strategy and a Civil Dialogue Agreement as a necessary step to rebuild trust and deliver on people’s needs.

So, European politicians, we’re ready to rise up and defend democracy. Are you?