The Europe is not all rivers of honey and milk, but is Toni Vidan the Don Quijote? – we could make a joke after the discussion with this veteran activist in the area of environment protection and sustainable development, the member of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and one of the last year’s candidates for the MP position in the EU. On the eve of the new EU elections we asked Vidan has the membership in the EESC changed his view of the EU and what are the capacities of the European Parliament for actions, if he thought there is a cure for the citizens’ apathy and if the EU elections could serve as the first step in decreasing the EU democratic deficit.
“I have no illusions about Europe being great and that milk and honey flow in rivers there, but I find it illogical to give up on the positive consequences of participating in the economic and political community. These being the usage of development funds and participation in the legislative procedure”, you mentioned in one of your interviews. How much did your membership in the EESC (European Economic and Social Committee) provide such opportunities?
Vidan: My membership in the EESC, to which I was nominated by my main association Green Action, but also by the national network of environmental associations The Green Forum, which gathers more than 40 associations from Croatia, for now primarily gives me an opportunity to learn in practice how laws and policies are developed and adopted in the EU. Since the EESC is an advisory body not dealing with direct distribution or control of the development funds expenditure , I see no possibility for making a difference in that area, but everybody is convincing me that the impact of our advisory conclusions is significant to the legislative procedure. What causes frustration is the fact that environmental associations in the EESC are represented in low numbers and that our collective conclusions often reflect interests of the economy, rather than the society as a whole.
Before we continue, a lot of citizens know nothing about EESC – in few words, how would you describe what is it all about and share an example of good practice from the work of this body?
Vidan: EESC is one of the two main EU advisory bodies (the second one being the Committee of the Regions whose members are local government representatives), with a purpose to ensure the representatives, coming from a widest possible spectrum of CSOs, participation in the development of common positions on the proposals of new directives through an equal dialogue. These advisory conclusions are compulsory and an inherent part of the legislative procedure for numerous areas under the competence of the European institutions and are a constituent part of the documentation delivered to the MPs of the European Parliament in form of materials for parliamentary sessions. The representatives of the European Commission are always present at the discussions; whereas the positions discussed, and especially the joint position paper, are in fact considered as public consultations and the Committee tries to include them in the proposals for the Parliament. There are nine of us, representatives from Croatia, out of which three come from the business sector, three from the unions and three from CSO’s.
Last year the Croatian citizens turned out in very low numbers for the EU elections, and not only due to their disappointment in politics, but also, to the fact that they had insufficient information on the elections for the European Parliament and their significance. True enough, they were not particularly interested to get the information themselves, but the ones who had this obligation did not perform – the media and the political parties. What do you think, will things be different this time around? And what do you think would be the recipe for citizens’ mobilisation?
Vidan: I was disappointed by the way how large parties sedated the last year’s first elections for the European Parliament. I still have an impression that these first, historical elections were stolen from us. We were ripped off a chance for a collective learning about the procedures which are used for making decisions concerning our future and of the ways how these decisions could be influenced. It seems that these elections are at least getting more attention, but, I am afraid, primarily through the perspective of the competition between two large political blocks, and not as the part of political competition. The recipe for the citizens’ mobilisation, not exclusively for these elections, would be the creation of new political options, which luckily started to happen, as well as serious reforms within the existing political parties which, unfortunately, is not in sight, at least it seems so to us who have no insight into their internal dynamics.
What can the European Parliament truly do, namely, one of the main complaints is that hands there fly into the air only to formalize the decisions of the European Commission (sounds familiar)? And to which extent can the elections of the Croatian MPs for which the Croatian citizens are responsible, can indeed contribute to the design and development of new policies, for example, economic and environment protection or ban on sales of natural and public goods?
Vidan: The first question is what can the European Parliament do at all? I mean, at the European level – I think that the trend of strengthening the position and the role of the European Parliament exists and that the citizens of the EU are getting a stronger voice in European decisions. It is surely far from the level we would be satisfied with, but it seems to me that there is an improvement. And the level to which our MPs will be able to do something will depend exclusively on their capacities and motivation. The MPs could play a significant role in preventing manipulations, which we can expect to happen more and more, these are situations when a problematic policy in Croatia is justified by the fact that the EU or someone from Europe is imposing it on us.
To refer to the previous question – the already mentioned public goods, the environment protection, then employment, freedom of movement, social protection, women’s rights, various economic aspects, minority rights, education, culture, pluralism of the media, fight against corruption, revision of the Treaty of Lisbon.. and we could go on – but what could have we heard about all these things within and as a result of a quality public consultation process? Especially having in mind that these topics should not be discussed in general terms only few weeks before elections.
Vidan: I would respond with a counter-question: and about which relevant topics we hold any, and let alone quality public consultations? We are provided with information about the final decision, for example as the final decision which allowed foreign companies to exploit oil in the Adriatic! As far as we in the Green Action know, no form of public dialogue took place on that topic, and in normal societies such topics would be discussed for a year. I am afraid that the lack of the public consultations on the European topics is simply a result of the incapability of our political elites for any dialogue.
“Interestingly enough”, after our EU accession, and this speaks a lot about the openness of the government to citizens and their wish for participation in the decision-making process, in Croatia, unlike in some other EU countries, the consultations were not held even about some concrete things. For example, when ministers at the sessions of the Council of Europe decide on future European rules, the citizens have no idea about what the Croatian negotiation positions were. The Government claims that this is due to the protection of Croatian positions, while many warn that the publishing of general guidelines or directions would not endanger anybody or anything. Why are we then continuously watching the rerun of the pre-accession negotiations that were, also, held behind closed doors of the political elites?
Vidan: I think that the civil society is facing a challenge, we should establish independent monitoring mechanisms and follow what for exactly and how do our representatives advocate in the European institutions, allegedly on our behalf. In time our political parties will realise that they must accept the European norms of dialogue and transparency. In fact, this is the most important impact of our EU membership: we now operate in a different framework both in the political and other sectors.
How would you evaluate the work of the Croatian Parliament Committee for European Affairs?
Vidan: I must admit that I do not have sufficient information to provide an answer on the work of this Committee. A week ago we held the first meeting with the representatives of the Parliament and the Committee. I hope to establish some form of a dialogue and cooperation in the future. It seems that this Committee should be a place where national priorities are discussed or at least where information is exchanged about who does what in the Brussels mist. For now, this central national forum for dialogue is located at the Zagreb-Brussels flight gates at the Pleso airport and on the plane itself.
“The established political parties, regardless of their left or right orientation, became the services of the capital which is focused on short-term profit. It is necessary for the citizens to organize in order to return the function of serving the public interest to politics” – you said in one of your interviews. However, is political organisation the only path citizens can take or can one part of the answer be found in direct democracy – is it possible on the EU level or at least partially, through mechanisms such as the European Citizens’ Initiative?
Vidan: The political organising is by all meanings not the only way citizens can fight for their participation in the decision-making, but it should be the most efficient one. The path of self-organizing in form of civil society initiatives as an alternative or even as the basic form of participation is necessary, but I think it should not replace the political system. What will the evolution of the participation and the mechanisms of civic influence bring – I do not know, but it seems to me that the impact of social networks and the technological revolution will play an important role in it. Anyhow, the formal mechanisms on their own, as the European Citizens’ Initiative are not sufficient. It is necessary to create an environment for the citizens to consume them. The thing we often forget about is the self-organization in the economic sphere. It would be great if we could, for example, be more efficient in starting up cooperatives for production or joint savings.
Is this the reason why last year you tried out your luck (again) at the elections and what kind of lessons have you learned or are you planning to run this year again?
Vidan: My main motivation for running for the elections was the belief that Croatia needs a credible and strong green political option. At least the activities of civic initiatives and CSO’s working on green topics would be more efficient if such an option existed. I must admit that after each, and especially after my last electoral speech I felt very much like a “Don Quijote” and I have no intentions to run for the elections. I am very glad that ORaH was established and that it is supported by the European Green option, obviously they had more success in achieving visibility than the attempts I was a part of.
Having in mind all said, how then to ensure the fundamental transformation of institutions and could the EU elections serve as the first step in decreasing the democratic deficit in the EU?
Vidan: I have a feeling that for us in Croatia the results of these EU elections could be an important signal that the existing large political parties simply became dysfunctional and that it is time for them to seriously restructure. Croatia entered the EU formally, but the europeanisation processes are in fact still very much ahead of us, and I fear that the lack of the European norms and rules is most visible and painful in our political sector.
As far as thorough transformations of institutions are concerned, both at home and in the EU, no elections on their own can bring a radical change. I am afraid that we need a higher level of awareness and new technologies in order to change the existing positions of power. Speaking of the technologies, here I am an optimist. In some of the key sectors it is already happening, energy sector for example. But, concerning the awareness raising and changes of collective behavioural patterns, well, here I try to be an optimist, but not always very successfully…
This text is one in the series “EU elections- the first step in decreasing the democratic deficit in the EU”, that, as its title states, deals with ways how the elections for the members of the European parliament (EP) can contribute to the decrease of the democratic deficit in the European Union by closing the gap between the alienated citizens and “the bureaucratized EU monster”. The project of a series of journalist papers, originally published at the non-profit portal www. gong.hr, was supported by the Ministry of Culture.