Before I sat down to write this post, I casually asked my fifteen year old sister what being a citizen of the EU meant to her. Predicting a typical teenage response, I fully expected her to throw out a learnt-off C.S.P.E. phrase quoting the benefits of the Single European Market, the agricultural and fisheries policies, the euro or the increased opportunities given to us by our membership of the EU in general – any of the above would have done. In reality, her response was far more reflective of the youth population of Ireland than I could have imagined.
She simply didn’t know. She merely shrugged off the question with a brief “I’m a citizen of the EU?”
Whether she realised it or not, her apathetic answer is one which is undoubtedly echoed throughout our nation and her attitude, if typical, should be of grave concern to Ireland given the massive opportunity Europe has bestowed upon Ireland as the current holders of the Presidency of the Council of the EU for the next six months.
The privilege of hosting this Presidency is something we need to publicise amongst our citizens. If we don’t, we open ourselves to the threat of isolating ordinary members of our society from our European leaders. This Presidency is our opportunity to place the issues most important to us at the foreground of European attention and it is worrying that so little is being done to stir up enthusiasm amongst the members of our society. The European Union is all too well aware of this ever-growing problem and Viviane Reding, the Vice-President of the European Commission, can be quoted as saying that “Too many people in Europe are unaware of their rights as EU citizens and we have to do something about that.”
With this in mind, the Citizen’s Dialogue was born. Held in Dublin City Hall on the 10th of January, its aims were simple – it was to provide a platform for people from all backgrounds to stand up and have their concerns recognised directly by EU politicians. Questions such as those on the economic crisis, the implementation of policies, the income of politicians, the age of retirement and youth unemployment were put to our Taoiseach, Tánaiste, the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, Vice President of the European commission Vivian Reding and Minister of state for European affairs Lucinda Creighton.
It was a day for us to enforce our presence and our power as European citizens. The question on my mind of course, is just how effective this Dialogue genuinely was. Referring back to my sister’s answer, it is alarming just how disconnected we have become with the EU. Not knowing whether we are citizens or not is arguably an extremity but I found from attending the Dialogue that those who surrounded me didn’t necessarily seem as representative of our nation as they could have been. 200 places were allocated to the public who wished to attend the conference and yet a significant amount of these places appeared to me to be taken up with senior political activists and politicians, thus I genuinely would query the percentage of attendees who could be classified as the average everyday taxpayer. How can we heighten the awareness of the EU as pillars of support for our nation when the only interested parties are those who already have an educated background in this area? We need more activism from the taxpayer and the average Irish citizen. We need to grasp the attention of not just the political enthusiasts but the youth of Ireland and indeed every single individual who cares little about this Presidency but yet want their opinion to be counted for regardless.
The ultimate shame in my opinion would be if the next six months were to pass and minimum awareness was done to promote both our collective and individual power as citizens. Generating change in Europe stems from us and us alone and this needs to be realised. Ireland has the Presidency of the Council of the EU until June and I believe we need to grasp this opportunity with both hands. Europe has deemed 2013 the Year of Citizens – this is something which we cannot allow to be forgotten and most definitely is something I refuse, as a citizen of Ireland, to see wasted.