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Debate Europe!

"Associating citizens to the European construction is more than ever a fundamental issue. If we do not want the citizens to desert once more the European elections in 2009, political leaders need to regain citizens' trust and confidence in the European project and show they care about citizens' involvement in the decision-making machine."

These are the words of 250 EU citizens in an open letter to the EU heads of state and of government, the national parliaments, the EU institutions and the European political parties after a conference in Brussels in December last year. In the same letter, they called on the European political parties to address 27 recommendations made by them, ranging from social issues to climate change and the EU's role in the world and to discuss them in view of the elections to the European Parliament in 2009.

I attended this conference, the purpose of which was to draw conclusions from six EU-wide participatory democracy projects that the European Commission co-funded in 2006 and 2007, as a part of its Plan D, for democracy, dialogue and debate. Indeed, as vice president of the Commission I was one of the "decision makers" to whom the conclusions were addressed.

The Plan D projects experimented with different approaches to trans-national deliberative consultation and polling as well as ways of organising face-to-face and online debating events and collecting feedback from the participants. Altogether, 40,000 randomly selected EU citizens participated in the six projects and hundreds of thousands were estimated to have participated virtually via the internet.

Plan D confirmed for me what I already felt to be true: That, when they are consulted on complex political issues, citizens will not only respond but they will demand more. It showed clearly and concretely the importance of empowering citizens by giving them access to information so that they are in a position to hold an informed debate on EU affairs. It showed that European democracy should and could be founded on an active European citizenship.

The European Commission has now decided on the follow-up actions to Plan D. We call these next steps Debate Europe because we want trans-national consultation of citizens to become a permanent feature of EU democracy.

With Debate Europe we want to change the perception that EU matters are too abstract and disconnected from the national public debate to be of interest to citizens. And we want to break the often artificial divide between national and European issues.

The policies of the EU affect everyone's lives, whether through its regulations on subjects such as mobile phone roaming charges or through the free movement of people or goods or any other of the EU's many achievements. EU policies therefore need to be fully anchored in the political parties, in the national democratic traditions and in the daily political dialogue. They need to be discussed and debated, whether in the town hall, in regional assemblies, national parliaments, on television shows or on the internet.

Politicians have to make EU policies understandable and relevant to citizens. We have to listen and to deliver. We have to make the EU institutions accountable and reliable to those they serve. We need to debate and discuss together what initiatives and decisions the EU should take. Only then can we achieve good and sustainable political results. Public support for the EU will come only through a lively and open debate and by getting citizens actively involved in designing the European project.

And remember, the EU is not Brussels - it is 27 member states with 500 million citizens, their governments and elected representatives at all levels. If politicians are serious about making change happen, then all politicians have to play their part!

It is only by standing on the solid ground of knowledge that you can form rational opinions and take a stand. That is a necessary condition for a well functioning and stable democracy.

So it automatically also becomes a necessary condition for the future of the EU and the European model: delivering prosperity while protecting the environment and preserving social justice and inclusiveness - embracing globalisation within a framework of solidarity and sustainable development that ensures the security of Europe's citizens, including future generations.

The challenge now is to act on what we hear - to ensure that citizens' views are fed into the policy-making process. The results of what the European Commission has done since it launched Plan D in October 2005 confirms that there is clear demand for measures to strengthen and expand political dialogue on European issues.

And it has been made clear that deliberative and participatory democracy can usefully supplement representative democracy.

A true citizens' EU is perhaps not just around the corner but the process has started and there is no turning back.

Ms Wallström is vice president of the European Commission, responsible for institutional relations and communication strategy.

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