Minister of Justice Brax at the EPACE Conference on 10 June 2010
Dear guests of the EPACE conference,
The purpose of this conference is to examine how prerequisites for active citizen participation can be created in Europe. The conference serves as a closing address of the joint project between Finland, Estonia and Sweden, the objective of which has been to identify and share good innovations, practices and models for strengthening citizen participation.
The key themes of the project have been the development of democracy administration, reinforcement of youth and immigrant participation as well as opening of new channels of participation and influencing on the web.
In the western democracies, the future of democracy is a general concern. While many countries around the world are only taking their first steps towards democracy, fading interest and engagement in democracy-related issues can already be observed in the well-established democracies. Voting activity has shown a downward trend everywhere in Europe. The fact that communality and confidence in society are declining raises also some concern. On the other hand, citizens wish to gain access to new influencing opportunities that are more direct than before, and preparations for the introduction of the European Citizens' Initiative are being made at the moment.
In Finland, voting activity still remains at a fairly high level. The tradition of directinfluencing is strong in Finland, and Finns are active in both participating in organisational activities and in contacting civil servants and decision-makers directly. The fact is, however, that voting turnout has decreased in Finland faster than in many other EU member states. Strong polarisation of participation has also raised special concern in Finland. While some Finns are active in various fields of society, some do not regard voting or any other form of participation or influencing as meaningful. There is an unfortunately large number of those who do not believe that their opinion can make any difference - and an unfortunately significant part of them are young people. Young people's participation and their growing into active citizenship are the core themes in the Finnish democracy-related discussion.
Civic and democracy education should aim at making all children and young participate, not only the ones who already are active, because it appears that childhood experiences play a crucial role in determining an individual's predisposition to become an active citizen. For example, the distribution of classroom hours between different subjects in the Finnish basic education is being reformed at the moment, and the possibilities for further development of democracy education in schools have been brought up in this context. Similarly, a report on whether youth participation and civic education could possibly be reinforced by lowering the voting age in municipal elections to 16 years was published this week. The report will next make its way to as broad-based social discussion in Finland as possible.
In recent years, other key themes around democracy and participation in Finland have been the interaction between the government and non-governmental organisations, development of democracy administration, development of e-democracy, and strengthening the participation among immigrants. Integration of immigrants into society will play a more and more critical role in the future, as a greater demand for foreign labour emerges along with the ageing of the Finnish population. It is, nevertheless, important to notice that immigrants do not form a homogeneous group, and this poses extra challenges to supporting the participation of immigrants. Integration into society is a two-way process requiring readjustment both from the immigrants and the citizens of the host country.
During the past decade, democracy policy-based discussion has become more active in Europe as well as for example in the United States. Democracy policy is still quite an unestablished concept, but first and foremost it means a conscious agenda of the government to strengthen democracy and citizens' influencing opportunities.
An enquiry conducted within the EPACE project shows that structures or policies for democracy work of the administration have actively been initiated only in a few EU member states for the time being.
Sweden has been setting a clear example among the European countries as for the active democracy work of the government. Democracy policy has systematically been prepared in Sweden for over a decade. Sweden was also the first European country to establish a special democracy unit, which is responsible for preparing democracy policy and for actively improving the citizens' influencing opportunities.
Promotion of active citizenship has been a central theme in Finland for almost as long as in Sweden. During the governmental term of office 2003-2007, a Citizen Participation Policy Programme was carried out. Within the Programme, the ministries had a common goal of promoting citizens' influencing opportunities. One of the outcomes of the Policy Programme was the establishment of a permanent democracy unit in the Ministry of Justice. During the ongoing governmental term of office, the unit has prepared democracy policy and coordinated the democracy work of the ministries.
Finland's definitions of democracy policy were confirmed in February. The Government's Decision in Principle on Promoting Democracy in Finland consists of 32 measures that aim at reinforcing democracy. The main themes are voting, strengthening operational preconditions for non-governmental organisations, creating new channels of participation, democracy education and development of democracy administration.
Together with Finland and Sweden, the third partner in cooperation in the EPACE project is Estonia, where very successful work for securing operational preconditions for civil society and for strengthening citizens' influencing opportunities on the Internet has been carried out in recent years. Estonia ranks among the top ten countries in the world according to a recent e-democracy comparison of the UN, whereas Sweden ranks 23rd and Finland 30th.
Therefore, there is reason to invest in developing e-democracy in Finland as well, because technology can, at its best, support the democratic institutions and processes and provide the citizens with new channels of participation. It is essential to remember that e-democracy should not be treated as an isolated entity but its practices should cut across all the levels of the administration.
The EPACE project between Finland, Estonia and Sweden has lasted for one and a half years, and it has provided an opportunity to gather information on European innovations, projects and good practices for promoting democracy.
Within the framework of the project, several pilot projects have been carried out in Finland where the ideas and practices that have come up in the enquiry have been put into practice. A platform for e-participation, meant to be used especially by immigrant organisations, has been created in cooperation with immigrants.
Taking advantage of the experiences gained in Great Britain, a group of students from across Finland spent a day shadowing Members of Parliament and Local Councillors, at the same time familiarising themselves with the activities of different democratic institutions. Material to be used in schools in connection with instruction in democracy and participation issues has also been drawn up.
In Estonia, the EPACE project has for its part enabled a large-scale deliberative process where the citizens have had an opportunity to speak out for the development of their country both on a local and a national level.
As one of the pilots of the project, a network has been established, within the framework of which the exchange of experiences and ideas can be continued also in the future. Publications produced during the project, a project data bank established on the Internet and the European Democracy Exchange Network will together provide opportunities to keep on exchanging experiences and sharing ideas, and possibly to prepare common projects and proposals as well.
An important outcome of the Citizen Participation Policy Programme, carried out in Finland between 2003 and 2007, was that the cooperation between the ministries, municipalities and organisations for reinforcing the citizens' influencing opportunities was established, and it became a solid part of the normal activities of the administration.
That is why I consider it to be important that the European Democracy Exchange Network will keep on acting as a forum for communication and common learning even after the project itself has come to an end.