Citizen Action throughout Central and Eastern Europe leads to more public participation

Climate action

Central Eastern European countries do not have the best track record with regards to public participation and involving the citizens in the process of drafting and implementing energy and climate strategies and policies. However, recent signs show that keeping the pressure high on policy makers pays off and can bring about more consistent, transparent and accessible public participation processes. 

Civil society organisations in the region are fighting against a multi-headed beast: important public documents are often agreed behind closed doors, public consultations are non-transparent and not inclusive, critical processes are often rushed which does not allow enough time for substantial feedback. This is why CEE NGOs have relentlessly demanded improvements to achieve effective, transparent and inclusive public participation.

This pressure starts to bear fruit with the CEE region witnessing an increase and improvement in public participation spaces. It seems that governments are starting to react to citizens’ demands for more transparency and inclusiveness, by creating various public participation channels, with varying degrees of formality and complexity, that CEE civil society can further explore and learn from to push things further in the right direction.

This article showcases several examples of these recent positive public participation experiences from Central and Eastern Europe.

Poland: citizens made their voice heard

“The Polish Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) was prepared in an open and comprehensive public participation process. Firstly,  in July-August 2020 the Polish government prepared a call to collect projects that were submitted by ministries, regions and social and economic partners as proposals to be potentially funded under the RRP. Afterwards, in 2021, the Plan was drafted and the consultation procedure was opened in a very interesting process that consisted not only of a collection of written opinions, but also of a series of debates, public hearings as well as reversed public hearings. The latter were prepared in cooperation with social and economic partners (Foundation Stocznia and National Federation of Polish NGOs) and as a result, around 600 citizens participated in the reversed public hearings via the organizers’ platform, YouTube and Facebook. Their input could be found in the final text which is the best proof that citizens were heard and their contribution taken into consideration. Moreover, representatives of the ministers responsible for the preparation of each RRP component discussed in detail the changes introduced in the document, raised during the public consultation, and gave their positions on the proposals for changes that were not reflected in the text of the RRP.” 

Wojciech Szymalski, the Polish Institute for Sustainable Development.

Hungary: peak of citizens’ involvement in 2019

In 2019-2020, the EU countries were due to advance their long-term energy and climate plans. The Hungarian authorities had to update the Energy Strategy, and to draft the National Clean Development Strategy (national long-term strategy) together with the National Energy and Climate Plan. In autumn 2019, they have posted a climate consultation questionnaire on the Ministry’s Facebook page and on the government website – without any active promotion. Due to NGOs’ efforts, the questionnaire spread at lightning speed on social and NGOs channels, with clear messages that now it is the time to show that people do care about the state of the environment and climate change. This resulted in 208,000 inputs from citizens in just one week (192,000 of which were valid), a staggeringly high number – the highest number so far of any climate and energy related public consultation in Hungary.

“The results of this survey have rather a symbolic value. The questionnaire was completed by those who were motivated to do so by the issues they care about. We saw that 97% of respondents believed that people have an impact on climate change through their individual choices and consumption behaviour – meaning they are aware of the anthropogenic causes of climate change and their personal human responsibility. 92% said they would be willing to change their lifestyle, eating or shopping habits to help mitigate the negative impacts of climate change (a further 1% would be willing to do so under certain conditions and 2% have already done so).

Respondents, who are presumably already sensitive to environmental issues, indicated that they understand the greatest need for action in the energy, water management and nature conservation sectors, but also consider the impacts of climate change on agriculture and forestry to be significant. Respondents believed that the energy (82%) and transport (77%) sectors could have the most to contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 92,1% of respondents clearly supported Hungary becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

In comparison, public consultation on both the national long-term strategy and the National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP) held in 2019 and 2020 was poor and problematic – you can read more about this in several reports: report of a roundtable with ministry officials under the LIFE PlanUp project, “Getting the Long-Term Planning Right” by the LIFE Unify project and Civil Society Views on the Final NECP of Hungary, incl. Reflection on its Coherence with the National Energy Strategy 2030 and the Draft National Clean Development Strategy). Nevertheless, the civil society mobilisation triggered a greater willingness from the Ministry to open more and cooperate in the current process of reviewing the National Energy and Climate Plan.” 

Alexa Botar from MTVSZ

Slovakia: how to move on with increasing participation? 

“The Slovak Ministry of Environment has created a working group with the intention to keep relevant stakeholders on board while the national climate law is designed, but it has been mostly a one-way flow. The Ministry was sharing sporadic information, not engaging in exchanges with the civil society. The Slovak Climate Coalition and some other NGOs have been in contact with the Ministry and managed to co-shape parts of the law. However this relationship has been mostly initiated and maintained by the civil society actors. Insufficient engagement of other key actors resulted in opposition from ministries and some businesses, which presented 700 legislative comments to weaken the otherwise fairly progressive draft of the law. With the current government, the NGOs are discussing engagement via expert round-tables to tackle the conflict while keeping the strong feature of the law in the draft.

 The Slovak Office of the government, responsible for National Recovery and Resilience Plan’s (NRRP) implementation, took a lead in a process also initiated by NGOs (Climate Coalition) that aims at accelerating the wind energy deployment (which is also supported by the Slovak REPowerEU). Criteria for designation of acceleration areas and generally faster, more predictable permitting, will be outlined in a cross-sectoral stakeholder group. Process, carefully set up and facilitated by independent professionals, should come up with consensus reflecting various interests, including those of local communities and nature protection. Working group containing NGOs, municipalities, business, relevant ministries and government institutions is starting in September 2023.

 When it comes to the Slovak NECP, the Ministry of Economy has not been so far very inclusive, with poor processes, little publicly available information and almost no feedback given to repeated inputs from NGOs. However, some assurances were received from the public authorities. Firstly, civil society should be able to access data for modeling. Secondly, a timeline of NECP preparation, with identified milestones and engagement of relevant stakeholders within specific thematic chapters will be shared. NGOs underline that such an engagement is more meaningful for both sides and can significantly contribute to the quality of the document.” 

Dana Marekova from the Slovak Climate Coalition 

We can learn from each other

These testimonies show that change is underway in Central and Eastern Europe, but that there is still a lot to be done to improve public participation and transparency when designing climate and energy strategies, policies and concrete plans. This observed trend of involving more civil society in decision-making is a direct result of years of pressure and activism from the civil society in the region.

Another striking aspect gathered from the ground is that, most often, the general public and the civil society do not get involved in the decision-making process because of a certain lack of knowledge and capacity. A first step in the process of enhancing the quality of public consultation on climate and energy policies is to understand that it is a real process of discussion and ideas sharing that needs to translate into effective influence on policy, not just a technical issue or a box to tick. It is not only about the process and respecting procedures and guidelines, but rather about tapping into the civil society’s perspective and potential, making the best use of it and understanding the benefits of a truly inclusive decision-making process.

Case study: National Energy and Climate Plans in the EU

When taking a broader look at public participation in Europe, things seem to be at a crossroads, as illustrated by the current update process of National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs).

On the one hand, the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters requires all EU Member States to put in place a robust regulatory framework allowing the public to participate in a timely, inclusive, fair, effective and meaningful way. 

On the other hand, the current update process of NECPs demonstrates that the overall picture is pretty grim. While some form of public consultation was carried out in most EU Member States (including in Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), in many countries the deadline was too tight to provide a meaningful input (Slovakia, Czechia) or the consultation was open without a draft NECP available (Czechia, Hungary and Poland), making it difficult to provide a meaningful input. 

Such insufficient public consultations are not in line with the Aarhus Convention legal requirements. However, this issue is not limited to CEE countries, as most EU Member States have shown difficulties in organising early, effective and meaningful participation processes. The CEE countries should be encouraged to continue improving their public participation processes, as all EU Member States should do.

Contributions from: Alexa Botar, Climate & Energy Program Director of MTVSZ; Dana Mareková, lawyer and environmental campaigner, co-founder and coordinator of the Climate coalition Slovakia; and Wojciech szymalski, chair of the Polish think tank Institute for Sustainable Development.

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