Citizen Governance: Crisis, Climate, and Migration from a Human Point of View

Magdalena Smieszek 

The author was a speaker at the 8th BRIDGE Network Conference on The Rule of Law Crisis and the Future of EU Governance, on January 27-28, hosted by Central European University’s Democracy Institute. For more information, see here


There are numerous examples of how the EU institutions’ and Member States’ response to migrants coming from the Global South have muddied the moral clarity of European values –  the rule of law and respect for human dignity by which Europe has identified itself – leading to the portrayal of a continual state of crisis. The crisis situation on the EU-Belarus border has been the latest stark example. But a glimmer of progress can be found at the Conference on the Future of Europe (the Conference), a new governance model led by European citizens. Most notably, the deliberations and related recommendations are proving to be human-centred and are particularly mindful to the impacts of climate change on migration. 

  1. Whose crisis? 

From a humanitarian perspective, crisis occurs when populations are forced to flee because of persecution, war, or natural disaster, placing human beings into a range of migrant categories on which their rights depend – displaced persons, asylum seekers, refugees and other “beneficiaries.” The crisis in humanitarian contexts is their suffering and not the lack of response to the crisis for which the institutions had been established and for which laws were enacted. However, when it comes to non-European migrants on the borders of the EU, a reference to crisis too often refers to the response to the asylum-seeking persons and not the experience of the migrants themselves. 

A social psychological view considers who exactly is experiencing the crisis and why. Is it the institutions? The national governments? The different groups of citizens? The non-citizens? The answer, of course, is all of the above in different ways and this is largely determined by feelings of identity, vulnerability, empathy, in-group membership, and perceptions of threat, resulting in laws defining the boundaries of belonging. These are matters of perspective – whether national, Europe-wide, or an expanded one that includes all of humanity. The drafters of the 1951 Refugee Convention had to struggle through exactly this, the results of which are embedded in present-day European legislation. 

What’s more, while there are numerous crises to contend with, the one that should demand the most attention – the mother of all crises – is the one concerning climate change, where all the crises collide. Similar to Covid, the climate doesn’t care about human-made boundaries. Nature had no mercy on the people that died of hypothermia in the forests on the Poland-Belarus border, or drowned in the English Channel, or the many that die on the Mediterranean, or the people forced to move as a result of floods, famine, and rising sea levels. Only human nature can choose compassion – and that is what human rights laws and humanitarian responses are meant to do. 

  1. Whose rules? 

Deliberations over where the ultimate power of governance lies in the EU are most often concerned about European institutions vis-à-vis nation states. Even though European citizens have been put at the forefront of EU policies, their influence on Europe-wide decision-making has been limited. Nevertheless, news articles and research studies have repeatedly shown that citizens across Europe have a much more nuanced view on issues of migration and related subjects than populists’ statements account for. 

The Conference is an attempt to give EU-wide citizen assemblies direct citizen input into policy-making considerations. As of late 2021, the European Citizens’ Panels were taking place on a series of subjects concerning the future of Europe, with 4 panels of 200 European citizens selected randomly from 27 Member States. With the aim of diversity, participants are selected from different geographic origins (nationality, urban/rural), gender, socioeconomic background and level of education, with a minimum of one female and one male citizen from each Member State on each of the panels, and one third being young people ages 16 to 25. Twenty representatives from each panel take part in the plenary to represent their panel discussions and recommendations, further debating them, with results going into a digital platform for the EU to follow up. 

Panel 4 is focused on the “EU in the world/ Migration,” discussing EU’s policies on security, trade, humanitarian aid, development cooperation, neighborhood policy, and EU enlargement. During the first session in October in Strasbourg, followed by further online deliberations in November 2021, the citizens raised around 75 topics linked to their Panel’s overarching subjects among which is “migration from a human point of view.” One might wonder – what other point of view could there be? 

In social psychology, the Self-Categorization Theory talks about three levels of abstraction – 1) the individual self, 2) the in-groups one belongs to, and 3) the highest level of abstraction, the human. Studies have shown that connecting more with the human identity results in more compassionate views on policies towards asylum-seekers and foreigners more broadly than when persons connect primarily with the national identity. Moreover, persons that identify more as global citizens have more of a connection to human rights and climate-related concerns. There are even “higher” levels that mere humans are becoming more aware of in the context of climate change, and that is the individual human-self as being part of nature. In fact, some indication of this we start to see in the citizen panel 4 discussions that connect a “human view” on migration to the inevitable consequences of climate change that already have and will continue to displace people around the world, a phenomenon that the panel of citizens thinks Europe is largely responsible for. 

The main issues that Panel 4 identified under the stream of “migration from a human point of view” were firstly to remedy causes of migration. The panel focused primarily on the EU providing countries of origins with financial support for economic and political development, linking EU enlargement with border policies. Two interrelated issues emerged, the first about the lack of a common legislative framework on education and the labour market, and “no response strategy to migration caused by climate factors.” On the latter, the panel recommended developing “an action protocol to fight climate change that addresses the issue from the perspective of climate migration.” The panel had acknowledged that the European Union, among other actors primarily in the Global North, are responsible for devastations caused by climate change, and should therefore implement measures to reduce pollution and climate change “thus contributing to avoid irreversible situations that cause climate migration crises.” 

The panel further noted that “the word ‘crisis’ is sometimes used too lightly, sometimes even with the aim of provoking fear.” Relatedly, the panel considered the prejudices and stereotypes that people hold about migrants that come out of poverty, and to this end, they recommend promotion of de-stigmatization, while ensuring a more consistent human rights approach across all EU countries. 

Under the “human consideration issue” heading, the panel thinks that lack of solidarity between EU member states requires the implementation of a common migration policy. Notably, the panel observes that some Member States “use the migration issue as a fear-inducing tool” while others “are good at integrating migrants and emphasize the positive aspects of migration.” Overall, they conclude that “there is no coherent joint action on the issue of refugees.” In response, the panel recommends a proactive common EU policy that emphasizes the positive aspects of migration, and this includes integration initiatives for refugees already at the borders. The emphasis to link integration with the reception stage is significant and largely in contrast to the inhumane policy that several states have taken in denying basic social and economic rights such as food and shelter to persons seeking asylum. The panel asserted that all EU member states “should be similarly attractive…so that there is an even distribution of newcomers.” They recommend focusing on increasing social awareness of migration that highlights its positive side, especially for the economy. 

Concerning smuggling, the panel believes that avoiding life-threatening situations requires the EU to have more coordination and diplomatic measures with countries of origin, particularly Africa and the Middle East. To this end, they call for more coordinated action at the EU level, and “creation of legal, humanitarian roads, and means of transport for refugees from crisis areas in an organized manner.” The recommendation that follows is for an accelerated asylum procedure. Notably, one heading in the panel’s report states “refugee camps are a sham, ineffective action in relation to people who have to leave their country due to the crisis” that requires action at the global and not only EU level. They suggest well-functioning centers with good conditions for short stays and concrete help. 

Faster migrant and refugee integration procedures are also encouraged. The panel emphasizes facilitation of employment, language learning, access to education, and elimination of “ghettos.” This includes not only socio-economic integration, but also cultural integration – an emphasis on changing perceptions of refugees by the host countries, by telling individual migrant stories and “ways of informing people that also touches them emotionally. This is a prerequisite for a change of attitude.” The panel acknowledges the challenge of anti-migrant perceptions, and suggests explicitly taking action to “reach people with negative attitudes towards migrants.” Finally, the panel acknowledges that stigmatization and prejudice against irregular migrants is partly based on the “miserable living and accommodation conditions” and to this end, migrants should be able to complain about this, while host countries should be forced to provide better living conditions. 

  1. A New Operating System of Governance? 

Reading the recommendations of the panel, one might think the reflections are what civil society organizations and intergovernmental bodies like UNHCR have been saying for years, fully aligned with many European policies formed but not fully followed, and even court rulings that have said as such. Nevertheless, it is significant that these positions are coming from the citizens themselves, as it is citizens who inform the democratic process.  

To this end, the participants in Panel 2 on “European democracy/ values and rights, rule of law, security” have additional insights on how this citizen-led governance system can go forward. Their report is further complemented by reflections from the Citizens Take Over Europe (CTOE) coalition of civil society actors. Firstly, the panel and corresponding CTOE report recommend amending EU conditionality regulation so that it includes all breaches of rule of law by Member States and not just the breaches affecting the budget. Moreover, they recommend that EU institutions hold an annual public conference with citizens on the subject of the rule of law. The panel recommends holding elections with transnational lists (voting at EU level for members from other countries) and an EU wide referendum on extremely important matters. An important recommendation also calls for reopening discussions on the EU constitution, on which European citizens should vote. CTOE further recommends that citizen assemblies be involved in the drafting of the constitution itself. The creation of a permanent European Citizens Assembly that meets on an annual basis would be part of the process. CTOE agrees with the panel that the EU must be accountable to the citizens’ assembly by, at the very least, stating in writing why they are or are not accepting the recommendations of the panel.  

Importantly, the panel recommends for the EU to actively include minorities in policy-making. Civil society organizations as part of CTOE have strongly emphasized this need on which the Conference has fallen short. It’s worth quoting directly from the CTOE report, that “… marginalised communities, including EU residents without EU passports, undocumented people and non-binary people, should be proportionally represented or even overrepresented among the panel members in order to ensure their adequate inclusion and to prevent tokenism.”

CTOE state strongly that: 

“It is of crucial importance to amplify the voices of marginalized communities in EU political participation and reform processes, so that the lived experiences of people most affected by racism, sexism, classism, ableism and other systems of oppression are at the centre of concern when problems are analysed and solutions are proposed. In the absence of their central involvement, any EU reform process is bound to fail by reproducing the very systems of oppression that lie at the root of the societal problems that the EU is supposed to address. In line with the recommendation, we call for the establishment of an EU Advisory Board on Participation and Inclusion of Marginalised Groups.”

Thus, a more inclusive, informative, useful and appropriate distribution of participants would include migrants of all statuses – refugees and intra-EU migrants alike – to reflect the real needs of European societies. Giving a voice directly to the people experiencing the crisis would truly be looking at migration from a human point of view. Importantly, a transnational citizens assembly specifically on climate change was organized in October 2021 in Italy by CTOE members, and came up with the Palermo Climate Declaration which included a provision stating “Everyone should have the right to choose their place of home, and climate asylum should be recognized.” 

Overall, while there will be things to critique about the Conference on the future of Europe, it does give a glimmer of hope. This may be the beginning of an entire shift in transnational governance structures, a more democratic citizen-centred operating system. 


Dr. Magdalena Smieszek is a team member of the BRIDGE Network. She is a human rights practitioner and scholar with a PhD from CEU and the author of Evolving Psyche of Law in Europe: The Psychology of Human Rights and Asylum Frameworks (Springer, June 2021). 

The views expressed in this blog reflect the position of the author and not necessarily that of the BRIDGE Network Blog.

Image Credit: “Pro-Refugee Protests” by cuboctahedron is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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