One year ago, nobody could have imagined that the European Commission would ever stress that citizens must guide EU’s policy-making as it did yesterday in its communication to the European Parliament and the Council – Shaping the Conference on the Future of Europe. Together with the European Parliament’s resolution on the conference (see Update 1), the EU is indeed taking giant steps towards the inclusive and participatory engagement of citizens in its policy-making.
The European Commission supports a highly diverse range of citizens activities that focus on the future of Europe. The Conference should build on the Citizens Dialogues, but the EC stresses that it must address a specific aspect of these dialogues, namely the connection between citizens’ views and practical policy-making. The EC proposes to do so by a combination of decentralized deliberative citizens panels and European level thematic deliberative citizens panels. The EP emphasized that the methodologies used to collect and process citizens’ inputs must be uniform and consistent across all Member States and at EU level. The EC’s communication to the European Parliament and the Council yesterday seems to reflect this approach by stressing the need to ensure that the participants in the prospective deliberative panels are culturally diverse and representative with respect to geographical location, gender, age, socioeconomic background and/or level of education of citizens.
The EC obviously has huge ambitions concerning the Conference, but the preparation phase is very short. The Conference is intended to become a new public forum for an open, inclusive, transparent and structured debate with citizens on a number of key priorities and challenges. It will be a bottom-up forum, accessible to all citizens from all walks of life and from all parts of the Union and should reflect Europe’s diversity.
The EC deserves praise for its broad-minded approach to citizens engagement and its call on all interested parliaments, stakeholders at local, regional and national levels; and civil society organisations to engage in debates, meetings, festivals and online discussions as a fringe to the formal citizens hearings and conference proceeding but under auspices of the Conference on the Future of Europe. The process will also have all the EC’s communication tools and local offices at its disposal.
What could be better
What needs to come out of this open and comprehensive approach is a clear plan of events and online activities to systematically transform the priorities from as many citizens as possible into clearer visions at regional and national levels, and to proposed policies and recommendations at European level. The final outcome of the deliberative processes must subsequently be presented to the Conference and the European institutions as valid proposals developed through representative engagement of citizens.
Metaphorically speaking, one might argue that the EP proposal concerning the Conference mainly focused on the tree trunk and the mechanisms for the Conference Plenary and the process for policy recommendations from the European level citizens agoras. Instead, the EC proposal aims to develop the roots from the citizens and the decentralized activities. To reach and engage as many of the 500 million citizens as possible and simultaneously ensure that the final proposals at the European level are presented and listened to are obvious conditions for offering any sort of ownership to the peoples of Europe in general.
However, the EC proposal in comparison with EP seems to be less detailed and rigorous concerning how to transform local and comprehensive engagement into European level citizens proposals and none of the deal with the process from being presented to the final Conference and considered and possibly turned into law by the three EU institutions – what you metaphorically might call the branches that are prerequisites for the citizens’ proposals to burst into leaf.
The EC seems eager to have all citizens participate in the Conference and appears willing to discuss additional topics that the citizens may bring to the table. Nevertheless, the EC refrains from suggesting a systematic approach to would allow all citizens to prioritize the Conference agenda itself.
Despite this, the EC’s communication to the EP and the Council yesterday concerning the Conference represents a big step forward to giving citizens influence on future European policymaking when compared to earlier Commissions’ attempts to open for this. By defining the plan and methodological approach of the deliberative process, the proposals would ensure that the citizens gain genuine influence on policy-making.
What does EPF propose
Europe’s Peoples’ Forum is delighted with the many important steps taken by the EC as well as the EP and with their clear commitment to redefine representative democracy by involving citizens in policymaking between the elections. EPF also appreciates that the two institutions encourage the general involvement of civil society, local parliaments and local authorities in the Conference process and welcome as many personal and online debates as possible.
However, the EPF recommends that a well-defined methodology is developed immediately after the meeting between the presidents of EP, EC and the Council on January 30. A systematic methodology should enable virtually all citizens to participate in the comprehensive deliberative process through a combination of national online platforms, media and mobile phones. The methodology should also consider the option for telephone feedback for infrequent internet users in order to ensure that the citizens’ engagement happens in all corners of the European Union.
The EPF has suggested that the citizens could be allowed to prioritize between the policy challenges presented by the EC and the EP as a example of influence on the Conference. This suggestion is still relevant since the EC communication states that citizens should be free to focus on what they consider important.
The EPF has also suggested that the Citizens’ Dialogues are included as a separate part of weekend long representative deliberative panels or forums before the citizens in each panel conclude. This aligns with the EC’s ambition to restructure the Citizens’ Dialogues so as to stimulate the systematic connection between citizens’ views and practical policy-making. Regional and national representative deliberative forums will prepare the first systematic visions from citizens across the EU on the selected policy issues.
As already discussed with the EP, EPF supports the idea of thematic deliberative citizens panels at European level, whether the name in inspired by Greek (“Agora”) or Roman (“Forums”) deliberations. The EPF has developed clear methodological approaches for the systematic transformation of outputs from regional and national level deliberative forums to be presented to the European level citizens panels. This will ensure that all Europe’s people may identify with the visions prioritised by the 27 national forums and with the policy proposals and recommendations generated by the citizens panel at European level.
Each of the thematic citizens’ deliberative panels at European level should take place at least twice and in member states away from Brussels.
Whether the citizens’ thematic proposals from the Agora are presented to one continuous conference plenary lasting two years or to various thematic conference plenaries spread over time is not an important issue for EPF. The priority of EPF is that the citizens’ proposals will be considered by the three European institutions and included in their policy-making.
Bent Nørby Bonde, Ph.D.
Secretary General, the Europe’s Peoples’ Forum
See the communication from the European Commission here.