One week ago on the 18th of March, the European Parliament (EP) and the European Commission (EC) expected that the General Affairs’ Council with the member states’ ministers of Foreign and European Affairs finally would agree on a mandate for the structure, governance and engagement of citizens in the Conference on the Future of Europe. However, a week ago the Corona virus crisis already had made its impact and the Council postponed its conclusions as they did not find it realistic to have many people brought together in meetings, agora and conferences at European or local levels.
The Conference that originally was proposed by the EC is expected formally to start 9 May this year and conclude in 2022. Prior to the Conference, the EP foresees a listening phase that will enable citizens to express their ideas, make suggestions and propose their own vision for Europe. The citizens’ input will be collected and processed based on uniform and consistent methodologies across all member states and at EU level. This will help generate reliable data to inspire EU policymaking.
The EP foresees a conference process based on a plenary with representatives from the 3 EU institutions, the CoR, the EESC, national parliaments and European level social partners. In parallel, it is projected that several thematic Agora of 2-300 socio-economically representative EU citizens will each have at least two meetings.
In contrast to earlier initiatives such as the Citizens Consultations, the Citizens Dialogues, or PLAN D for Democracy, the EP’s resolution is methodologically rigorous and coherent. This ensures that all groups of citizens will be represented – including those who may conceive themselves to be socially and economically marginalised. The EP’s Resolution calls for a systematic approach so that representative citizens thematic Agora provide, present and defend their inputs to a Conference Plenary.
The European Commission supports a highly diverse range of citizens activities that focus on the future of Europe. The EC proposes to do so by a combination of decentralized deliberative citizens panels and European level thematic deliberative citizens panels that in line with EP collect and process citizens’ inputs uniformly and consistently across all Member States and at EU level. The EC further suggests that the Conference should build on the Citizens Dialogues, but in an improved version that addresses the connection between citizens’ views and practical policymaking. The EC stresses 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 underlines that 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.
Both the EP and the EC points to the use of online platforms – allowing feedback from citizens to the process in the thematic Agora and to be used in a broader listening phase. However, with the face-2-face deliberative discussions as the key instruments.
What could be better
The Conference on the Future of Europe is a joint process between the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council with the leaders of the 27 member states. The EC and EP seem well in line with each other about the model, the governance of the process and the approach ensuring that citizens participate and engage in the actual policymaking. However, the Council has been quite hesitant to a process giving the EP too strong influence in the governance of the conference and has had significant internal disagreements on the possibility to include potential treaty changes in the mandate for the Conference. However, the expectations are that an agreement on the involvement of citizens could easily be reached.
A significant obstacle for the Conference on the Future of Europe is the fact that there is no free movement and no realistic possibilities to meet in larger groups at national or European level, whether for political decision makers or citizens. Consequently, it will be very difficult to imagine the planned model for the Conference on the Future of Europe to start on the 9th of May – 75 years after the end of Second World War and 70 years after the Schuman Declaration.
The current Corona crisis does put new restraints on our democratic processes – ranging from limitations on our possibilities to meet, discuss and keeping decision makers accountable to giving almost unlimited powers to state leaders as in the proposed law for Hungary. It is indeed a moment in which the Conference on the Future of Europe is more needed than ever.
What does EPF propose
Europe’s Peoples’ Forum has in its methodology for the Conference included an online platform to be used for the 450 million citizens to have influence on the priority of thematic issues that should be discussed and to allow feedback to the discussions in the Agora and to the developed policy proposals.
However, in the light of the current crisis it will be necessary to expand the use of online platform to include also deliberative processes at both local and national level. At least for 3 months but more realistically for the remaining part of 2020, when hopefully face2face consultations, and the thematic Agora and the Conference Plenary can take place under safe circumstances.
The EPF has proposed both to the political groups in the European Parliament and to Vice President Suica that the Conference should start up as planned on the 9th of May but remain online for a foreseeable period.
Further EPF has proposed as the first theme to include a citizen discussion of how at European level to have better mechanisms to react to the expected second wave of the Covid 19 and to future pandemics.
We have received very positive responses from both the EP and the EC but the way forward for the Conference is still being considered.
Bent Nørby Bonde, Secretary General,
Europe’s People’s Forum