A way to feel European: the Conference on the Future of Europe

Source: https://futureu.europa.eu/en/pages/campaign-materials?locale=en

by Angelini Gloria & Zanni Irene

Something new in Europe

 “(..) let’s set up, with the representatives of the European institutions and the Member States, a Conference for Europe in order to propose all the changes our political project needs, with an open mind, even to amending the treaties.”

With these words, on the 4th March 2019, Emmanuel Macron, President of France, presented the ambitious idea of the Conference on the Future of Europe. From the 19th April 2021 to 9th May 2022, the Conference on the Future of Europe took place.

For the first time the European citizens, specifically 800 Europeans, had the possibility to be involved in the process of building the future of Europe.  However, did the Europeans really participate? Can the Conference be defined as a successful attempt to increase European democracy?

In order to understand the essence and the implications of the Conference, it is necessary to evaluate first, what the Conference on the Future of Europe was.

The birth of the conference

The Conference was proposed by the Commission and the European Parliament at the end of 2019. Actually, the real architect was the President of France Emmanuel Macron who, in his statement, “Letter to Europeans” – manifesto of his party during the European Parliament election campaign – mentioned his desire to establish a “Conference for Europe”. The aim was to design a conference, which would bring together all the members of the civil society, from citizens to researchers, to talk about the future steps of the European Union. A place where the citizens would have the possibility to contribute actively to the European renaissance”.

It is a matter of fact that the Conference represented “a major pan-European democratic exercise”, mainly founded on the appointment of Panels conceived by both Member States and European Citizens. The extraordinariness of the event was given by the participation of the citizens to the Conference as well as the opportunity for them to take part with their ideas and suggestions together with academics and delegations of the Member States. The idea behind the citizens’ involvement was the attempt to increase the democratic nature of the European Union and to strengthen the link between the Europeans and their institutions.

The pillars founding the conference were  represented by three important criteria: inclusion, respect of European values and transparency. These principles served as a counterbalance between the different interests and the actors represented at the Conference. The themes discussed inside the conference were: climate change and environment, health, stronger economy, social justice and employment, the EU in the world, values and rights, rules of law, security, digital transformation, European democracy, migration, education, culture, youth and sport. For each of these issues proposals were  made by all of the participants, together with measures proposed to reach the suggestions. The following table shows the number of proposals and the operational measures for each issue.

Figure 1: Number of proposal and number of measures

The total amount of events that took place within the Convention for the future of Europe were 6.465 and they were organised in all the 27 Member States. The organisation of the Conference relied on three major elements. The first one was the Multilingual digital platform, where people were able to share ideas and proposals, while the second one was the creation of the European Citizens’ Panels, where the 800 selected citizens were able to express themselves. Finally, the last instrument used were the National Citizens’ Panels. The total number of participants in the meetings and through the platforms was 652.532.

The Conference was closed on the 9th of May 2022 with a plenary session where the citizens had the opportunity to participate and after which the Co-chairs of the Conference Executive Boards wrote a final report. There, all the 49 proposals, as well as the 300 measures suggested by the participants during the entire period of the Conference, were collected.

Although the conference ended in May, on the 2nd of December of the same year, 500 citizens had the opportunity to make concrete suggestions in a follow up session of the Conference on the Future of Europe, hosted again by the European Parliament. All the proposals submitted in the meeting were included in the 2023 Commission Work programme.

Despite the Conference being surrounded by a climate of enthusiasm, at the end, the cooperation among the different types of actors resulted to be very arduous and the overall attempt a little bit too ambitious. 

The successes and the failures of the Conference

As it was mentioned before, even though the exceptionality of the Conference, some characteristics of the event itself did not help its success. Let’s start from the downsides. 

First of all, the European States were not interested in the Conference. If we look at the conclusion containing the recommendations for a “European renaissance”, we can clearly notice that the more significant results implied a revision of the Lisbon Treaty. As a matter of fact, the European States were not excited to undertake the long process of a treaty revision. Only the last developments given by the War in Ukraine changed this position and made the revision an urgent matter.  

On the contrary, the European Parliament, in total opposition to the attitude of the European governments, was ready to push for a very aspiring and progressive type of treaty revision. The ambition of the European Parliament was also strictly connected with its aim to increase its own power, which could be achieved only by increasing the democracy of the entire European Union.

The second crucial gloomy point is the fact that the Conference was opened only after defined roles for each of the institutions of the European Union were founded. A process that, in reality, was very strenuous. The difficult mediation between the different interests of the European entities, certainly not new within the EU, stretched the preparation of the event and determined the impossibility to reach an agreement. An obstacle that very often was covered with the excuse of the Covid- 19 pandemic, able to allow continuous delays.

Finally, with regard to the positive outcomes that the Conference produced, we cannot avoid taking into consideration the significance of the citizens’ involvement. As previously remarked, the Conference represented the first attempt to include the citizens of a supranational organisation in which they are undisputed protagonists, in the design of the future of this sui generis entity. It was the most democratic event that the EU had ever arranged. Moreover, the engagement of the Europeans proved that they are undoubtedly concerned about the European Union, refuting the common belief that they are not. The 49 proposals embody the successfulness of the citizens’ participation.

Nevertheless, many other substantial criticisms were made on how the Europeans were included in the Convention. On the one hand, the panels had more the form of open Conferences. On the other hand, the deliberation and some of the themes of the panels were guided and proposed by the European institutions, which turned the panels into something premeditated and represented the opposite of democracy.

What is clear is that the citizens were the real protagonists of the Convention; however, why was their participation so meaningful for the democracy of the European Union? What is the relationship between the Conference and the exercise of the European citizenship and thus, with the fact of being Europeans? 

A second citizenship: diving towards democracy 

We heard for the first time about European citizenship with the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. The new deal introduced the freedom of movement and residence for people, opening a progressive process of integration and involvement  in the representative democracy of the European Union. Nowadays, a significant evolution has been reached  in terms of consciousness: 9 out of 10 inhabitants of Member States are now familiar with the term “citizen of the European Union” as it has been shown by the EU citizenship report 2020

A more recent survey has reported that about three-quarter of responders agree with the statement “you feel you are a citizen of the EU”.

Figure 2: You feel you are a citizen of the EU

Nevertheless, the path to integration is still open in order to reach the same positive perception that people have towards their national identity, also in the relationship between the EU and its citizens. Moreover, less than 80% of European citizens are aware of their rights, especially those concerning active and passive election, diplomacy protection, the right to petition the European Parliament and the right to address the European Ombudsman (Lisbon Treaty 2009). Finally, more than 60% of the same statistical sample sustains that it has not been done enough to inform people on their rights as citizens underlining the ill-information of the Europeans. So, can we actually talk about consciousness?

All of these numbers are part of a 2020 report, but the Waterfall effect (Haas 1958) of EU integration is still in action today and it operates to increase the general awareness. As a result, the Conference on the Future of Europe was put in place as an initiative related to the European Democracy Action Plan. This last-mentioned project was designed to strengthen European citizenship and increase democracy all over Europe. In fact, the European Union challenges itself to increase the level of participation of its own citizens by using a direct system of democracy: a Multilingual Digital Platform where people can debate on priorities and challenges, building together the future of Europe. 

What the Conference wanted to do was to involve citizens in the decision-making process, increasing the transparency and, therefore, the trust and legitimacy of the European institutions. The popular initiative is a central principle in direct democracies, but also in the Union, which, in fact, pushes a lot on building together the future of the Community. As a result, democracy in the European Union is considered a hot topic and in fact, it has generated the highest number of comments and interactions (about 4,606) in the Multilingual Platform.

Beyond the mere initiative, we are going to focus on how the European citizens have been included inside the Conference. Of the 447.7 million inhabitants of the Member States, only 53,624 participated in the debate on the future of Europe through the multilingual platform, approximately 0.01%; surely it was a nice initiative, but was it actually relevant? 

The conference has become part of a process already under way in the European Union and represented by the low turnout of citizens to the events promoted by the Union, such as in the case of the European Parliament elections. In fact, during these elections, the number of citizens voting is usually lower than in the national parliamentary elections. The lack of information can be seen as one of the reasons for this general low attention of the European citizens toward the European institutions. This, therefore, leaves the door open to the criticism, already mentioned above, for which the citizens are not aware of their rights as Europeans. It can be stated that they are two sides of the same coin. In addition, the right to participate as closely and openly as possible to the decisions of the Union is one of the pillars of the representative democracy of the European Union, as it is made explicit by the article 8 of the Lisbon Treaty. Thus, if the inhabitants of the Union are not aware of their rights, they will be even less informed about the initiative connected to those. 

Was the Conference the push towards democracy that the European Union needs? 

The proposals were made and the system is now working on them. Will the European Union be able to take up the suggestions of the few participants of the Conference on the Future of Europe? Going from one crisis to another – first COVID-19, then the Ukraine war – maybe this project will be ignored, as it has already happened, by most of the Europeans. Or perhaps, it will become the turning point of the European democracy system, giving to European citizens an effective implementation to the popular initiative and finally solving the issue concerning the lack of democracy in the European Union. However, it can be definitely claimed that the conference has constituted a real starting point, especially in showing that Europeans are interested, even if lightly, in the European Union.

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