It's time to start the conversation about the future of Europe

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
It's time to start the conversation about the future of Europe
Dubravka Sucia, the European Commissioner leading the work on deliberative democracy and the Conference on the Future of Europe, credit: EU

Every school-kid knows when they have run out of excuses. “The dog ate my homework” is famously unconvincing. Especially if you don’t have a dog.

We may be reaching “the dog ate my homework” moment with the Conference on the Future of Europe. Or has someone decided it is not going to take place at all?

According to the Portuguese EU Presidency, the start date has not been set due to “governance issues”. Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, however, promised that, “While we hold the Presidency of the Council, we will do everything we can to ensure that the Conference will get underway as soon as possible.”

Fighting over who should take charge of the conference is not a good look for what is supposed to be a bottom-up citizen-led process. It is also clear that event deeper rifts are appearing. Differences exist over whether institutional questions (i.e. ‘treaty change’) should be on the agenda. Tensions are rising over how organised civil society should be involved.

Does a blueprint exist for a successful Conference on the Future of Europe? Or has it been eaten by a metaphorical dog in the corridors of power in Brussels? Is the EU planning to cancel the conference and blame it on COVID-19?

This week, Dubravka Sucia, the European Commissioner leading the work on deliberative democracy and the Conference on the Future of Europe, said that, “For epidemiological reasons, this conference could not be held in person.” Instead, the Commission is preparing a multilingual platform that would allow citizens to make proposals online.

Lockdowns should be seen as an opportunity and not a threat to the Conference on the Future of Europe. Why not launch the conference online, as proposed by New Europeans, rather than continue to delay it indefinitely?

Online consultations are no substitute for in person, deliberative assemblies which are essential if the conference is to be truly citizen-led and participatory. But an online, preparatory conference phase could and should have started already.

Despite the positive attitude of the Portuguese Presidency, the EU institutions still seem unable to agree on when to set out or how to move up through the gears. We still don’t know when the conference will launch, what it should debate, how it will consult citizens, who should attend or who even who should chair it.

Meanwhile, citizens and NGOS who care about Europe and want to be part of the conversation about our common future are becoming increasingly restless.

At a two day event organised by the Citizens Take Over Europe alliance, 50 participating organisations, including New Europeans, called on the EU to “urgently commit to a timetable for the Conference on the Future of Europe, and engage civil society to co-design the Conference from the bottom-up.”

Europe Future Fringe, a network set up “to energise the conversation about the future of Europe” has already started work on a series of initiatives and events across Europe (not just in the EU) before the Conference has even begun

The coordinating body for civil society organisations in the EU, Civil Society Europe is setting up its own Civil Society Convention on the Future of Europe. The Portuguese presidency wants the conference not just to start well as soon as possible but to end well, with what it refers to as an “open an enlightening debate”.

Three issues on the agenda

For New Europeans, that can only mean one thing: involving citizens in what should come next. Article 11 of the Treaty on European Union specifically refers to the EU’s obligation to develop an open, structured dialogue with civil society.

As originally envisaged, the Conference must lead to a permanent mechanism for involving citizens in the decision-making processes of the EU. We know from the 2019 European Parliament elections, that citizens do care about the future of Europe. Turn out rose from 40% to 50%.

Citizens also want a voice between elections. So much is being asked of citizens during the pandemic. Do EU leaders really believe this is the moment to deny citizens a say over decisions which affect their daily lives?

Three sets of issues present themselves to Europeans today, each of which would benefit from a Conference on the Future of Europe. Each requires transformative change in how we organise our lives together in Europe. Each issue needs citizens at the heart of the process of change.

The first of these is healthcare. How can Europeans deal with future pandemics without a fundamental change in how healthcare is delivered? What sense does it make to restrict access or inhibit cooperation between member states? How do we rethink healthcare from the perspective of the citizen? How are we to build a European Health Union without the involvement and participation of citizens?

Secondly, how is Europe to recover from the economic and social dislocation caused of the lockdown? How should we restructure the world of work? Is there not a once in a lifetime opportunity to introduce measures such as a universal basic income? Can we do that without the consent and participation of citizens?

Thirdly, let’s remember there has been a historic doubling of the EU’s budget and the introductions of shared instruments of public debt. Citizens and civil society organisations must demand a say over how these resources are spent.

The search for a new way forward for Europe is what many NGOs imagine a citizen-led Conference on the Future of Europe should be. We should draw on their expertise, experience and convening power, just as we have during the pandemic.

Such an approach may not change the way decisions are ultimately made in Europe, to the disappointment of those focussed on institutional reform. But it will profoundly change the content of those decisions and help with implementation.

Success depends not on knowing all the answers, but on asking the right questions, in the right way. That’s why we need a Conference on the Future of Europe. We, the citizens, have the power to meet the real challenges of the twenty-first century and succeed. It is time to unlock our potential.

By Roger Casale

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