EU democracy: The way forward after the Conference on the Future of Europe

EU democracy: The way forward after the Conference on the Future of Europe
Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) - Citizens' panel.- Plenary session, Credit: EP

The European Commission adopted on Friday a plan on how it intends to follow up on the outcome of the Conference on the Future of Europe and transform the proposals into legislative action.

This Communication is the first step in the Commission's follow-up. It offers an assessment of what is needed to follow up on the Conference's proposals, gives an overview of the next steps and sets out how best to learn the lessons from the Conference and embed participative democracy into the EU's policy and law-making.

As previously reported, the first phase of the Conference came to an end on Europe Day, 9 May 2022, with a Final Report listing 49 proposals and 326 measures, covering nine policy areas that were discussed in several citizens’ panels and plenary meetings with the EU institutions co-sharing the Conference, the Council, the Parliament and the Commission.

The nine areas or themes are climate change and the environment; health; a stronger economy, social justice and jobs; EU in the world; values and rights, rule of law, security; digital transformation; European democracy; migration; education, culture, youth and sport. The follow-up Communication follows the same structure but adds the Commission’s assessment of the readiness of the measures.

The Communication quotes Commission President von der Leyen: “For Europe, the memory of our past has always framed our future . . . Russia's flagrant attempts to redraw maps and rewrite even the most tragic parts of our history have reminded us of the dangers of losing our grip on both our past and our future.”

“Of living in a perpetual present and thinking that things can never be different. That there cannot be better ways of doing things. And even worse: That things will always stay the same if only we do not change. That is so wrong! Standing still is falling back.”

The Communication reminds the readers of the oft-quoted line of Jean Monnet that the Union will be forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises. This line has rung true for much of the EU’s history, not least in the last two years. At the same time, there have been growing calls by European citizens for change and reform, and to work on improving Europe on their own terms.

Some proposals ready for legislation

In a separate annex to the Communication, the Commission has set out four categories of responses: actions already proposed or launched by the von der Leyen Commission; those where the European Parliament and the Council are called upon to adopt; planned actions and legislation; and new initiatives or areas of work inspired by the proposals, falling within the remit of the Commission.

In fact, a fifth area not indicated in the breakdown are those proposals that would require treaty changes. At a press conference presenting the Communication, Dubravka Suica, Commission Vice-President in charge of Democracy and Demography, estimated that they could be 10 % of the proposals.

Judging by the above classification, it would appear that the Commission anyway had planned to go ahead with the proposals in the first two categories. The added value of the Conference was mainly the new proposals in the two other categories and the lessons learned from its organisation as an exercise in participative democracy.

The Commission appears a bit reluctant to treaty changes and claims that there is an untapped potential within the existing Treaties which could help respond to the Conference’s proposals, notably by using the ‘passerelle clauses’, a mechanism for treaty change by allowing a shift from unanimity to qualified majority in certain policy fields.

However, some of the ideas proposed by the Conference are truly innovative, calling on the EU to take new avenues, according to the Commission. Some proposals explicitly call for treaty change. This includes areas such as health and defence, both affected of the two crises during the Conference – the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Vice-President Suica welcomed the European Parliament’s willingness to use, for the first time, its powers acquired under the Lisbon Treaty to propose amendments to the Treaties. This can be done by applying the procedure in Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union on convening a Convention composed among others of representatives of the national Parliaments.

Long-standing democratic demands that might require treaty changes are the size of the Commission, where each member state is represented, and the issue of transparency in the Council’s policy – making. Asked about these issues Maroš Sefcovic, Vice-President in charge of Interinstitutional relations and Foresight, did not exclude changes to promote more efficient and transparent decision-making.

Mechanisms for citizen participation

The first set of new proposals will be announced in President von der Leyen's State of the Union address in September 2022. These proposals will be amongst those to be included in the 2023 Commission work programme and beyond. In a second follow-up step, a Conference Feedback Event will be organized in autumn 2022 to keep citizens informed and to keep up the momentum.

A crucial issue is how to increase citizens’ participation in EU’s policy-making and decision-making processes in the future. The Conference was considered a success by the Commission and it proposes to continue to make use of Citizens Panels and develop a one-stop-shop portal for online citizen engagement similar to the Multilingual Digital Platform.

To that end, the Commission will enable Citizens Panels to deliberate and make recommendations ahead of certain key proposals, as part of its wider policy making and in line with Better Regulation principles. Depending on the issue, these can either be pan-European or smaller targeted panels to address specific policy issues.

As was the case during the Conference, participants should be randomly selected. But they should also reflect Europe’s diversity and demography. Young people should form a third of the participants. Where appropriate, a ‘citizen report’ will be integrated in the impact assessment, summarising the outcomes of these participatory and deliberative processes.

A permanent consultation mechanism for citizen participation has also been proposed by Europe’s People’s Forum, an NGO with a network of 35 professional facilitating organisations and more than 50 civil society organisations from all 27 EU member states.

At its recent General Assembly (13 June), the Forum presented a draft proposal for a ‘Center for European Citizens’ Democracy’ (CECD). The center would strengthen democracy and renew trust and the sense of ownership in the EU. It comes as response to the Parliament’s proposal for a mechanism for participatory democracy and the Commission’s ambition to develop a new approach to engage citizens in EU’s decision-making.

The initiative outlines a number of tasks for such a center and was well received by the keynote speakers at the Assembly, among them Vice-President Suica. “This initiative goes in the direction set by the citizens and will contribute to the democratic ecosystem,” she said. “The crises facing the EU is an opportunity which needs to be addressed at all levels of governance and engage the citizens.”

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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