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Citizens speak out at Conference on the Future of Europe

European Citizens’ Panels are a central feature of the Conference on the Future of Europe, credit: EP

The first citizen-led panel on the future of Europe took place last weekend at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. 200 ordinary citizens came together to discuss a wide range of topics under the heading “a stronger economy, social justice, jobs/education, youth, culture, and sport/digital transformation”.

The other three panels will follow in the upcoming weekends. They will cover European democracy/values and rights, rule of law, security (first meeting: 24-26 September), Climate change, environment/health (first meeting: 1-3 October), and EU in the world/migration (first meeting: 15-17 October).

The participants in the panel came with ideas and recommendations that will feed into the overall Conference deliberations, in particular into the Conference Plenaries, and ultimately into the report on its final outcome. The Conference Plenary is composed by the representatives of the EU institutions, national parliaments, civil society and citizens.

The panels are integral part of the Conference. Citizens have been chosen randomly by specialist contractors on behalf of the EU institutions, using methodologies that should ensure that they are representative of the EU’s diversity in terms of geographic origin, gender, age, socioeconomic background and level of education. Young people between 16 and 25 make up one-third of each panel.

A say in the EU

The Brussels Times contacted three of the participants in the first citizens’ panel on 17 – 19 September to get some inside information from the discussions and hear their impressions and views. They represent different EU member states – Belgium, Sweden and Poland – and all three of them want to have a say in the EU.

Phoebe Janssens, 20, studies law in Brussels. “The EU has always interested me very much so when I got the call to participate in the Conference I didn’t hesitate. I think it’s a great initiative by the EU (though a bit overdue) to finally enable citizens to have a say in what they are doing and deciding.”

Eva Lundqvist, 56, is a nursery school principal who wants to create possibilities for all children in her organisation and give them a good start in life. “I felt really honoured to be one of the few who got to represent Sweden. The topics of my panel felt just right for me as I work in education, but I would have found any of the panels interesting.”

Kacper Parol, 23, is a youth activist and politician from Poland and is enthusiastic to have been selected. “I felt so in place here, what a great chance but also a great responsibility! Youth in Poland has every right not to feel treated seriously. Coming to the European Parliament, I had one situation in mind – a recent protest in front of the Polish Ministry of Education against its conservative agenda in schools.”

He referred to the education minister who first refused to meet a youth delegation. Tree activists had to hand-cuff themselves to the gates of the ministry to be accepted. “My voice has to be the voice of those three young people. My voice has to be for the youth of Poland. But I came here not only to spread awareness, but to participate in the decision making.”

The panels were preceded in April by the launch of a multilingual digital platform, available in 24 languages, allowing citizens from across the EU to share and exchange their ideas and views through online events. The key ideas and recommendations from the platform are also intended to be used as input for the discussions in the panels and plenaries.

According to an interim report, which gives a first overview of citizens’ contributions on the platform until August, almost 3,000 contributions were uploaded under the three subheadings related to the first panel. Most received “Education, culture, youth and sport” (1437), followed by Digital transformation (1258).  “A Stronger economy, social justice and jobs” received only 207 contributions. 

How did you prepare yourself for the meeting?  

Our three participants did not propose any ideas on the platform and still seem to be finding their way around how use it. “I used the platform to look at other people’s ideas and thoughts and prepared myself for the meeting by reading all of the information we got in advance,” Phoebe replied.

Eva replied that it was a bit difficult to prepare oneself for the panel as the topics were very wide. “I tried to make a picture in my mind about the different topics and what is important to me. I also read material I could find on the platform and on EU websites but there wasn’t much time to prepare as we got some of the material quite late.”

Kacper says that he was not aware of the digital platform until he participated in the conference. For him, the basis to share ideas was  the conference itself, but back home he trongly encourages people to get their voices heard through the platform.

“Even though I consider me to be well-informed about how the EU works, I read reports on the future of the EU and proposed solutions to make the EU a place more open to its citizens and more forward-looking. There are a lot of think-tanks specialized in the EU and also a lot of experts whom I could learn from. “

How were the ideas selected, discussed and adopted by the panel? 

The panel was divided into 15 smaller working groups where the participants discussed a list of topics or focus areas that were important to them and scored them in an iterative process. The five most important topics from the working groups were then discussed in the plenary meeting, where they were regrouped and voted on.

“In our small working group, we discussed three subtopics: a stronger economy, social justice and jobs,” Phoebe explained. “The things most important to me are a climate-friendly economy, equal social rights and strong education in all member states that also create more jobs.”

She managed to get her own proposal on equal rights in all member states adopted by the panel. “This is something that I’m very proud of and it makes me happy to see that my voice was actually being heard.”

Eva described the discussions in the smaller working groups and the panel as a “truly democratic process” and based on individual inputs. “We had a very good moderator who tried to keep us within the topics. We added our thoughts together and then made individual priorities, which were all added to the other small groups’ thoughts. I felt that all our voices were taken into account.”

For Eva, education and every child’s right to free and good education is the most important topic and she managed to pass through her idea on combining work and family life.

Kacper added that the goal of the panel was to choose the most important topics to work on but not yet to elaborate on solutions. “I really liked the idea of educational program standards for schools across the EU.” Another urgent matter is housing: “It’s increasingly harder for young people to pay rent in the so-called “student cities” – we need to promote public housing.”

As someone with an economics degree, he is outraged about how companies hide their profits in “tax havens”. He managed to get ideas adopted on fair taxation and holding big internet corporations accountable.

A report on the outcome of the discussions in the panel was expected last week but had not been published at press time.

Are you satisfied with how the panel worked?  

All three answered positively on this question. “The EU really did their best to accommodate us and to prepare us for the topics we were talking about,” Phoebe replied. “We worked in smaller subgroups so that everyone could make their voice heard and we could also talk in our mother tongue so that everyone felt comfortable talking and didn’t have to search for words.”

Eva highlighted the role of the moderator in the groups who made sure that everyone got the opportunity to speak his or her mind. “The atmosphere was very open and friendly.” Kacper was fascinated about how easily the participants agreed on the most important issues. “Even though we have different experiences, we were truly united in diversity.”

Asked if something could be improved to next time, none of them could come up with something. The weekend might have been tiring but everything was well organised and the participants replied that they had nothing to worry about.

Is your home country interested in the Conference?

The interim report on the number of contributions to the digital platform by EU member state shows a variation in terms of numbers per 1 million inhabitants. Belgium, in the heart of Europe where the European Commission is seated, is ranked among the top contributors with altogether 1,304 contributions to the platform (114 per 1 million inhabitants).

At the bottom is Poland, a country with legal troubles with the Commission, with only 8 contributions per 1 million inhabitants or 309 in total. Sverige is ranked 7th from the bottom with 202 contributions in total. How can that be explained?

“Although especially youth in my country is increasingly active in political life, I think we are dominated by domestic issues,” Kacper replied. “It’s hard for us to talk about strategy for Europe, while our rights are being taken away, as we have seen with women’s strikes, support protests for LGBT people or protests in defence of free media. There is just so much going on.”

What about Sweden, which has an ambivalent attitude to the EU and still keeps its own currency? “Sorry to say, the interest in EU is very low in Sweden,” Eva replied. “There have hardly been any reports in media about the conference and the digital platform hasn’t been mentioned. I tried to interest my local newspaper but without result.”

“If media were more interested, then maybe the public would also become more interested and engaged in the future of Europe. We need to educate ourselves about the EU and our possibilities to exercise influence on the politicians and the decisions they make.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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