The Conference on the Future of Europe is taking shape. Planned to be launched on Europe Day, 9 May 2020, and to run for two years, it is one of the main priorities of the von der Leyen Commission.
Crucial for its success will be the involvement of civil society and ordinary citizens but there the details will still have to be decided in collaboration with the European Parliament and the European Council. Next target is a joint declaration by all three EU institutions by the end of February.
At a press briefing on Wednesday (22 January), Dubravka Suica, Commission Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, promised a bottom-up focus and to make the conference accessible for citizens from all corners of the EU. “It’s not business as usual. We are committed to an open dialogue and to translate the conclusions of the conference into concrete legal actions,” she said.
“We must seize the momentum of the high turnout at the last European elections and the call for action which that brings,” she added. The turnout was above 50 % – a record figure compared to previous elections – but still much lower than in general elections in the EU member states.
The Commission proposes two parallel work strands for the debates. The first should focus on the priorities in the Commission’s political guidelines, such as the fight against climate change and environmental challenges, an economy that works for people, social fairness and equality, Europe’s digital transformation, promoting European values, and strengthening the EU’s voice in the world.
The second strand should focus on addressing topics specifically related to democratic processes and institutional matters, notably the lead candidate system and transnational lists for elections to the European Parliament.
If this sounded as short- or middle-term objectives, Suica assured that the objectives are very much related to Europe’s future. But she did not exclude other issues, even treaty change. “All issues will be on the table and we are not going to pre-empt the outcome of the debates,” she said.
She believes strongly in the conference and that it will become a success compared to previous conferences or conventions. This time the Commission is going to listen to the citizens.
Practically, the Commission is proposing a model focussed on citizens’ participation, where town-hall-style citizens’ dialogues and conference-related events will take place all across Europe.
A digital, multi-lingual platform will be put into place to ensure the accessibility and transparency of the proceedings of the conference. Thematic EU-level deliberative panels could be organised by the EU institutions, gathering citizens and experts at regular intervals throughout the conference.
The Commission aims at ensuring that the widest number of citizens will participate in the conference, possibly also from the candidate countries. “All Europeans should be given an equal opportunity to engage, whether young or old, whether living in urban or rural areas, whether knowledgeable about the EU or not”.
That civil society and NGOs will play a significant role is clear but representing a majority of all citizens and channelling their voice – “the silent majority” – is much more of a challenge. Will the Commission carry out opinion polls or organise a referendum? Will we have direct democracy as in ancient Athens?
A source in the Commission told The Brussels Times that, “The different meetings, agoras, and conferences could point to topics which are relevant to many citizens. Following up on this could include different tools. For the Commission it is important to have an open, inclusive and transparent discussion. Focus is on reaching out to as many citizens as possible and not to limit discussion.”
Roger Casale, General Secretary and CEO of the campaign group New Europeans, said on behalf of several civil society organisations that he welcomed the commitment to a new approach but that many are concerned by the contrasting approaches of the EU institutions.
“Europe is in need of a new narrative but citizens will switch off very quickly if they think the Future of Europe conference is all about politics and not about them”, he said. “The key challenge is how to generate energy, ideas and proposals that can feed into the policy-making process and change Europe for the better.”
New Europeans and civil society organisations from across Europe have proposed and are organising the Europe Future Fringe. Inspired by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, they hope that the Europe Future Fringe will spark a grassroots festival of democracy across Europe.