“By involving MEPs into the Agoras, they will feel a closer connection to their constituencies

The Conference on the Future of Europe is already in full swing but despite its noble aspirations, the process may need support from civil society to reach out to people at local, regional and national levels and bring their recommendations to the Conference’s Plenary discussions. Coordinated by the European Policy Centre, the Moving EuropE Together (MEET) project will run alongside and interact with the Conference on the Future of Europe, connecting people, ideas and policies across borders. Paul Butcher and Johannes Greubel are both Policy Analysts in the European Policy Centre and have agreed to explain to us why the MEET project is such a timely endeavor for the EU and its citizens.

How does the MEET project fit into the Conference for the Future of Europe?

Johannes Greubel, EPC: We’re entering an unprecedented democratic exercise with the aim of integrating citizens from every corner of the EU to have a say on reforming the Union. This ambitious initiative comes at the right time when the EU prepares to battle against Covid-19 variants and is going through its transition towards green energy. We wanted to contribute to such a process by making it as meaningful as possible. The MEET is not a replacement of the Conference but is a parallel initiative that aims to fil a couple of gaps that the European Policy Centre has identified: first, it seems unlikely that the process will be able to systematically engage people at the local, regional, and national level, or link these different tiers with each other and to the deliberations and decisions taken in the framework of the Conference. So, together with a network of civil society organisations in eight member states across Europe, we are setting up on and offline debates between EU policymakers (including MEPs) and citizens in parallel with the Conference. These ‘Local Citizens’ Agoras’ (LCAs) will supplement and reinforce the participatory elements in the Conference and connect back to the discussions happening at the national and EU level, and the Conference process itself.

Paul Butcher, EPC: One of our motivations was to strengthen the parliamentary angle of the Conference but through an independent process. MEPs being the representative side of citizens’ relations with the EU, they had to be involved but only in a listening capacity. The idea is to have an audience in the room during the Citizens’ Agoras for the participants to understand that their discussions are being listened to by people who are involved in EU policymaking as well as being taken up by other institutions down the line. MEPs won’t be able to take part in the discussions and won’t seek to turn the event into political discussions or to dominate the debate in any way. In this way, citizens will know that they’re not just talking among themselves. They will be able to tell who they are preparing their recommendations for, since MEPs will then participate in later stage to the Conference’s plenary.

“We will enable individual MEPs to feel a closer connection to their constituencies by letting them listen from the very start to the citizens’ discussions. They will connect the needs of citizens to their own constituencies and with the conversations taking place at the Conference level.

Paul Butcher

Policy Analyst in the
European Policy Center

The Conference is EU-wide, why did you think best to focus on local and national levels?

Paul Butcher, EPC: A lot has to be said for smaller scale projects that are more intimate and personal. We do not wish to replicate the Conference, but we want to concentrate more on the local and national level which we think the Conference overlooks. How? We will enable individual MEPs to feel a closer connection to their constituencies by letting them listen from the very start to the citizens’ discussions. They will connect the needs of citizens to their own constituencies and with the conversations taking place at the Conference level. Because some member states elect their MEPs to represent a single national constituency and knowing that other states assign seats to sub-national regions for election, there is a lot of appeal for MEPs to be present in the room to represent all local areas. They will serve as a link between our exercise and the official Conference.

Smaller scale projects can be very effective, and as I said, we wish to focus on a smaller group of citizens with 20 to 30 people in each Agora and only 8 countries of the EU instead of all 27. This will ensure good geographical balance, with both small and big countries onboard and a variety of countries with different participation levels and different views regarding Europe. For example, Ireland is very pro-EU and has great experience in citizen participation (read our interview on Irish citizen assemblies with D.Jane Suiter here) and on the other hand we have countries like Denmark onboard which tends to be more of a Eurosceptic country in terms of the EU barometer results, or even Romania which has less experience on participation techniques.

Johannes Greubel: In this regard, I think that the massive diversity of methodologies between countries can be a challenge even though we acknowledge that each country has its own priorities, culture and traditions. One challenge that we’ve had so far is the different approaches and cultures to citizen participation in the EU and among the 8 countries that we have in the network. Following the same example put forth by Paul, citizen participation culture in Ireland is completely different from the way Danish organisations would run their dialogues, even though the quality and methodology standards are the same. Our first challenge is to design a joint methodology that gives basic guidelines for high-quality and high-level citizens’ deliberations processes while adapting to the different cultures and traditions. Hopefully, we’ll find the right balance to make this work in the best possible way.

“This Conference is changing the paradigm: the Parliament is more involved, Member states will promote the territorial dimension of EU policies and civil society as well as citizens themselves are moving things around. This push from bellow is what is needed to institutionalize the process.

Johannes Greubel

Policy Analyst in the
European Policy Center

Do you believe that deliberative democracy is a way towards a more legitimate EU governance?

Paul Butcher, EPC: As we are a European think-tank, we work closely with the EU institutions and we are aware how institutions can be a little nervous about what they are getting themselves into when they sign up for citizen participation exercises. In that sense, we must think of it as a complement to representative democracy and not a replacement. This is partly a motivation for the MEET project, during the last wide-scale EU consultation (held in 2018), the European Parliament as an institution was not very closely involved, perhaps because they felt that the representative dimension was more important, and that citizen participation should be led more by the Parliament rather than the Council. I think we can have both so long as we think of it as a complement rather than replacement. Of course, some of the greatest challenges we face now are linked to EU polarization, and confrontational political debate in all European societies. The EU was built on a spirit of compromise but many citizens don’t feel that they are represented into the deal and that decisions are being taken above their heads. Taking crucial questions about the future of Europe out of that aggressive political arena and into a new environment where people from all walks of life are encouraged to think about one another’s viewpoints and arrive at some kind of general consensus is needed at all levels of governments. Deliberative democracy could make EU decisions even more complicated than it already is but it would be worthwhile because Europeans would not only think they are being represented but it would also increase their feeling of ownership of EU structures. Of course, it would also enable policymakers to be more in touch with citizen priorities. All around, it should lead to a more harmonious and less confrontational political environment.

Johannes Greubel, EPC: I think we shouldn’t forget the importance of building deliberative methodology at local and national levels. In previous EU consultations, we observed reluctance from member states to join deliberative processes and on the other hand the EU itself was seen to be unenthusiastic to take on a coordinating role. But this Conference seems to be changing that paradigm: the Parliament is more involved, Member states will promote the territorial dimension of EU policies and civil society as well as citizens themselves are moving things around. This push from bellow is what is needed to institutionalize the process.

Already the Committee of the Regions (CoR) has already made a proposal to make this a permanent structure, and has recently taken steps towards that by launching a cooperation with the European Economic and Social Committee (more information here). It might take a lot of time and compromises for implementing and institutionalizing but deliberative democracy is no longer seen as this fringe crazy idea; it has become quite mainstream now.

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