Conference on the Future of Europe: could it be that citizens moved the European Union forward?

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) came to a close on May 9th, also known as Europe Day. On this occasion, the Presidents of the Parliament, the Council, and the European Commission received the final report of the Conference. This report is the result of a year of discussions and debates between 800 randomly selected citizens from the 27 countries of the European Union. The handing over of the report took place at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg. It is now up to the institutions to follow up on the proposals. Although we cannot predict its exact impact, the first effects of the Conference are already visible: this unprecedented approach, both in terms of scale and methodology, has introduced a new participatory dynamic into what is often perceived as an ungraspable, complex institutional machine.

This last year, Missions Publiques has been at the heart of the design, implementation, and support of the European Citizens’ Panels and the citizen component of the Plenary, alongside the steering body of this event, the Common Secretariat, which was appointed by the three institutions. Here is what we’ve learned.

Plenary sessions: the Conference’s democratic innovation

The Conference on the Future of Europe kicked off in May 2021 with the launch of a multilingual digital Platform, which had the particularity of automatically translating all the contributions it received into the 24 languages of the European Union. As a central element of the Conference, the platform aimed to bring together, in one place, citizens’ proposals, events and initiatives from all 27 Member States on the nine major themes of the Conference: climate change and the environment; health; a stronger economy, social justice and employment; the EU in the world; values and rights, rule of law, security; digital transformation; European democracy; migration; education, culture, youth and sport. In September 2021, this online consultation was complemented by a transnational and multilingual deliberation: the European Citizens’ Panels, which brought together nearly 800 citizens from the 27 Member States. Four thematic panels, three two-day sessions (including one remote session), and more than 1000 hours of deliberations to produce 178 recommendations.

Although the scale of this consultation and these panels were unparalleled, the approach built on years of innovation in the field of citizen participation, and many examples of citizen assemblies and panels. The Conference’s real democratic innovation lies in the last pillar, the third ‘P’: the Plenary Assembly. In most participatory processes, citizens formulate their recommendations and hand them over to decision-makers. Here, the Plenary was designed as an additional stage to allow for the co-construction of the final proposals. Following the citizens’ panels, the 108 citizens representing the European and national citizens’ panels worked hand in hand with representatives of civil society and members of the European institutions and national Parliaments for six weekends (not counting the numerous online meetings). Their objective? Enrich, without diluting, the recommendations that came out of the Panels.

Organized into nine thematic working groups (corresponding to the Conference’s nine themes), the members of the Plenary debated, enriched, and confronted these recommendations with the reality and the functioning of the institutions to transform them into final proposals. This second level of deliberation, with a mixed audience, had several positive effects. First, randomly selected citizens were able to discover and learn about the poorly known institutional functioning of the European Parliament, especially during the debates in plenary sessions and in sub-groups, which echoed the work of parliamentary committees. Moreover, the content of the Conference was greatly enriched by this double expertise, the European legislative expertise on the one hand and the “real life” expertise on the other. Over time, this collaborative work helped improve the quality of the proposals. Several questions fed the exchanges between politicians and citizen-ambassadors: can we go further? Can we be bolder? What are the conditions of success to allow the realization of these proposals? Does the war in Ukraine make this or that measure unfeasible? Finally, the Plenary sessions made it possible to avoid two things that are often criticized in participatory approaches: the citizen silo, and decision-makers being spectators. This is where we believe the major democratic innovation lies.

Avoiding brain drain, making health a shared competence…

Major European priorities emerged from this deliberation. First, the desire for a more just, social and united Europe. Citizens called for a Europe that is more than just an economic union, but a Europe where everyone has access to the same opportunities without discrimination based on age, nationality, gender, religion or political opinion. The proposals of the Conference also aim to make the European Union a leader on environmental and climate change issues, by supporting a rapid green transition, promoting transport and sustainable economy, but also by emphasizing climate diplomacy. The desire is also for a more democratic Europe, with a more transparent decision-making system, in which citizens are consulted and feel fully involved. Citizens also hope that the Conference will carry the idea of a more united and harmonized Europe, especially in the case of education, health, employment, and social policies. They expect Europe to be more autonomous, resilient, and powerful on the international scene.

In the final report, 49 proposals with clear objectives and a series of measures can be found. Without going into an inventory of the proposals, it is interesting to note the lines of convergence on subjects that seem to crystallize tensions or divergent conceptions. Let’s take the subject of migration for instance: the CoFoE citizens essentially focused on migration within the European Union and on solutions to avoid the brain drain and depopulation of the Baltic and Eastern European countries. Far from the media’s clichés. When it comes to health (let us recall global pandemic context), the proposals suggest making health a shared competence between the European institutions and the Member States and to work towards more harmonization between countries, both in terms of care, infrastructure, and quality of care. Regarding climate, the issue of nuclear power was raised in the context of discussions on energy transition. The subject was debated during the Citizen Panels and the recommendation supporting the development of nuclear power was not retained during the collective prioritization in the last session. During the Plenary sessions (which followed the Panels), some members of the working group on climate change and the environment felt that it was important, in the face of the Ukrainian crisis, to reopen the question of nuclear power as a transition energy. Wishing to be loyal to the collective position of the Panel, the “citizen ambassadors” of the group did not want nuclear power to be included in the final proposals.

Moving towards an evolution of the institutions?

“When I will be 65 years old, in 2070, I want to tell my grandchildren that many of the positive changes in Europe came from this unique exercise,” explains Camille Girard, a young French citizen ambassador, before handing over the report to the presidents of the European institutions. The big question is, what will become of the Conference’s proposals?

The Conference on the Future of Europe has already proven its capacity to unblock certain contested issues within the Union. The example of electoral reform and transnational lists is particularly striking. This issue, which was blocked in the European Parliament in 2018, was put back on the table in one of the recommendations made by Panel 2 on “European Democracy/Values and Rights, Rule of Law and Security” which recommended the adoption of “an electoral law for the Parliament, which harmonizes electoral conditions (voting age, election date, requirements for constituencies, candidates, political parties and their financing)”. This recommendation also introduced the idea of voting for a national party, but also a European party. This recommendation has re-opened the discussion on the electoral reform proposal carried by the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the European Parliament finally voted on May 3rd, 2022 in the plenary of the European Parliament.

The conclusions of the Conference have also re-opened the debate on EU treaty reform. Indeed, certain proposals, such as ending unanimity as a method of decision-making on certain issues within the Council of the EU (proposals 21 and 39, for example), require profound changes in the way European institutions function. On this point, the representatives of the European institutions who were present at the May 9th ceremony were in favor of such a reform. “For a better efficiency of our Europe, we need to reform our texts. One of the ways of this reform is the convening of the revision of the treaties. This is a proposal of the European Parliament, and I am in favor of it,” announced French President Emmanuel Macron. For the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen: “The European Citizens’ Panels have proven that this form of democracy works. It must now be integrated into the way we make policy. I will propose to give the Citizens’ Panels the time and resources to make recommendations before we present some key proposals.”

Rendez-vous in the autumn, for the President of the Commission’s State of the Union speech and the first official feedback on the proposals!

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