Conference on the Future of Europe: towards a renewed European project with citizens?

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) was officially launched on 9 May 2021. Scheduled to last one year, its ambition is to establish a programme for the Europe of tomorrow based on the proposals of European citizens. In order for the CoFoE to be an effective success, and to make the voices of Europeans heard, the process will rely on powerful participation methods, including transnational Citizens’ Panels and a Digital Platform.

The main challenge is to enable all European citizens to express their views on the European project. Several participatory methods complement each other.

A technological innovation in 24 languages

A digital platform available in the 24 official languages of the European Union has been launched online to gather citizens’ views on ten key subjects at the heart of European issues, including climate change, health, digital transformation, education and culture, youth and the economy and social justice. This is the first consultation on this scale, as 450 million Europeans will be able to contribute in their own language but also understand the contributions of their fellow citizens, which will be translated. The website also allows the collection of collective contributions, i.e., all the local, national and European events (conferences, parties, meetings, etc.) around the Conference.

800 citizens from the 27 EU countries and a provisional parliament

Another form of participation is the transnational Citizens’ Panels. Here again, the mechanism put in place is ambitious. Four Citizens’ Panels from the 27 EU countries will meet three times over three days to debate on climate, health, migration and democracy. They will be representative of the diversity of the European population (following criteria of age, gender balance, socio-professional categories, etc.). In order to facilitate expression, the exchanges will take place in the 24 official languages of the EU.

These transnational Citizens’ Panels will formulate a series of public policy recommendations for the plenary assembly, which the EU should follow up. The plenary assembly, which will meet three to six times, will be made up of 407 people: representatives of the European institutions (Parliament, Council and Commission) and bodies (EESC – European Economic and Social Committee, Committees of the Regions), national parliamentarians, representatives of civil society and the social partners, and – an important innovation – members of the European Citizens’ Panels and citizens representing the national participatory processes. This provisional parliament, shared by the European and national institutions, will also produce recommendations, fed by collective and individual online contributions, as well as by the contributions of the transnational Citizens’ Panels (which also draw from online contributions).

“There are four main criteria for a quality process and these have guided the design of the CoFoE Panels: inclusiveness, deliberation, relevance and equity.

Inclusion, deliberation, relevance and fairness

For this democratic exercise to be successful, the Panels will adhere to a set of quality criteria developed and tested by participation practitioners and academics over the past 50 years. There are four main criteria for a quality process and these have guided the design of the CoFoE Panels: inclusiveness, deliberation, relevance and equity.

Inclusiveness is the care taken to ensure that participants reflect the diversity of Europe’s population and that everyone feels comfortable to speak; the role of moderators and facilitation is key: warm and neutral, alternating between collective time in sub-groups, and encouraging informal moments to foster an equal participation of citizens.

The quality of the deliberation means above all considering that the information comes from the citizens themselves. This means working from the citizens’ visions—utopian or dystopian stories—and getting them to discuss points of dissent and confront their arguments. This also means ensuring a fair balance between these inputs from citizens and the contributions of the “experts”. Above all, the quality of deliberation is ensured by the implementation of an iterative process that is linked to all the contributions (digital, plenary assembly).

The relevance will be, for example, to allow several of them, randomly selected, to attend and be members of the plenary so that a maximum number of people can share this experience of dialogue with the institutions and demonstrate the “competence of citizens”.

Finally, fairness and equity imply to allocate enough time and to offer citizens an equal chance to understand and contribute to these complex issues. It is about ensuring the transparency of a process and defining a role for the media and outside observers (1). Ultimately, this entails to put citizens at the centre of discussions through creative and educational methods.

The upcoming challenge of the implementation of the CoFoE’s Citizens Panels is unique in its ambition and complexity. Missions Publiques is contributing to this adventure along with its European partners Teamwork (France), Danish Board of Technology (Denmark), IFOK (Germany) and Deliberativa (Spain). We know that the citizens will be there. The challenge lies elsewhere: this is a very large-scale test of the capacity of decision-makers to listen to citizens and to take their opinions into account in order to change Europe’s public policies and practices. As such, it is an exceptional opportunity to lay the foundations for a new Europe.

To go further
(1) The Observatory of the Conference on the Future of Europe, composed of the Bertelsmann Foundation, the European Policy Centre, the King Boudouin Foundation and Stifung Mercartor, has been set up to follow the debates and produce analyses as they unfold.
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