Caterina, Nicolas, Kacper and Matous… four young people who have in common that they all experienced the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE). We met them in during the Festival of Participation and Deliberative Democracy organized by the European Commission. The Conference marked a turning point in their lives as citizens. They now expect the institutions to live up to the hopes that this unique approach has raised.
“A breath of fresh air”
Caterina lives in a small town on the Croatian coast. At 25, she studied business and international relations in Austria and Italy. With a Croatian mother and an Italian father, Caterina is a convinced European, and not only because she has navigated both cultures. She was a volunteer in a European solidarity association and now works for the association Youth in the EU, which promotes Europe to young people in schools and through various events. “Young people don’t know the possibilities that Europe offers. Information is the key to my work and a powerful empowerment tool. Thanks to this, I open up perspectives to them that they did not expect”. How do young Croatians view Europe? “It goes from skepticism to ignorance, but the dominant feeling is rather that they feel isolated from the European sphere. They only perceive Europe through investments in infrastructure: the construction of a bridge, the renovation of a fortress, etc.”.
Caterina has accepted without hesitation to bring her country’s recommendations to the plenary sessions of the Conference on the Future of Europe. A singular role of citizen “national representative” appointed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of her country. This is her only regret: the “division” she felt between the citizens who were members of the Panel and the 27 national representatives “we were not in the same dynamic from the beginning, and the meetings were organized a little late (…) we participated in the plenary sessions without really knowing what had been discussed beforehand.” For a year, she organized and participated in local dialogues in Croatia with young people, many on the theme of the environment and climate. Inviting citizens into institutions was a “courageous” act, she said, and engaging citizens on this scale a first. She was also impressed by the quality of the concrete proposals made by citizens, directly related to their daily lives. “These times of exchange and sharing between those who think about politics and those who are its subjects is essential. From this point of view, it was a real breath of fresh air.” On a more personal note, she is pleased that the particularity of island regions was recognized in the final recommendations. In a country made up of 1,400 islands, she was keen to include this dimension. Even though she is familiar with the workings of the European institutions, Caterina realized with the CoFoE the “complexity of decision-making”, a long-term framing that was not necessarily compatible with the enthusiasm of youth and ecological emergencies.
“I learned that our generation, which is very concerned about climate change, was called ‘gloomers’. But I am an unquenchable optimist. I hope that Europe will become more agile and less bureaucratic, more anticipatory and less reactive.
“I hope that Europe will become more agile and less bureaucratic, more anticipatory and less reactive.
The governments of each country must be more involved
Nicolas was one of the youngest participants at the Conference on the Future of Europe. He was 16 years old. One year later, Nicolas still lives in the Czech Republic and continues his studies in high school. At the moment, what he likes to do, like many young people of his age, is to go out with his friends and travel.
On his way home from school, he received the call to attend the conference. Suspicious, he didn’t believe what the person on the other end of the phone was offering him and his mother’s first reaction was not much more enthusiastic: “don’t give him my credit card!” The process became reality when Nicolas received the e-mail from the European Union: “It was huge, I cried, I had a great experience! Being selected was a chance for me to meet people from all countries and high-level politicians”. What did he know about Europe at that time? Not much: “I only knew that the Czech Republic was part of the European Union. I was not interested at all. The Conference broadened his perspectives: “I learned so much, about institutions, projects and opportunities for young people after 18 years”.
The over-representation of young people was an issue from the start for the three institutions involved (European Commission, European Parliament and Council) and of the 800 citizens drawn by lot, one third was between 16 and 25 years old. Did this bias prove conclusive? And was the voice of young people – if there is one – heard? Nicolas answers in the affirmative even if he would have preferred more minor persons. He believes that there was no gap between the younger generation and the older citizens during the debates, and that they listened to each other. His working group appointed him to be their spokesperson during the plenary sessions, and he is proud of this.
If Nicolas had one subject that was close to his heart, it was dental health. “In the Czech Republic, there are too many dentists who work in private practice. Access to it is far too expensive (…) By researching and deliberating in my working group, I realized that this is a problem that exists throughout Europe”. On the other hand, he is more doubtful about the climate issue. “If everyone agreed on the importance of the subject, I have the impression that it was not really taken seriously, especially in the plenary sessions by the decision-makers. Today, Nicolas is sad about the end of the adventure and hopes that a concrete follow-up will be given to the recommendations of the European institutions because the Czech Republic, which presides over the Council of the European Union since July, has been” rather reluctant to modify the treaties” (one of the recommendations of the Citizens’ Panels). He would also like the schools of his country to take their part in the knowledge of Europe.
A year of debates and meetings at the heart of an unprecedented process has changed the young man: friendships in the four corners of Europe and a desire to get involved… in politics.
“I learned so much, about institutions, projects and opportunities for young people after 18 years
“There was not enough diversity of opinion on Europe”
Matous, 20, also comes from the Czech Republic, from the city of Litoměřice. He goes to university and takes two different courses: law and education and is coaches a rowing club. His mother is a doctor and his father, now deceased, was in the military. He can’t imagine himself doing only one job later on and the idea of teaching, becoming a judge or a diplomat are avenues that he is considering without being exclusive. And why not, like Nicolas, join a political party.
For him, “many people confuse Europe and the European Union”. The Conference on the future of Europe taught him the nuance and “what the EU was doing for us”. Neither changed nor convinced, Matous has a somewhat different outlook than other young people “I consider myself a conservative. “The Conference was great from a personal point of view, that is to say for my experience, to test my skills (…) but in the end, according to me, it is the politicians who decide, they are the ones we elect, and we choose because they have the same point of view as us. So of course, politicians don’t always implement the measures they were elected for, but Matous believes that it is not by multiplying citizen conferences that politics will change, it is by “making better politicians”.
“I was not very comfortable with the final recommendations, I had doubts about many of them because the citizens chose consensus and did not dare in plenary to assume their divergent opinion”. Matous, who was in the working group on democracy, regrets that the desire for consensus erased the rough edges of deliberation, and that the “yes” of a relative majority always prevailed.
“The people in the panels were not representative of the diversity of opinions on Europe. Those who agreed to come were more Europhiles. But what do we really put behind the word unity? When I asked about the euro, prices and taxes… I did not get an answer. For the moment, in the Czech Republic, we don’t want the euro because we will lose out on salaries.”
Although he is not totally convinced of the effectiveness of an approach on this scale, he would like to test formats in the Czech Republic at a more local level, initiated by the country’s government, as in France. Like Kacper, a 20-year-old Polish young man, who was afraid to come “because Poland is the black sheep of the EU” and who regrets “the lack of media coverage in the member states”.
Leaving the European Union? No way, even if in their country many speak in favor.
“I was not very comfortable with the final recommendations, I had doubts about many of them because the citizens chose consensus and did not dare in plenary to assume their divergent opinion.
- A total of 6,465 events were organized in the 27 member states, attended by 652,532 people. An online platform in all official languages registered five million visitors, with 52,346 active participants sharing 17,671 ideas and leaving 21,877 comments.
- National citizens’ panels were held in six countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania and the Netherlands.
- The recommendations of the European Citizens’ Panels were evaluated and synthesized by the Conference plenary, which was composed equally of representatives of the three institutions and representatives of national parliaments, as well as citizens and representatives of the social partners and civil society.
- The final report was drafted by an Executive Board of nine representatives, from the Parliament, the Commission and the Council, in collaboration with the Conference plenary. In total, the conclusions of the Conference bring together more than 320 measures divided into 49 proposals on nine major topics.