“The Conference on the Future of Europe is the first exercise that the European institutions do not fully control

Alberto Alemanno is an academic, civic advocate and one of the leading voices on the democratization of the European Union (1). He initially dismissed the Conference on the Future of Europe as yet another top-down attempt to fix EU’s democratic deficit before becoming one of his champions. He shared with us his views on the role that citizens’ Panels might play during and after  the Conference.

Missions Publiques. At first critical, you recently wrote that the Conference on the Future of Europe “could bring about real change, both in terms of its bold methodology and its terms of long term democratic impact “.

Alberto Alemanno. When the Conference on the Future of Europe was initially announced, Ursula Von Der Leyen had just been appointed President of the European Commission. In a way, this announcement was supposed to repair the original sin of choosing a European political leader without democratic legitimacy: unelected and at the head of no political party.  Seen from this perspective, the Conference is certainly a top-down exercise that attempts to regain some form of public legitimacy.

Much has happened since then. Hence my change of mind. The European Commission in particular has seized the momentum created by a combination of institutional wrangling and the Covid crisis to rethink the whole Conference and learn from a variety of organizations and practitioners of citizen participation, including Mission Publique. As a result, the design process as well as the aims pursued by the Conference were enriched. The joint statement – the only legal and political basis behind the Conference – has thus been a major compromise combining three different levels: the Digital Platform (as sought by the EU Commission), the Citizens’ Panels (as requested by the EU Parliament) and the Plenary . Each of these three levels presents some novelty. For the first time, the three institutions are jointly creating a EU-wide consultative exercise, which is potentially capable to capture and mobilise  all voices, including those of the Eurosceptics. The second novelty: Citizens’ Panels, made of 200 randomly selected EU citizens, are organized transnationally, thus setting a new standard for democratic renewal to the 27 member states. The Panels, thanks to the socio-economic and potentially political diversity of its members, could compensate for the limited representativeness of the input collected on the Platform. Finally, we have never really had the opportunity to have elected representatives and citizens in the same room deliberating together on an equal footing, even if in reality their role wont’ be equal to the elected representatives because the fomers’s voice will be ultimately less important when adopting the recommendations .

All of these elements suggest that the Conference presents major democratic qualities, which being inherent to these experiments, could trigger new ideas and dynamics which will be difficult to stop in the spring of 2022. Historically, the Conference on the Future of Europe is the first exercise that the European institutions do not being in full control. And this remains true even if the European Council will ultimately decide what to do with the recommendations.

“The importance of holding such a Conference is greater today than when President Macron first launched the idea in Spring 2019. In some way, the Conference is a by-product of the incomplete nature of the Union.  

Alberto Alemanno

Professor of law at HEC Paris

Missions Publiques. Behind the health and financial crisis caused by COVID-19 lies a deeper and neglected democratic emergency. Do you think that the CoFoE will be a response to this crisis?

Alberto Alemanno. The importance of holding such a Conference is greater today than when President Macron first launched the idea in Spring 2019. In some way, the Conference is a by-product of the incomplete nature of the Union.  If the Union had a mature transnational space where ideas floated and could compete in a common political space, the Conference would not be necessary. Despite all the adversities, major geopolitical crisis, crisis of the rule of law, European leaders unanimously agreed to launch it. This occurred out of necessity, not choice, and this is because – amid Covid – they ultimately realized the limitations of the EU governance system, and its inability to provide real solutions to real problems. The Conference and its legacy ideas will become increasingly central to the future political conversation in Europe. While the Conference will only be known or visible to a tiny minority of the EU population, that will be enough for its ideas to grow in the medium term. These will probably accelerate the development of EU integration and future policies more than anything else. Paradoxically, the much sought outcome of the Conference – the launch of a revision of the Treaty process – would be less effective than this conference in advancing new ideas, even if these ideas may be contested and contestable. For too long, mainstream media and political parties have been hiding the role the EU plays in citizens’ life, but now Europeans can no longer afford to avoid the EU, which has become – as the Dutch like to say – the elephant in the room.

“The Conference is another opportunity for us to promote active citizenship as an antidote to the crisis of democracy and a way to overcome the intelligibility of the Union.

Missions Publiques. As you said, this is perhaps an opportunity for the institutions to lose a little control?

Alberto Alemanno. The Citizens’ Panels are not a miracle solution to all European problems, but they have the potential to break some taboos, to eventually gather some public support for issues on which political parties in Europe have not yet been very courageous. I expect that citizens will talk to the media about the internal workings of the Conference and this will all of a sudden humanize Europe. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it will be difficult to put it back in. Whatever the outcome, that in itself is already great.

As am active support of EU civil society through my nonprofit – The Good Lobby –  I am a strong supporter and practitioner – not only a scholar – of citizen participation. My mission as well as that of my organization is to popularize the many channels of participation existing within the European Union. Contrary to conventional wiosdom, the EU is much more open to citizen input than any EU state. The Conference is another opportunity for us to promote active citizenship as an antidote to the crisis of democracy and a way to overcome the intelligibility of the Union. The Union does not suffer from democratic legitimacy, because its members have been elected in one way or another; the problem of the deficit comes from the fact that it is not clear who does what. In this sense, the Conference can be seen as ye another attempt at  addressing the Union’s lack of intelligibility.

Lately, The Good Lobbay has assisted  dozens of  (national and European) to engage meaningfully with the Cofoe via the Platform so as to build civil society advocacy capacity during the next phases of the Conferendce. Given the inherent limitations of the existing platform, I have been suggesting that civil society groups gather, collect and filter citizens’ contributions coming from within their communities and then publish them – on their behalf – on the Platform, rather than having scattered individual contributions. If we measure the success of the Platform by the number of people who have posted, then it is doomed to fail. Today, the Platform shows a strong polarization between anti-EU and pro-EU, which neutralizes the added value. So, the EU would need rely upon on the few pan-EU civils society organisations like We Move, European Alternatives, Vox Europe, Civil Society Europe and movements such as Citizens Take Over Europe to encourage them to run their own consultation within their communities because those trust them but they do not trust the EU”. This decentralsed approach in citizen input’s collection will broaden the legitimacy and representativeness of the contributions on the Platform.

Regarding the Citizen Panels you are in charge of at Missions Publiques, the challenge is, in my opinion, to expand the ownership of the entire exercise by narrowing down the existing thematic clusters to 1 or maximum 2 key issues that really interest the citizen panelists in order to deepen the discussions and lead some meaningful recommendation.

(1) Alberto Alemanno is currently a professor of law at HEC Paris and holds the Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Law. Named Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2015, he also advises international and non-governmental organizations as well as governments. He is also the founder of the civic tech “The good lobby”, the first lobbying skill-sharing community aiming to connect experts with civil society organizations to pursue the public interest and train activists across Europe.
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