10 Juni 2020

No Need to Hurry: A Well Designed and Inclusive Conference on the Future of Europe Should Start on 9 May 2021

The Conference on the Future of Europe is meant to bring a “new push for democracy”. But what exactly does that mean? In a series of guest articles, representatives from politics, academia and civil society present their wishes, hopes and expectations for the Conference. Today: Julian Plottka. (To the start of the series.)

Shadow with stars
“Successful citizens’ participation needs thorough preparations. It is very unlikely that the remaining time until autumn 2020 suffices for this.”
Since the German government started outlining key points of its upcoming Council Presidency, interested parties sparked a debate why the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) ranks low on the German agenda. Federal Chancellor Merkel calling the CoFoE the long-term answer to the current COVID-19 crisis raised expectations and the usual federalist suspects started questioning how hard the government is really pushing for the conference. The Federal Foreign Office expressed its clear commitment to the CoFoE. The German Minister of State for Europe at the Federal Foreign Office Michael Roth said that he is “working very hard”, however, the Council is still “away from a political consensus”. A start in 2020 is considered as possible or even likely.

Among the other member states, few see urgency in launching the conference, since the initially scheduled starting date on 9 May 2020 had to be postponed until further notice. Their argument is that crisis management has higher priority and the CoFoE could be dealt with afterwards. For sure, some critics of the CoFoE take the pandemic as an opportunity to postpone the whole project. However, there are some serious arguments to proceed in a reasonable pace instead of rushing for a kick-start.

Europe Day 2021: Launch the CoFoE on 9 May Next Year

Without the COVID-19 pandemic, the start on 9 May 2020 would have been most likely followed by a first interruption until preparations were completed. The initial schedule was simply too tight. A quick start in autumn 2020 increases again the risk of de facto postponing the conference. There are four reasons why taking some more time is sensible:

Hopefully No Need for Socially Distancing in May 2021

First, due to the need for social distancing there is a lack of meeting rooms. Brussels’ daily business is currently reduced and will not fully resume until the end of the year. In May 2021, there will be either sufficient experience with social distancing events or maybe no need for distancing anymore.

Need for Time to Design Citizens’ Participation

Second, citizens’ participation is still a rather new endeavour for the EU. The Commission has some experience with participatory citizens’ dialogues and the European Economic and Social Committee organised the first European Citizens’ Panel in 2018.

Successful citizens’ participation needs thorough preparations and a well-designed methodology. It is very unlikely that the remaining time until autumn 2020 suffices to develop and implement a citizens’ dialogue of EU-wide dimension. Starting the conference and postponing citizens’ involvement or organising some window-dressing panel discussions would do serious harm to the conference.

Time to Listen to Citizens

Third, the European Parliament called for a “listening phase” prior to the conference. Starting in May 2021 enables organised civil society to start the necessary debates and reach out to society to raise awareness for the importance of the CoFoE for half a year. Having prepared the ground this way and having discussed an input from society to the CoFoE, the conference is ready to start in May 2021.

No Need to Hurry

Fourth, a majority of member states sees no urgency. For their consent to start in autumn 2020, they will demand other concessions. Is a quick start really worth to give sceptics what they will demand in exchange?

Getting the Sceptic Council on Board: Don’t Make it a Brussels Show

The European Parliament has taken the driving seat in preparing the conference and thinks about adopting a new resolution in June to put more pressure on the Council to move. While not even Michael Roth is sure about the Commission’s ambitions, the real task is finding consensus in the Council. Making the CoFoE a “Brussels show” by hosting it in the EP building, will not win the hearts of national governments. It would symbolise the division between supranational and intergovernmental institutions.

Therefore, charming national governments by giving them a stage as hosts of the conference plenaries is a better strategy to win their commitment. At least, the French President of Europe Emmanuel Macron will love to host the conference in France during his campaign for the next French presidential elections in 2022. Organising the sessions across Europe also allows for a better outreach to citizens and multiplies communication activities. Coupling the role of the conference host with the rotating Council Presidency offers an inclusive sample of diverse and powerful member states.

From Lisbon to Stockholm: Some Carrots for National Governments

Launching the conference under the Council Presidency of a small country in Southern Europe that had to be bailed out during the crises in the Euro zone would be a positive signal towards bridging the conflict between supporters of a stability union and proponents of a fiscal union. Under the current pandemic, Portugal is managing the crisis comparatively well. Thus, it can devote resources to preparing the conference. Finally, kicking-off the CoFoE in Lisbon is a good omen. The new discussion on the future of Europe starts where the last ended. Maybe the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Belem, where the Lisbon Treaty was signed, is the appropriate venue for the first session of the CoFoE.

The journey would end in Stockholm under the Swedish Council Presidency in early 2023. Concluding remarks by a rather sceptical and non-aligned non-Euro area member state would also be a clear signal towards an inclusive debate. Its neither France (defence policy) nor Germany (economic policy) pushing ahead with an avant-garde group, but a process involving all member states.

Due to the two trio presidencies (Germany-Portugal-Slovenia and France-Czech Republic-Sweden) the CoFoE would receive the backing of the German-French couple and would also involve two younger member states. As convincing the Council to act is the task ahead, a journey from Lisbon to Stockholm seems no bad offer to appease sceptic governments.

No Need for a Thematic Mandate

In November 2019, the Franco-German non-paper on the CoFoE called for a “focus on policies” and said “[i]nstitutional issues could also be tackled as a cross-cutting issue”. Merkel, however, sees treaty change as a possibility included in the long-term answer to COVID-19: “That might include moving much closer together” (own translation). While the German government has changed its mind, there are few other supporters for treaty reform.

Although Commission, Parliament and member states are all keen to set the agenda for the conference in a concrete mandate, there a four reasons to let the conference decide on its scope and thematic agenda.

The CoFoE is No COVID-19 Conference

First, the current negotiations on the Council mandate and the interinstitutional agreement all take place under the impression of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. But while the CoFoE is an opportunity to draw lessons from the current crisis, there are other unfinished reform businesses which need to be addressed, too. Putting “[h]ealthcare and Brussels’ response to the public health crisis […] at the forefront of the dialogue on the future of the EU”, as proposed by Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica, does not make any sense. Health policy is important, but just one of the tasks ahead.

Don’t Replicate Brussels’ Everyday Agenda

Second, the Commission initially proposed to address its six political priorities and the European Council’s strategic agenda. The European Parliament and some member states started adding their own priorities.

But why should the conference focus on what is anyway discussed in Brussels? The Commission has the right of initiative, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offered the Parliament to take up its initiatives proposed and the Council does not need another forum to set its agenda.

Let Citizens Set the Agenda

Third, the CoFoE shall involve citizens, youth and organised civil society. None of them is currently represented in the negotiations in a way similar to those envisioned for the conference. Defining the thematic agenda without the involvement of citizens and organised civil society would make the citizens’ dialogues less valuable.

There are sufficient instruments for top-down citizens’ participation in Europe, while few instruments allow citizens to set the agenda. The real value of the conference is to offer citizens the agenda-setting power they lack on the EU level.

Don’t Mention the T Word

Fourth, there is consensus in the Council neither on the CoFoE nor on the need for another treaty reform. Therefore, mentioning the T word in the mandate will result in hard bargaining and log rolling. The idea of the conference is to allow for deliberation, to leave daily business of negotiations aside and to think out of the box and pave the way for consensus. A focused thematic mandate will bring all these quarrels into the CoFoE before it has even started.

For all four reasons, it is the best option to allow the CoFoE to set its own agenda and not to limit the scope of the conference outcome in the mandate. The conference is the opportunity to set the agenda for all issues currently ignored in Brussels. By defining a narrow mandate, the CoFoE would drop this opportunity. Furthermore, there is no need to copy and paste the institutions’ current priorities into the CoFoE agenda. The institutions should deal with their priorities in EU-level decision-making. The conference should think ahead of the ongoing processes.

Format of the Conference: Don’t Forget Civil Society

Both Commission and Parliament are quite progressive concerning the methodology of the agoras or panels. Most notably, the proposed feedback mechanism is a step forward as it addresses one of the most serious deficiencies of EU-level participative democracy. They both also underline that “civil society must play a fundamental role throughout the Conference”.

However, they simply forgot considering how to involve it. Including representatives of the Economic and Social Committee and EU-level social partners is no appropriate representation of civil society. Therefore, in addition to the citizens’ and youth agoras a forum for civil society organisations form across Europe should be organised and represented in the conference. That will allow for a transparent and well-structured contribution of civil society to the future of Europe.


The upcoming German Council Presidency is a window of opportunity to find consensus among the member states on the Council mandate and to negotiate the interinstitutional agreement. There is no need to rush for a quick start, as time is needed to prepare a successful participation of citizens, the youth and civil society.

A badly designed concept for citizens’ participation, neglecting civil society and defining a narrow mandate would be the best ways to ensure a failure of the conference. Sceptics should not be given the opportunity to damage the conference before its starts. Therefore, the time until 9 May 2021 should be used to commit more member state governments to the conference, negotiate a good interinstitutional agreement, raise awareness for the Conference on the Future of Europe and organise a listening phase to let citizens set the agenda.

Julian Plottka is Senior Researcher at the Institut für Europäische Politik in Berlin and Research Associate at the Jean Monnet Chair for European Politics at the University of Passau. His research interests include the European civil society and participative democracy.

Expectations towards the Conference on the Future of Europe – Overview
  1. Was erwarten wir von der Konferenz über die Zukunft Europas? – Serienauftakt
  2. Die Zukunftskonferenz: drei Schwerpunkte für ein handlungsfähiges Europa ● Claudia Gamon
  3. Die Zukunft der Zukunftskonferenz, oder Der Rest ist Schweigen ● Dominik Hierlemann
  4. Eine Konferenz der BürgerInnen und Parlamente: Von der Konferenz über die Zukunft Europas zur Zukunft für Europas Konferenzen ● Axel Schäfer
  5. No Need to Hurry: A Well Designed and Inclusive Conference on the Future of Europe Should Start on 9 May 2021 [DE / EN] ● Julian Plottka
  6. Jugend, Wissenschaft, EuropaskeptikerInnen: Nur mit einer breiten Beteiligung wird die Konferenz über die Zukunft Europas zum Erfolg ● Gustav Spät
  7. Addressing the right problems with the right instruments at the right time: Reflections on the Conference on the Future of Europe [DE / EN] ● John Erik Fossum
  8. The Conference on the Future of Europe is an opportunity – also for the European Committee of the Regions [DE / EN] ● Mark Speich
  9. A new push for Democracy: The Conference on the Future of Europe [DE / EN] ● Dubravka Šuica
  10. Kompromiss mit Potenzial: Die Konferenz zur Zukunft Europas ● Oliver Schwarz
  11. Das europapolitische Quartett: Kann die Konferenz zur Zukunft Europas noch ein Erfolg werden? ● Carmen Descamps, Julian Plottka, Sophie Pornschlegel, Manuel Müller

Images: Shadow with stars: Mark Notari [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr; portrait Julian Plottka: private [all rights reserved].

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