Donnerstag, 26. August 2021

The European Policy Quartet: What’s up with the Conference on the Future of Europe?

With:
  • Carmen Descamps, European Liberal Forum, Madrid
  • Julian Plottka, University of Passau, Berlin
  • Sophie Pornschlegel, European Policy Centre, Brussels
  • Manuel Müller, Der (europäische) Föderalist, Berlin
This conversation was conducted as an online chat in German. The transcript below has been edited and translated.

Multi-storey building with several balconies; an EU flag is attached to one of the balconies
Five out of 100,000 Europeans are already active on the digital platform for the Conference.

Manuel
Welcome to the second edition of the “European Policy Quartet” about the Conference on the Future of Europe! When we had our first chat in early March, the three EU institutions – Parliament, Council and Commission – had just agreed on the basic structure of the Conference. On 9 May, the Conference kicked off with an inaugural event in the European Parliament. Since the end of April, the Conference’s multilingual digital platform is online and supposed to enable all citizens to participate in the debate. On 17 June, a first “European Citizens’ Event” took place in Lisbon, and two days later the Plenary of the Conference met for the first time in Strasbourg. The actual substantive work will begin only in September with the “citizens’ panels”. But if we consider that the Conference is supposed to end in spring 2022, we are actually already in the middle of it. Therefore, we will do some stocktaking today – and look ahead to what awaits us in the upcoming months.

Let’s start with a quick picture of the political mood. For this quartet, we come together from three different European capitals: Berlin, Brussels, and Madrid. How is the debate on the Conference on the Future of Europe going in your countries?

Sophie
It’s summer break in Brussels – which means everyone is on holiday right now. Hopefully, discussions about the Conference will continue in September.

Julian
In Berlin, it doesn’t feel like a summer break right now (in fact, the school holidays are already over), but unfortunately the holidays and the Bundestag elections are not the only reasons for the lack of interest in the Conference. The usual suspects are and have been active also during summer. But beyond the Federalists, even the political establishment seems to take little notice of the Conference.

Strong response in Spain

Carmen
I was honestly surprised by the Spanish media response, both regionally and nationally, especially immediately before and after the launch on 9 May. There have also been reactions or events from national think tanks like Elcano Royal Institute or CIDOB, and recently a Summer School in the Basque Country.

In addition, efforts are being made to publicise the conference and its participatory approach. The Congreso de los Diputados (the Spanish lower house) even collects and publishes citizen-generated input on the Conference on the Future of Europe on its website. Spain is both interested and involved as an EU member state, wanting to continue to shape the European policy debate in the future.

Sophie
It’s interesting that there is such a lot of discussion about this in Spain. In the Brussels “EU Bubble”, the Conference has also been a big topic of course, although foreign policy issues and the rule of law were seen as higher priorities in recent months.

The Belgian government has taken a rather positive stance, and Belgians are more pro-European than the European average, but not much has been organised at the national level so far. The Belgian government also says it is open for “concrete proposals” regarding EU reforms, but so far it remains unclear what these might be. There haven’t been any citizens’ panels at the national level to discuss this either.

Julian
Carmen, are only EU policy experts involved? Or is there resonance in Spain beyond the usual suspects?

Carmen
That’s a good question. The Spanish representations of the European Parliament and the EU Commission are of course informing people about the Conference and inviting them to participate, and the involvement of think tanks and universities, especially with events in Spanish language to enable the greatest possible participation, is a good start. It will be interesting to see to what extent representatives of the 17 Autonomous Regions in Spain will take part, too. This is difficult to judge from the capital alone.

In any case, also Spain will have to shift up a gear to increase participation after the summer break. I hope that with the progress of the vaccination campaign and the return to in-person events, the debate will gain momentum and arouse interest beyond the “usual suspects”. Similar to what Sophie has said about Brussels, there are of course other European topics that overshadow the national debate. Above all, the recovery fund “Next Generation EU”, from which Spain could receive up to almost 20% (approx. 66 billion euros) and is the second main recipient after Italy.

1,813 events across Europe

Manuel
On the digital platform, users will find a map showing all decentralised events of the Conference on the Future of Europe. The map is not particularly well designed for a quick overview, but in fact it looks like Spain stands out a bit – along with the Benelux countries and, apparently, Budapest.

Julian
Yes, but the overlap with other EU or European topics also seems to explain, at least in part, the large number of events for Budapest. For example, there are also events about the V4 Presidency or about the “Hungarian Battery Day”, which is only marginally about Europe. Given the very low total number of events displayed on the map, two or three additional events already make a difference.

Manuel
So far, the platform has recorded a total of 1,813 decentralised events with a total of 38,375 participants. That sounds like a lot at first – but taking into account how many “Quo vadis, Europe?” events are organised by think tanks, EU institutions or educational institutions in any normal year, it’s not clear to me whether the Conference has made any significant difference here at all.

Sophie
All I’ve noticed so far about events on the platform is that Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has organised a conference on the “Christian values” of the EU. This also shows a dilemma of the EU with the Conference: It is venturing deliberative democracy in a political context that is not particularly EU-friendly.

What has the digital platform achieved so far?

Manuel
So let’s talk a bit about the platform itself: Four months after its launch, 22,763 participants have registered and posted 6,676 “ideas” (reform proposals) – an average of just over fifty per day. These ideas received 12,207 comments and 33,745 “endorsements” (likes).

Screenshot: 18 August 2021. For the current status, see here.

That’s more discussion than any one person could follow. But still, 22,763 participants is just 0.005 per cent of the EU population. We are obviously still a long way from the initial goal of broadly involving European citizens on the platform. What do you think the platform has achieved so far?

Carmen
There is definitely still room for improvement in terms of participation rates, but I tend to favour "quality over quantity". Basically, participation is open to everyone. If events like the citizens’ panels and the platform facilitate open debates and constructive proposals that actually find their way into the conference, they have fulfilled their purpose, haven’t they?

Sophie
The problem I see is whether the platform actually attracts citizens who don’t already have an affinity for political issues.

The “usual suspects”

Julian
I fully agree with you. Indeed, there are some good proposals on the platform. But wasn’t the idea of the platform to widen the scope of the debate and go beyond the “usual suspects”? So far, it is mainly the Federalists who have managed to market their ideas and proposals there.

In this sense, I almost welcome if Eurosceptic forces also get involved (though with that I don’t mean anti-democrats like Orbán). But the real added value would be to reach people who, unlike most of those currently active on the platform, have no other opportunity to participate. At the moment, I am rather sceptical about this and believe that the citizens’ panels are the better instrument.

Carmen
I agree with you regarding the participation of Federalists. In principle, I welcome the fact that European Federalists are so active and are networking across Europe to use the instrument of the Conference on the Future of Europe. In the past, we have seen similar tendencies, for example, with European Citizens’ Initiatives or consultations by the European Commission, where activists and interest groups have joined forces across Europe to bring their positions forward.

But of course, this takes us back to the problem of the “usual suspects” taking part and making their voices heard. And to be honest, we are ourselves part of that, too 😉

Manuel
It’s also my impression that the platform has so far mainly been used by Federalists – and by some civil society actors who are well organised at the European level, especially the European Trade Union Confederation.

On the other hand, media visibility has so far mainly been for the alliance of European right-wing parties that presented their view on the Conference on the Future of Europe in early July (and incidentally triggered speculation about a new large right-wing group in the European Parliament). This raises the question: Do federalists and nationalists use different channels for the Conference? Or do they use the Conference for different purposes?

What is the platform meant to achieve?

Sophie
Of course, the question of what the platform can achieve also depends on what will happen with the citizens’ reform proposals. They will certainly feed into the final report of the Conference, but whether they will be adopted by the EU Commission remains uncertain. The non-paper presented by twelve governments (including Austria and the Netherlands) in March shows that member states want to stick to the strategic priorities of the European Council. Many of the issues listed on the platform are already addressed in these anyway.

And if the Conference is meant to be about participation and reaching a large part of the 450 million citizens, then the EU should have invested much more in communication and in involving local partners – or it should have organised more citizens’ panels, which is difficult due to the overall short duration of the Conference.

Manuel
By the way, do you have any take-aways in terms of new ideas from the platform so far? It seems to me that many of the proposals discussed there – at least among the more popular ones – are actually well-known concepts. A few examples: The most popular proposals in the area of “democracy” are currently a European Federation and transnational lists. In economic policy it is the implementation of the European Pillar of Social Rights, in the area of “the EU in the world” it’s the European army. And for climate protection, it is a subsidy freeze for fossil fuels and the social cushioning of the ecological transition. For me, that’s all well and good, but it is certainly not new.

Sophie
The problem, as I see it, is not a lack of ideas, but the fact that most of them cannot be implemented politically with the current balance of power in the Council. Therefore, the platform’s objective of proposing reform ideas is unfortunately very limited. And if the aim is to make the debate inclusive, then the participation rates are not particularly promising either.

I think the EU should have better thought through what exactly it wants to achieve with the platform – and it also should have coordinated and cooperated much more with the member states and other local partners that reach out to citizens in each country.

Julian
This could be the unofficial motto of the whole conference: “The EU should have better thought through what exactly it wants to achieve with it.” 😋

“Habermas today”?

Carmen
What the platform has achieved, at least in my view, is an initial involvement of European citizens and the beginning of a transnational debate. For a genuine dialogue on the future of Europe and the discussion of proposals, whether constructive or destructive, the platform seems less suitable to me. To fill it with content, we also need local events and the citizens’ panels.

If we imagine the platform as a kind of “Habermas today”, that is, if we take the discussions and inclusive debates of the 18th century salons and coffee houses as our yardstick, we have not quite arrived there yet with the platform. Not only because of the participation rates, but also regarding the user-friendliness in the handling of the website, from presentation to language and translation, which still has quite some room for improvement.

Julian
Well, we’re getting close to 18th century coffee houses, even in this chat. As far as I am concerned, I’m drinking a La Pastora from Costa Rica while we are writing here … ☕️

But jokes aside, the salons of the Enlightenment were really elite forums. The current aim, after all, is to go beyond these groups and include the population at large. Historically, this has rarely been achieved, and it is unprecedented in the dimensions envisaged here. In a way, it is about replacing the mass integration function of political parties and trade unions with new forms of participation.

Sophie
That’s a very good point about the lack of “intermediary structures” that are needed to broaden such debates. Deliberative democracy needs platforms that reach many people. At EU level we don’t have those.

Carmen
Besides the platforms and neutral multipliers in the member states, popular identification figures from music, sports, social media etc. would certainly have been a way to draw attention to the Conference. But even that hardly exists.

Next step: citizens’ panels

Manuel
The next step of the Conference will be the launch of the citizens’ panels in autumn. Four forums are planned, each on a thematic block (“Values, rights, rule of law, democracy, security” – “Climate change, environment / health” – “Stronger economy, social justice, jobs / education, youth, culture, sport / digital transformation” – “EU in the world / migration”). They are to meet in three two-day sessions each between September 2021 and January 2022 and then formulate concrete recommendations. What do you expect from the panels?

Sophie
The citizens’ panels are a particularly exciting part and, in my view, the central element of the Conference. I am curious to see which methodology will be used: Which experts will be invited, how much time will the participants be given, how will the processes be structured? For such formats of citizen participation, the motto “The devil is in the detail” is particularly relevant.

Carmen
Absolutely! I have big hopes for the citizens’ panels, precisely because they involve a random selection of EU citizens that is as representative as possible. There have already been similar projects in the Member States in the past that served as inspiration: the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, the Convention pour le Climat in France.

Or Belgium, where the German-speaking Community has set up a permanent representation of randomly selected citizens in 2019, which exists alongside the parliament. This democratic experiment is unique in the world, and we are not yet that far at EU level. But the initiators of the Belgian citizens’ dialogue also inspired and advised the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Sophie
Yes, I agree the EU should capitalize on the various experiences from its member countries – but at a national level we do have the undeniable advantage that there is also a political public sphere that can bring on a public debate around these forums. This is more difficult at the EU level, but not impossible. The EU could also use the Conference on the Future of Europe to precisely strengthen this missing European public sphere.

Carmen
True. Above all, I see an opportunity of connecting the numerous segmented and scattered public spheres, which usually are very dependent on news cycles (European elections, Euro crisis, etc.). The Conference could bring them together beyond national or topical borders.

Will the results be taken seriously?

Sophie
However, it is also true that citizen participation can only be successful if citizens are taken seriously and the format is given political weight. So, I really hope that the EU institutions will take up the results of the citizens’ panels afterwards – otherwise it can quickly turn into “fake participation” and frustrate all those who have put their time and effort into it without the proposals leading to a result.

Julian
For the results to be taken seriously, the format of presentation is also crucial. What should the citizens’ panels produce? Their own final reports? A list of recommendations? (Or even a new draft treaty? 😉) I would say a coherent final report achieves the most impact, don’t you think?

But it will also be exciting to see whether the panel debates differ from those on the digital platform and at events where all interested people can participate. That gets us to a fundamental question of participatory democracy: Which contribution to the debate has which legitimacy, how is it to be weighted?

Manuel
In any case, according to the Rules of Procedure of the Conference, the panels are supposed to come up with “concrete recommendations”, whatever that means. Weighing these recommendations against the ideas on the platform and the results of the decentralised events will then be the task of the Plenary, which is to submit proposals to the Executive Board of the Conference next spring. And the Executive Board then has the task to formulate a final report for the EU institutions based on these proposals. So, the road from the citizens’ panels to political implementation is quite a long one.

Julian
Concrete recommendations, yes, but what should they look like? I would consider all three of the possibilities mentioned before to be compatible with the Rules of Procedure.

Moving from listening to action

Sophie
I think the experiences at the national level also give some good examples of what can go wrong when the “political system” doesn’t take citizens’ participation seriously: In France, Emmanuel Macron was heavily criticised for taking up too few of the recommendations of the Convention pour le Climat. The EU should avoid exposing itself to this criticism, too.

Carmen
That’s a risk, of course. At EU level, we already had the Citizens’ Dialogues, which were initiated on a large scale by the Commission and took place with the support of many Commissioners in European cities. At that time, there were also many questions about the follow-up to the dialogues, which was largely absent or hardly comprehensible for citizens. By now, we should already have left the “listening” stage; the EU – and especially the Council – must move on to “action”. In any case, it won’t be possible to just appeal to the trust of European citizens forever, otherwise I fear a certain participation fatigue.

At least, there was an interesting result at the opening event of the Conference on 9 May: the President of the Parliament, David Sassoli, expressly emphasised that there mustn’t be any taboos, including treaty changes. This had not been explicitly mentioned in the joint declaration of the three institutions at the time.

Julian
Yes, this is the classic sticking point that we always have with citizen participation: responsiveness! I see three big problems:

  1. Even though this is often expected by the participating citizens, responsiveness does not always mean a 1:1 implementation of all proposals. Rather, it only means the right to a detailed explanation of why a proposal is not implemented. Still, experience shows that the EU is extremely bad even at this.
  2. When the EU does implement proposals, it usually happens years later and is no longer perceived as the result of citizen participation. Here, the EU often gives away the opportunity of scoring easy goals.
  3. The Council has clearly shown that it is not interested in major reforms. Once the Conference is over, it will therefore be up to the European Parliament to exert pressure so that the results are really implemented.

A typical product of EU politics

Manuel
This brings us full circle to our European Policy Quartet in March, where we talked about the chances of success of the Conference. Last question for today: Have you become more optimistic or more pessimistic since then?

Sophie
Basically, I didn’t set my expectations too high, so I remain at the same, relatively pessimistic level as in March. But I am looking forward to the citizens’ panels in autumn and how they will be conducted, and to the compilation of the results by May 2022.

What seems crucial is to me is that we monitor the Conference on the Future of Europe well and draw conclusions from it for the future. It will certainly not have been the last opportunity for deliberative democracy at EU level.

Carmen
I am more optimistic today! The experiment has finally started, and even if there are still some problems and the timetable gives me a little stomach-ache in view of the high expectations and the current Slovenian and the following French Council Presidencies, I am looking forward to this autumn with hope.

The start of the citizens’ panels, the federal election campaign in Germany (in which, I hope, the EU will often be part of the debate), the rising vaccination rates and thus the chance for in-person events, and the ongoing politicisation of our societies – not least due to the numerous international crises in recent weeks – make me feel positive. I also have high hopes for the European Parliament and MEPs to popularise the debate further and to build up pressure, especially towards the Council.

Julian
I have the impression that the Conference on the Future of Europe is a typical project of EU politics: neither a glaring failure nor a big breakthrough. It brings:

  • many ideas and approaches, which however should have been better implemented,
  • a great deal of commitment to involving citizens, which however does not really bear fruit,
  • and many good proposals, only a few of which however will be implemented in the near future.



Carmen Descamps is a Non-Resident Research Fellow at the European Liberal Forum in Madrid.



Sophie Pornschlegel is a Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels.

Manuel Müller is a Senior Researcher at Institut für Europäische Politik in Berlin and runs the blog „Der (europäische) Föderalist“.

Images: Balcony with flag: Manuel Müller [all rights reserved]; portrait Carmen Descamps: © Life Studio [all rights reserved]; portraits Julian Plottka, Sophie Pornschlegel, Manuel Müller: private [all rights reserved].
Translation from German: Carmen Descamps, Manuel Müller.

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