17 Mai 2022

The Conference on the Future of Europe: a catalyst for change?

What remains of the Conference on the Future of Europe? Has it set a new model of citizen participation in Europe? Should it lead to a European Convention and treaty reform? And what lessons can be learned from its shortcomings?

In this article series, experts from academia, think tanks and civil society look back at the results and forward to the follow-up of the Conference. Today: Dominik Hierlemann and Malte Zabel.
Plenary Meeting of the Conference on the Future of Europe in the European Parliament
“Changing the way European citizens can participate in EU politics is a clear and tangible output of the Conference.”

Dancing in the plenary, young musicians playing Beethoven and solemn speeches – the Conference on the Future of Europeended on 9 May in the European Parliament in Strasbourg with pathos in all its forms. European citizens presented 49 proposals with more than 300 individual measures to the leaders of European politics. More environmental and climate protection, a social and digital Europe, but also new forms of citizen participation and institutional changes can be found in the package of proposals. Will the Conference, long ignored by the media and political observers, become a catalyst for change?

Institutional wrangling

The beginning did not look very promising from the stands. Although the Conference was announced as the EU’s biggest reflection process for a decade, the initial impression was that the whole undertaking was not so much about how to improve EU democracy and shape the EU’s future but rather about institutional wrangling.

Representing very different expectations and interests about the Conference, the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament all sought to make sure that their stakes would not be circumvented. In the end, this led to a rather complex and somewhat counter-intuitive institutional set-up with an Executive Board and a Joint Presidency, triggering scepticism right at the beginning.

The criticism prevailed throughout the Conference – limited visibility, low degree of digital participation, complex procedures and uncertainty about the CoFoE’s ability to produce tangible political results. After all, the Conference has been the biggest exercise in citizens’ participation in the EU ever. Its purpose was to involve citizens in an unprecedented way and to lead to concrete policy changes and reforms in the EU. So did it deliver?

The EU riding the “deliberative wave”

A “deliberative wave”, as the OECD succinctly states, has been growing recently in many countries around the world. With the Conference on the Future of Europe the EU has not only tried to catch the wave, but to apply it to a multilingual, complex political environment.

The CoFoE is by far the most comprehensive case of citizens’ participation the EU has ever undertaken. Three instruments were key: 1) a Multilingual Digital Platform (MDP) where all Europeans had the opportunity to share ideas for the future of the EU; 2) decentralized national citizens’ panels; and 3) European Citizens’ Panels (ECPs).

A digital platform, national and European citizens’ panels

The idea was that MDP, the national panels and the ECPs produce contributions and recommendations for the Conference Plenary. This plenary was equally composed of representatives from the European Parliament, national parliaments and European citizens (plus some representatives from the Council, the Commission, the Committee of the Regions, the Economic and Social Committee, the social partners, civil society and the Presidency of the European Youth Forum).

The Conference Plenary’s job has been to discuss the recommendations developed by MDP, national panels and the ECPs and to transform them into concrete proposals. At the end of the Conference, these proposals were handed over to the Executive Board, which drew-up and published the conclusions of the Conference Plenary and presented the final outcome of the Conference in a report to the Joint Presidency and its three institutions.

The participatory tools show a mixed picture

When we evaluate the impact of the three different participatory tools, we find a mixed picture. The MDP, which was supposed to work as a digital hub with numerous Europeans feeding in their ideas, has not been able to fulfil its aspired function. Although an innovative tool, just some 53,000 Europeans contributed within the one year of its existence. This is a number way too small to name the platform a success.

The national events have been very heterogeneous in nature as it was left to the member states how to organize them. Notwithstanding that some of these panels indeed witnessed enthusiasm and great commitment, the lack of common rules of procedure led to deliberations that varied highly in quality and quantity.

The European Citizens’ Panels were a success

Finally, the most promising instrument of the CoFoE have been the European Citizens’ Panels as a genuinely European key element of the Conference’s participatory architecture. 800 randomly selected citizens from all member states met over three weekends and discussed a broad range of policy challenges and priorities for the EU in four thematic citizen panels.

The ECPs were far from perfect. The broad topics, a lack of time, ambiguities about their intended purpose as well as a weak interlinkage with the national panels were clear hindrances. But the citizens’ panels delivered concrete results and can be considered as a success. The random selection of citizens across all member states made sure that the EU’s social diversity was represented in the ECPs’ debates. The logistics and the organization, quite a mammoth task, have been rather smooth. Particularly, the simultaneous interpretation in all 24 official EU languages proved to be a trailblazer for eye-level discussions and worked without much hassle.

Furthermore, the overall mood of the participants has been overwhelmingly positive. The citizens engaged appreciated the opportunity to voice their opinions and ideas, as well as to hear from others. This, together with the provided expert inputs and a professional moderation, turned out to be a crucial precondition for the ECPs’ ability to develop remarkably concrete recommendations for EU action at the end of the third session of all four panels.

New forms of citizens’ participation at the European level

Will the CoFoE lead to real political change? It is still early days, the process of feeding the results of the CoFoE into the realms of European policy making is just about to start. However, the solemn event on 9 May, when the 49 proposals were handed over, is a first indication of what to expect.

We see three areas of influence: First, new forms of citizens’ participation have reached the European level. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged “that in future we give citizens’ panels the time and resources to make recommendations before we present key legislative proposals.” Changing the way European citizens can participate in EU politics is a clear and tangible output of the Conference.

49 proposals leading towards a more federal Europe

Second, what influence does the Conference have on EU policies? The plenary of the Conference has transformed the manifold ideas of citizens and other stakeholders into a comprehensive catalogue of 49 proposals clustered around the 9 thematic themes of the ECPs. Each proposal consists of 2 to 21 recommended policy measures, summing up to some 300 suggestions of how to improve the EU’s future. The spirit of the measures clearly implies a deepening of European integration leading into the direction of a more federal Europe.

For example, among the proposed measures are the replacement of unanimity with qualified majority voting in the Common Foreign and Security Policy as well as in social, fiscal and budgetary matters, an expansion of the EU’s competencies in social policies, a right of legislative initiative for the European Parliament, the demand to make health a shared competence and a pitch to finance European investments through new own resources based on common EU borrowing. Ursula von der Leyen will respond to these ideas in her next State of the Union address in detail and outline how the Commission will follow up with concrete measures.

A new Convention debate

Third, the Conference has triggered a new debate about treaty change and a Convention. Some of the citizens’ boldest proposals would require treaty changes. Not surprisingly, the European Parliament was happy to take up the ball. It is the first of the European institutions to also call for a Convention. In a sense, this is a logical step.

Given the far-reaching nature and the federalist spirit of the proposals, the only way of implementing them altogether would be a treaty change based on a constitutional Convention. French President Emmanuel Macron is also in favour, but at the same time, right before the closing event of the Conference, 13 member states have already voiced their opposition – as history shows, it is a long, bumpy and risky road to treaty changes. But: the question on how to reform EU institutions to make them fit for purpose is back on the table.

There is magic in the Conference’s ending

“There is magic in every beginning”, as the German poet Herman Hesse once wrote. In fact, the Conference has been an accelerator of the debate on new forms of citizen participation in the EU. Citizens experienced direct involvement in eminent debates, Europeans from different parts of the continent came together. However, for most of the time the Conference operated in the shadows. Unnoticed and conceived as yet another EU bureaucratic exercise.

Now that it has ended, it seems like there could be magic in its ending. It has rejuvenated the debate on the EU’s democratic future and its need to adapt its institutional set-up. The policy focus of the EU institutions need to be complemented with a revived focus on the European project itself. In this sense, the Conference delivered.

Portrait Dominik Hierlemann

Dominik Hierlemann is a Senior Expert on citizen participation and European democracy at the Bertelsmann Stiftung. He has been responsible for several pioneering citizen participation projects and co-authored the recently published book “Under Construction: Citizen Participation in the European Union”.

Portrait Malte Zabel

Malte Zabel is Co-Director of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Programme, which pursues projects on the EU’s sovereignty, a coherent internal market, and European public opinion. Before joining the Europe team in mid-2021, Malte headed the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Office of the Executive and Supervisory Boards and worked as Advisor to its CEO.

This article was first published on the blog “New Perspectives on Global and European Dynamics”.

Parts of the text are based on the paper “Conference on the Future of Europe: What worked, what now, what next?” which has been published as part of the work of the Conference on the Future of Europe Observatory. The Conference Observatory is a joint initiative by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the European Policy Centre, the King Baudouin Foundation and Stiftung Mercator.

Pictures: CoFoE Plenary Meeting: EPP Group, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr; Portraits Dominik Hierlemann, Malte Zabel: all rights reserved.

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