20 Juni 2022

The Conference on the Future of Europe: Was it worth it?

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: Héctor Sánchez Margalef.
A participant takes notes during a session of the Conference on the Future of Europe in the plenary hall of the European Parliament
“If maintaining the process of the Conference is just façade to give the Union a democratic tinge, the Conference will have been a failure.”

As the European Union loves symbolism, the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) had to finish on the 9th of May of 2022, the Day of Europe. That is exactly one year after it had officially started, and after bringing together citizens from all over Europe face-to-face and online in different panels that produced 49 proposals. What it did not produce was all the enthusiasm among the European citizens that its promoters had wished for. The other uncertainty that remains to uncover is the legacy of the Conference, whether and what kind of follow-up it will have. Then, it is necessary to ask: was it all worth it?

There could be three possible ways of assessing the worthiness of the Conference on the Future of Europe: (1) the number of citizens it mobilized, thus the legitimization gained through the process; (2) the quality of the proposals produced by the Conference that found their way to the final report, thus the legitimization gained through the policy proposals; and (3) the follow-up process of the Conference and its capacity (a) to evolve towards a process of permanent citizen consultation continuing the experimentation of deliberative democracy and/or (b) to implement the policy ideas of the final report and/or (c) to kick-start a Convention that results in Treaty change.

Citizens engaging with Europe?

The Conference was an effort of the European institutions to engage with citizens, listening at them and making them partake in the decision-making and priority-setting processes. It was therefore only normal that elected representatives also took part in the process. Thus, 108 MEPs, 108 national Members of Parliament sit in the plenary of the Conference, the body in charge of drafting the final report. Moreover, there were 105 representatives of other institutions (Council of the EU 54, Commission 3, European Economic and Social Committee 18, Committee of the Regions 18, and local and regional representatives 12). That makes up to 321 participants who were not just ordinary citizens, but had other affiliations to answer to such as their party or organization they represented.

Randomly selected citizens made up, in the plenary, for 108 people. Then, there were 8 representatives from social partners and 8 from organized civil society. This means that only 25% of the plenary, where decisions on the final report were adopted, were actually ordinary citizens.

Citizens’ representatives

The Conference also held four European Citizens’ Panels across Europe and online, working on four different ranges of topics. Each panel consisted of 200 randomly selected citizens respecting all the necessary factors to made them as diverse and as representative as the European Union is. And importantly, one third of the citizens were between 16 and 25 years old.

Moreover, member states were supposed to hold events that could relate to the Conference, supported by regional and local administrations. Out of the 108 citizens participating in the plenary, 80 were from the four citizens’ panels, and there was one appointed citizen per member state (27) that had participated in the national events, plus the President of the European Youth Forum.

Less than one percent participated

The plenary and the citizens’ panels’ discussions fed from the proposals and debates happening in the Multilingual Digital Platform. The platform was a tool designed to enhance participation, as citizens not randomly selected would be able to participate in the Conference contributing with their own ideas or supporting other’s (unless they did not have internet access or the digital skills to navigate through it, but this is another topic). Moreover, it could be used to announce decentralised (local) events related to the Conference.

However, the official numbers account for less than 54,000 participants who signed up in the platform and 721,500 who took part in decentralised events. According to Eurostat the EU has around 447 million people – so this means that not even 1% of the population participated in the Conference. All in all, it seems a too low percentage to claim that the Conference has been able to mobilize citizens to debate about the future of Europe.

Therefore, legitimization through the process seems complicated to defend, not only because of the rather low number of participants, but because of the lack of awareness among the population of the existence of such possibility; or what could be worse: their lack of interest in participating. However, it is true that the Multilingual Digital Platform is a great tool through which citizens could continue to engage with decision-makers and through which the legacy of the CoFoE can live on. Moreover, the effort to make it available in every EU official language paid off for those who used the platform overcoming the language barrier.

More time could have led to more participation

Could this low participation have been avoided? Not all of it. But the participation could have been higher if the institutions and member states had allowed more time to themselves to promote the Conference and hold more citizens’ dialogues (European and national ones). The first plenary could have been the place where to address some of the shortcomings detected early in the process but the haste to get it done overlooked any possible improvement during the process.

The participation of citizens has been praised; and considering that it was the first time that an exercise of such magnitude has been attempted, there could be some satisfaction. However, purely looking at the numbers, it is impossible to say that the Conference has been a success. But it has not been a failure either. If the process like this is going to be permanent, this is a good starting point. Then, can the policy proposals the citizens came up with make up for the lack of participants?

Policy proposals: a game changer or just food for thought?

The report adopted by the plenary of the CoFoE responds to nine challenges: climate change and the environment; health; economy; the EU in the world; values and rights, rule of law, security; digital transformation; European democracy; migration; and education, culture, youth and sport. To tackle these challenges, there are 49 proposals with concrete measures on how to achieve the outlined objectives.

How did the proposals come up? The final report was approved by consensus in the last plenary session and presented to the executive board of the Conference. Those proposals were fruit of the citizens’ work but they could only be adopted by consensus among the institutions represented in the plenary. The proposals from the European Citizens’ Panels, the Multilingual Digital Platform and from seven national citizens panels (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, and the Netherlands) were included in the report. This means that some member states that hosted national citizens’ panels during the Conference but did not abide by its rules of procedure were not considered, but it also shows that not all member states gave the Conference the same importance.

Institutions tried to prevent radical demands

Regarding the proposals, the role of experts and the organizing staff must also be considered. Experts were underutilized during the Conference – because the organization wanted it to be a truly citizen-led exercise, but also because they were afraid experts would capture the debates, put forward their own agenda and make citizens come up with proposals that would be inadmissible by the plenary.

When experts would be used to inform citizens, the time frame was pressing and citizens did not have time to properly reflect on what they were being told in order to change their minds or coming up with better proposals. Moreover, organizing staff would press to reach a consensus so proposals could be elevated to the plenary. This put pressure on citizens who either refrained from discussion and came to an agreement or risked seeing the process derail.

Institutions wanted to pilot the process from the very beginning even if it was to do damage control. They could not risk radical demands that would prevent to follow up (although follow-up was not guaranteed anyway). This was seen since the very beginning when the whole process and the topics to be discussed in the digital platform and the European Citizens’ Panels were decided without the citizens.

The meaning of the Conference will depend on its follow-up

Still, the proposals resulting from the Conference turned out ambitious. For example in the section “Climate change and the environment”, the objective of Proposal 3 is to “Enhance European energy security, and achieve the EU’s energy independence while ensuring a just transition, and providing Europeans with sufficient, affordable and sustainable energy. (…)”. The measure number 2 to achieve this objective says to “consider within energy policies the geopolitical and security implications, including human rights, ecological aspect and good governance and rule of law, of all third country energy suppliers”. One of the measures of Proposal 38 calls for giving the European Parliament a right of legislative initiative. In that regard, some proposals require treaty changes but others do not and could be implemented with political will.

So, are the policy proposals a game changer or are they going to be just food for thought? It will depend on what comes next and in what is going to evolve from the Conference. However, the process will always save the proposals; this is the narrative that has been put forward to sell the Conference as worth it no matter what. If recommendations cannot be applied or they get stalled because there is no agreement between institutions and/or member states on how to proceed, the fact that for the first time the European institutions made an effort to listen its citizens will be sold as enough success. Nevertheless, if policy proposals are followed up, then the Conference will have been a success in order to achieve legitimization by the policy proposals, regardless of their quality.

What is next?

There are at least, three possibilities open to follow-up on the Conference on the Future of Europe that are not mutually exclusive:

● The first option, and the least desirable one, is to continue business as usual. In that scenario, the report from the Conference will be looked at and disregarded because the EU has more important matters to attend to. This option is dangerous because citizens, participants in the Conference or not, could feel that their voice does not count. Considering the growing distance that represented feel from the representatives, this is something that the EU just cannot allow to happen.

● The second option is to acknowledge the benefits of the process followed during the Conference and make them permanent, as the use of deliberative procedures for democratic systems is evident. Opting for this scenario means at least two things. The first, the institutions need to consider what went well and what went wrong in order to correct it. In that regard, it is obvious that the agenda setting should have involved citizens since the very beginning, more transnational dialogues would have been better to involve more citizens, and a longer time frame to truly unfold the potential of a deliberative process would have been desirable.

The second is to come up with a reason for making this process permanent so citizens can see that their contributions and participation in similar exercises matter and end up in something tangible. Even if a permanent process is meant only to listen at citizens to seek potential innovative solutions or just for an advisory role, this needs to be stated.

Reform options

● The third possibility is to, indeed, reform; and here there are two options. One could be to apply only specific policy recommendations that appear in the final report and which do not touch upon institutional reforms. It is argued by some in Brussels that, as the EU is not a direct democracy system, the Parliament and the European Council have the ultimate word on what the follow-up of the Conference will be. According to this position, 95% of the policies outlined in the final document can be carried on without treaty change.

What these voices argue is that the challenges the EU is facing can be met with political will, and that it is naïve to think that institutional changes will lead automatically to solutions. Praising the CoFoE as a promising experiment in terms of process sums up this position. According to this argument, the EU should further develop the association of citizens in the debate on major policy challenges as the process should allow to look at choices and means and longer-term effects.

Opening the treaties?

The other option to reform implicates a serious political decision because it means opening the treaties. The Parliament is clearly in favour of starting a Convention and has already formally demanded to trigger article 48 TEU. Some member states back this position believing that this will mean a political impulse for the EU. But there are also some member states that have already ruled out the option of treaty reform.

How to follow-up is a battle between institutions as well. The European Parliament has been the institution closest to the citizens during the whole Conference and its bet is that they have a lot to gain if treaties are reformed, especially if it gets the power of legislative initiative. However, this would weaken the role of the Commission and undermine the balance between Parliament and Council, the two branches of the co-decision authority.

Lessons for the future

What cannot be denied of the Conference of the Future of Europe is its ambition. For the first time, the Union embarked in a democratic transnational experiment to make the citizens participate in the present and future of the Union beyond elections. There could have been more citizens involved if more time had been given. Policy proposals could have been better, more concrete and tailored if the processes had been different. In this regard, the Conference will be read as a success if lessons are learnt for the future. If not, the Conference will have been a failure.

On the transformative power of the Conference, only time will tell. Maintaining the process of the Conference and its multilingual digital platform as a fundamental part of the democratic life of the Union will be a success if it has a clear purpose stated. If this is just façade to give the Union a democratic tinge in the eyes of its citizens, the Conference will have been a failure.

A bargain on treaty reform seems possible

On treaty reform, Western member states seem to be more eager to open the treaties and start a Convention. Eastern member states are more reluctant, and the temptation to regain competences from the EU looms over the whole treaty reform.

With this scenario, it is not unreasonable to think that a bargain can be struck – such as opening the treaties in exchange of facilitating a sort of Ukrainian membership or speeding up the process. However, any movement in this direction that attempts against the democratic credentials and rule of law of the Union will make the Conference a failure.

How the Conference can still have been a success

Finally, it is just natural to wonder why a Convention must take place? Reform and opening the treaties just for the sake of it will consume too much political capital and the outcome is uncertain. There is no need for treaty reform to show ambition and faith in the European project, but political will to compromise and to act on the flaws of the Union. If treaty change is just a symbolic token and there is no clear and united vision on where the Union should go and what it should become, it is better to leave it as it is.

If, on the other hand, the member states who have expressed their willingness to change the treaties to give a new impulse to the EU are willing to pick up the recommendations of its citizens, then let us re-open the treaties, involve the citizens in a potential Convention and transform the European Union. Then, the Conference on the Future of Europe will have been, truly, a success.

Portrait Héctor Sánchez Margalef

Héctor Sánchez Margalef is a researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB).

Pictures: CoFoE plenary session: EPP Group [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr; portrait Héctor Sánchez Margalef: all rights reserved.

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