The coronavirus is set to go down in Europe’s history as a major catalyst for more—and a different kind of—integration. By dramatically highlighting the costs of uncoordinated responses to the spread of the virus and its many consequences, the pandemic has unveiled—more than any crisis before—some of the major flaws of Europe’s incomplete union.
The EU seems to have promptly addressed some of these flaws. After slow and piecemeal initial responses to the health crisis, the EU may be rapidly moving toward the creation of a European Health Union, which would entail the transfer of national powers to the union. When it comes to the coronavirus-induced financial crisis, the EU has responded with a major recovery plan, which would quadruple the union’s annual budget and finance it through new EU taxes, such a digital tax, a tax on plastic, or even a tax on access to the EU’s single market. These are taboo-breaking developments.
Yet, behind the health and financial crises caused by the coronavirus lies a deeper and overlooked democratic emergency, which predates the pandemic. As the EU’s political influence over citizens’ lives has grown significantly, their expectations for influencing EU policy have also expanded. However, this demand remains largely unmatched by reality.
The coronavirus has further exposed this mismatch between the EU’s impact on citizens’ lives and their ability to shape EU action. Sharing the dramatic experience of being confined to their homes, millions of Europeans have been directly affected by the lack of coordination and solidarity among EU member states in response to the pandemic. The patchwork of uncoordinated national measures has already cost lives, and it has certainly damaged livelihoods.
In part to address the EU’s long-standing democratic problem, in June 2019 the then president-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced a Conference on the Future of Europe. The two-year conference was supposed to be launched on May 9, 2020, but has been postponed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not the coronavirus that prevented its kickoff but the absence of a common agreement among the European Commission, the Council of the EU, and the European Parliament about the conference’s aims, scope, and methodology. But if the coronavirus is a compounding factor behind the delay, it also provides a major opportunity to rethink whether and how this conference may be a catalyst to reimagine the relationship between citizens and the union.
Although reminiscent of the ill-fated 2003 Convention on the Future of Europe, which drafted an EU constitution that was never ratified, the new conference does not aim directly to prepare treaty changes. Rather, it is meant to be a preparatory process that could lead the European Council to initiate those changes. Crucially, however, this time the conference is supposed to be a more bottom-up exercise where European citizens are listened to and their voices contribute to the debates on the future of Europe.
The aims of the conference continue to increase—and are highly contingent on the latest political developments. The initial goal was to adopt a new EU electoral system to redefine the way the union’s top leaders are appointed. An additional aim was to use citizens’ assemblies to deliberate on a set of predefined policy areas, from the climate crisis to the digital revolution. In a post-coronavirus Europe, it would be no surprise if a new major mission for the conference were the creation of a European Health Union—something that several European commissioners and members of the European Parliament have called for.
When it comes to the conference’s methodology in ensuring citizens’ involvement, two major proposals have been put forward. The European Parliament’s blueprint foresees citizens’ agoras, made up of between 200 and 300 randomly selected, demographically representative participants, who will meet across the EU to discuss policy issues defined by the union. These citizens will have no agenda-setting power, and their opinions will not bind the conference’s plenary, which will be composed predominantly of members of the European Parliament and of other EU institutions. The European Commission’s proposal is less detailed and refers instead to largely undefined “well-established citizens’ dialogues.”
However, the new commission president promised the conference without first securing the support of the member states. Only a few member states have committed to getting the conference off the ground. Moreover, the initiative risks monopolizing the conversation about democratic reform. Indeed, the mere prospect of such an initiative has had the effect of slowing down, not accelerating, democratic renewal across Europe.
Still, the conference seems more necessary than ever before. To break the EU’s impasse of democratic reform, numerous civil society groups have proved more vocal and united than usual in asking to be directly involved in co-designing and co-organizing this democratic exercise. This is in stark contrast to the approach of mainstream NGOs, which remain more interested in gaining a seat at the table than in redesigning the table.
As the antagonistic nature of some civil society initiatives has highlighted, postponing the conference provides a unique opportunity to rethink the initiative entirely. It is time for the EU institutions to go back to the drawing board and come up with a more meaningful, sophisticated format that captures the unprecedented vivacity and readiness of EU civil society to engage with the union. What better way to do this than by outsourcing the exercise to civil society itself?
The conditions under which any form of citizens’ deliberative assembly is to be designed today are exceptional. This endeavour should combine the random selection of participants from across the union, multilingualism, and online connections. Despite some experience of each of these forms of deliberation, the EU has yet to invent a model that can effectively combine all of these features at once. Yet, this is the level of ambition required for this initiative. Time for Europe to get to work!
Extract from CARNEGIE. Full entry out soon.
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