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Letter to EU Presidents to include Civil Society at the Conference on the Future of Europe

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For the Conference to succeed, the three most powerful EU institutions should lead by example, by stepping back and carving out a meaningful and effective role for citizens’ input.

Dear President of the European Parliament, President of the European Council,  and President of the European Commission,

 

We are local, national and pan-European civil society organisations and citizens committed to a successful realization of the forthcoming Conference on the Future of Europe. We would like to express our concern about the exclusion of organized civil society from the work of the conference.

 

There’s a tangible risk that by raising expectations it can’t easily deliver on, the Conference may erode citizens’ trust at a time when the demand for public engagement is at record highs across the continent. Europe and your political leadership can hardly afford that.

 

Due to its top-down approach, the proposed blueprint of the Conference defies its own purpose: to be “a bottom-up exercise where European citizens are listened to and their voices contribute to the debates on the future of Europe”.

 

Here’s why.

 

First, neither the blueprint put forward by the Parliament nor that proposed by the Commission foresee the participation of civil society organizations with the only exception of the European trade unions and the employers’ BusinessEurope. Yet, without unleashing the mobilizing potential of European civil society the Conference will never be owned and felt by citizens. This goes quite against the positive experience of involving civil society organisations in promoting turnout in the European elections: if the European institutions think that civil society will be happy only to act as promoter of a Conference they have no say in, the institutions risk an unpleasant surprise.

 

Second, the only participatory dimension of the Conference comes from six citizens’ assemblies – called ‘agoras’ in the Parliament’s proposal – which will deliberate on a set of predefined policy areas, from the climate crisis the digital revolution to the redrafting of EU electoral law. It remains unclear how the agoras – which have been downgraded to citizen’s dialogues in the Commission’s blueprint – will actually be run and moderated, and, more importantly, how their conclusions will feed into the work and final conclusions of the Conference. Furthermore, it is not clear how feedback between decision-makers and citizens participating in the assemblies actually takes place, and how disagreements are resolved. Moreover, in this approach citizens are not involved in agenda setting

 

Third, the methodological vagueness and improvisation characterizing the first blueprints of the Conference contrast with the countless and well-established democratic innovations already taking shape across the continent, from the Irish citizens’ Constitutional Convention, which reviewed the constitution, to the Ostbelgien Citizens’ Council in the German-speaking community in Eastern Belgium – a permanent mechanism and the first of its kind, letting randomly chosen ordinary citizens take part  in developing recommendations for the local parliament with parliamentarians. Even the EU’s own democratic innovation in the form of Citizens’ Initiatives is not included in the blueprint.

 

Fourth, there is a thriving literature on the state of European democracy and some of its possible fixes. Yet the current proposals for – and debate surrounding – the Conference seem to blissfully neglect such a wealth of analysis. No democratic construction will succeed in the absence of an architecture informed and designed by its best constitutional architects and experienced carpenters. 

 

Fifth, the ultimate success of the Conference will be defined by its durability. Europe needs to devise an effective mechanism capable of capturing the most relevant and promising proposals coming from the citizens and turn it into a permanent method feeding the day-to-day EU decision-making. Citizens participation needs institutionalization, not on-off or ad hoc processes.

 

Time has come to invest into our own European democracy, far from the day-to-day political bickering and in close cooperation with those citizens who invest their lives, as activists and advocates, in our common future

 

Europe, and your fresh yet already contested political leadership, can hardly afford to be associated with an initiative that might soon be perceived as top-down, unauthentic, outdated and out-of-touch with EU citizens’ daily lives.

 

For the Conference to succeed, the three most powerful EU institutions should lead by example, by stepping back and carving out a meaningful and effective role for citizens’ input within the forthcoming Conference so as to be able to constantly co-create the future the EU deserves. Specifically, following from the deficiencies of the current models discussed, our concrete recommendations would be:

 

  • Give civil society a leading role in the Conference, by giving it a voting seat at the plenary table, alongside the social partners.
  • Ensure that the process is built in such a way that real deliberation can take place between citizens, and between citizens and elected decision makers and governments: this means enabling citizens to set the agenda on equal terms with governments (as it is the case within the Open Government Partnership), and allowing contradictory debate and compromise to take place over the course of the democratic exercise.
  • Give young people a decisive role in the Conference, by empowering them in the plenary, and ensuring young people are in the Presidium or in other governing bodies of the Conference itself.
  • Take the time to involve the practitioners, academics and specialists in civil society participation in the design and running of the Conference.

 

Finally, at the outset of the exercise, the institutions should make sure that this is a decisive and long-term evolution in the way European democracy works, and not a one-off exercise.