Bruxelles – Seven months ago the Conference on the Future of Europe was launched, a space for open dialogue between institutions, civil society and citizens on what reforms are most urgently needed for the Europe of tomorrow. December was supposed to represent a decisive turning point, with the confrontation between citizens and institutions on the first recommendations for a reform of the EU.
The resurgence of the pandemic forced Brussels to skip the plenary scheduled for December 17-18, postponing the confrontation to January. “The pandemic has taught us that we have to be flexible and adapt as we go along”, stresses Vice President for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica, who is responsible for the European Commission for organizing the Conference. In an interview with Eunews on the expectations and objectives of this unprecedented example of deliberative democracy, now halfway through, she does not exclude that if today it is an extraordinary exercise for the European Union, it may soon become structural and permanent. It is essential “to follow up on citizens’ recommendations, to avoid people being disappointed” by the EU.
Eunews: Could you comment on the first months of the Conference’s debate and the way it was organized: was this what the European Commission expected when it started talking about a conference to discuss the future of Europe?
Šuica: The Conference on the Future of Europe is a unique project of deliberative democracy at the European level. It is a pan-European initiative to give citizens a greater say in shaping our future policies and ambitions. It allows to bring the EU and European issues closer to them, and, in turn, bring the citizens’ ideas and reflections directly into EU policymaking. This has never been done before at this scale. We invite citizens from all corners of the EU to bring in their ideas, views and proposals on the future of Europe, and to exchange with others in their own language on the multilingual digital platform. I think we can say that expectations are being exceeded, not because of the process that we have initiated, but because of the commitment, the dedication and the quality of contributions by our citizens, in particular during the European Citizens Panels.
E.: According to the initial schedule, CoFoE is expected to reach conclusions on the future of the EU in spring 2022, under the French presidency. COVID (but not only) has slowed down the start of the process limiting the exercise to one year instead of two and risks slowing down the work as well. Did you anticipate a slowdown due to COVID? Do you think the deadlines will be met?
Š.: If the COVID-pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we need to be flexible and adapt as we go along. This is what we have been doing. The health of the citizens and of all Conference participants remains our number one priority. The epidemiological context is still worrying, but the process continues to advance, our citizens are demonstrating admirable and inspiring energy and commitment.We have now entered the decisive phase of the conference, where concrete recommendations are flowing in and citizens will start discussing them with elected representatives at all levels in the Conference Plenaries, starting from the upcoming session in Strasbourg on 21 and 22 January, if of course the circumstances allow.
E.: In mid-April the digital platform was activated so that citizens of the 27 EU member states can express their opinions and propose reforms on the issues they want. Contributions to the platform still remain low (from April to early November 29,012 contributions were registered on the platform). What is your opinion on the digital platform’s potential? Can it be used to empower citizens further?
Š.: On the multilingual digital platform, citizens can exchange ideas, views and proposals as well as announce events taking place across all the Member States. Everyone can engage in the debate. The digital platform is available in all official EU languages and contributions are machine translated in real time as to stimulate transnational discussions. Raising awareness about the multilingual digital platform was indeed a challenge but momentum is picking up. Over 4 million people have visited the digital platform. Over 40,000 citizens chose to contribute online and more than 330,000 have actively participated in the Conference through various grassroots events. In total more than 12,000 new ideas have already been shared and are being debated cross the European Union. Discussions and topics are not pre-determined, neither limited. It is an open, free process in which citizens are at the centre. They can raise any issue that matters to them. The Conference Plenary discusses the ideas of the digital platform, the European Citizens’ Panels and events in the Member States. I am very impressed by the activities and ideas generated on the platform. To date, one third of the EU’s population is familiar with this online platform, according to latest estimates.
E.: During the citizen deliberations there have been huge requests from citizens for greater involvement and consultation, and for a stronger role of values such as democracy in European deliberations. What do you think about the fact that the topic of European democracy is the one with the most interaction from citizens?
Š.: European citizens have been asking for a greater say in national and EU decision-making. I find it very encouraging that, at a time where democracy, the rule of law and human rights are challenged in many ways and in many places, strengthening democracy remains a key priority for our citizens. This Conference is our answer to this call. I believe that deliberative democracy processes beyond the ballot boxes can actually strengthen representative democracy by stimulating greater citizen participation and engagement, and show citizens that they have a real stake in policy-making.
As politicians it is our role to support a vibrant civil society and to enhance the democratic participation of citizens. In recent years, in the EU, we have been witnessing an increasing demand among citizens to take part in shaping laws and public policies, and this participation is key to building trust in institutions and strengthening democracy as a whole. Citizens should feel motivated to vote and participate in the democratic debate. Among the challenges that we can observe to democratic participation, I would include a perceived lack of appropriate information on the policies affecting them, as well as on choice and accountability in governance and a lack of trust in politics in general. This trust cannot be taken for granted, it must be earned.
Š.: Creating an inclusive, trusted and legitimate electoral process means bolstering common EU values, such as fundamental rights, the rule of law, democracy and equality, respect of the rights of persons belonging to minorities. Equality and non-discrimination, pre-conditions of inclusive societies, also affect democratic engagement – people are more likely to vote when they can recognize themselves and see their interests reflected in the democratic debate and decision-making processes. In this sense, deliberative democracy wonderfully complements representative democracy.
E.: At the last meeting in Florence the first 39 recommendations of the second panel were elaborated. There was a lot of demand for greater participation in European democracy, which goes beyond participation in elections: from citizens’ assemblies with periodic meetings to groups of observers who can take part in the decision-making process. How could the relationship with citizens change after the Conference and what lessons is the Commission drawing from this experience?
Š.: It is still perhaps too early to foresee the outcome of the Conference. The recommendations of the citizens will be at the heart of the process and of the upcoming Plenary debates. They will feed into the final report, which will be sent to the three Presidents of the EU institutions. Concerning the lessons that the Commission will draw, I can tell you this: President (of the European Commission) Ursula von der Leyen has underlined on various occasions that the Commission has committed itself to follow-up on the citizens’ recommendations. That is essential to avoid that people will get disappointed.
E.: Is it possible, as suggested by co-chair Guy Verhofstadt, that this Conference could be transformed from an exceptional event into a permanent exercise, to be repeated on an ongoing basis?
Š.: I believe that I may have actually suggested that even before my colleague Guy did! In their recommendations citizens are explicitly proposing to systemically embed this kind of deliberative democracy instrument into the EU’s policy making. For instance, among the first 39 recommendations citizens have asked for a multilingual digital platform to remain at the disposal of Europeans after the Conference draws to a close, allowing them to share opinions, discuss about legislative proposals and get informed about what is happening in the European Union. I am looking forward to the Plenary exchanges on this proposal. It could be one of the follow-ups to the Conference that we attribute a structural character to citizens’ involvement. The Commission would certainly welcome a continuation of this deliberate process and are already working in this way.
E.: Some of the first recommendations approved go in the direction of calling for reform of the Treaties, for example to introduce a European referendum or to rethink the voting system in the Council. The European parliament is convinced that it must tackle the reform of the Treaties without taboos, while Member States are against it. The Commission said it is ready to follow up on what was agreed at the Conference: would it also agree to change the Treaties, if requested by the citizens?
Š.: First of all, not all reforms or new approaches require Treaty change. Nevertheless, the Commission does not exclude treaty changes, but we are of the opinion that we should first wait to see the conclusions of the Conference. If there is support among the institutions and governments of Member States for launching a revision of the Treaties, the Commission of course stands ready to play its role in this process. I have always emphasized that the Conference should be driven by citizens first and foremost. The Commission is not pushing the outcomes of the Conference in any one particular direction but we should make sure that we listen to citizens’ priorities.
E.: Do you think a compromise between Institutions can be found on this?
Š.: We remain committed on the objective we set ourselves: to present the key conclusions in 2022 and to follow-up on what is agreed by the Conference with concrete and tangible actions already during this mandate. Following the Conference Plenary’s discussions and proposals, based on the European Citizens’ panels recommendations as well as the contributions made on the multi-lingual platform, the Executive Board will draw up a report for the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission, acting by consensus. The objective is for this report to be strongly linked with the citizens’ proposals. The Citizens must be able to recognize their recommendations in this report. The three institutions are ready to swiftly follow up on the results of the Conference, as stated in the Joint Declaration of 10 March 2021, each within their own sphere of competences and in accordance with the Treaties. This was also reiterated by President von der Leyen in her State of the Union 2021 speech.
E.: During the panel meetings, most citizens expressed interest in the Cofoe, even if doubts were expressed that it would not lead to concrete results. Do you believe that outside the Brussels’ bubble this process could be perceived as not really useful?
Š.: This exercise puts for the first time all European citizens at the heart of policy deliberation. Since the beginning, we committed to have an open, transparent and inclusive debate. I think of it as being like when people renew their vows and commitment to each other in their family. This means that, in the European Union, we can regularly reassess our relationship with each other. It is legitimate to ask questions about our Union. We can take a moment to look back at the highs and lows we have come through together. With the aim of building on the past to commit deeper to our common future.
E.: How could ‘eurosceptics’ be convinced?
Š.: So when it comes to eurosceptics: my answer would rather be to invite them to join, to share their views. We commit to engage with everyone, especially those who have doubts and do not agree with the European project. And the main reason for this is that when people learn more about Europe and what it can offer them, they tend to be more enthusiastic about it. The past years have shown that democracy in the EU and democracy overall are facing great challenges ranging from rising extremism, disinformation, populism, election interference to spread of manipulative information and threats against journalists – offline and online. People are feeling left behind. For this very reason, we need to ensure that we reach out to those who have lost faith in our institutions, in democracy and the European project. We need to speak to each and every one and not shy away from difficult conversations. Having already held many dialogues with citizens, I believe that the Conference on the Future of Europe has a key role to play in building a more effective, healthier and genuinely strong Union. Citizen participation at all levels of policy-making is key to strengthen our democracy and ensure it is “fit for the future”.
E.: Once all recommendations have been finalized, how will the dialogue between Institutions and citizens take place? And in your opinion, what will make this Conference a success?
Š.: For me, the success of the process will ultimately be judged by our citizens. For us as politicians, we can only wait to see the outcomes of their deliberations and act on them as effectively as possible. Only then can we reflect on the process itself. As mentioned before, we have committed to follow-up on the proposals of the citizens and to provide detailed feedback on their recommendations. For me, this process of involving citizens in EU decision making does not stop after Spring 2022. We want to keep this intense, deliberative process and interactive dialogue ongoing.
What I can say is that by taking this initiative, we are demonstrating that the EU is changing and that we want our citizens to be more included in shaping our future, for the better. It might not be perfect, but it is a willingness, a step towards something that has already changed the way we exchange, deliberate and work. And our citizens are demonstrating the will to be a part of this process, they are recognizing that these institutions, our work, is based on them, it is for them.