The Conference on the future of Europe is faltering, but EU institutions and member states can still save it. And they should, as it could be a key tool to re-engage the citizens, writes Nicoletta Pirozzi.
Nicoletta Pirozzi is the head of programme on European Union and institutional relations manager at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI).
The Conference, proposed by France and Germany and then endorsed by the EU institutions, was originally conceived as “a unique and timely opportunity for European citizens to debate on Europe’s challenges and priorities”.
The Covid-19 pandemic first, and the inter-institutional battle in Brussels for its Presidency later, delayed its inauguration by one year and placed a heavy burden on its implementation.
The restrictions linked to the health emergency discouraged or impeded live meetings among citizens.
Moreover, the EU institutions, having finally agreed on the governance of the process which is now shared among them, failed to reach a consensus on the political meaning of the Conference.
In fact, while the European Parliament has pushed to transform it in a constitutional phase leading to a possible reform of the Treaties, the Council explicitly ruled out this option.
Nonetheless, a number of initiatives have been realized since the inception of the Conference in May 2021: a multilingual digital platform where citizens can share ideas and send online submissions; a series of European Citizens’ Panels on four main topics – rule of law and democracy, climate change and health, economy, jobs and culture, Europe in the world and migration; two Conference Plenaries including representatives of EU institutions, national Parliaments and citizens; plus several decentralized events organized by national and local authorities, citizens and civil society organizations across Europe.
All these activities notwithstanding, the numbers are telling a rather disappointing story so far, with 7,115 ideas and 2,079 events inserted on the platform, 200 citizens involved in each European Citizens’ Panel and 108 involved in the Plenary – 80 from the European Citizens’ Panel, 27 from National Citizens Panels and from the participants in the Platform, plus the President of the European Youth Forum.
The principal factor explaining this lukewarm participation has to be traced back to the lack of political investment on the Conference by political representatives and governments throughout Europe.
In fact, there is widespread recognition of the need to contrast the democratic deficit in the EU by creating additional participation channels and providing citizens with a European public space, especially after the dramatic experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences at the social and economic level.
However, the reference to the Conference has rarely been included in the speeches of political leaders, neither it has been at the centre of a big communication campaign at the national level.
Even the promoters of the initiative, French President Macron, German Chancellor Merkel and the European Commission President von der Leyen have been timid in its promotion since after its launch on Europe’s Day.
Others have acknowledged it as an appreciable attempt to listen to citizens’ preferences, but at least 12 governments have openly rejected the option of deriving legal consequences from it, especially as regards the reform of the existing legislative process and inter-institutional division of competences.
There is widespread scepticism on the possibility to resurrect the fortunes of the Conference at this stage and transform it into a success in terms of participation, but also the outcome of the exercise.
But letting it go and avoiding any substantive follow up would not be without political costs either. In fact, this could be a real boomerang for EU institutions and in general for the image of the Union as a project built for and with the citizens of Europe. Salvaging the project would entail, first of all, an extension of its deadline from spring at least to the fall of 2021.
The spring deadline could be used as a first step to take stock of what has been achieved up to then and to collect ideas on how to improve the process, so that member states and institutions in Brussels can demonstrate they are seriously committed and French President Macron can have something to present as his own success during the election campaign.
Ideally, proposals to turn this consultation process among citizens and institutions into a permanent exercise should be presented, so as to ensure continuity and openness in the EU decision-making process.
Another action would be to connect the Conference more explicitly to institutional processes at the EU level that have direct consequences for the daily life of European citizens, such as the implementation of the Next Generation EU or the preparation of the campaign for the next elections of the European Parliament in 2024.
Finally, EU representatives and national leaders have to be clear on the end state of the process.
If the agreement on a possible reform of the Treaties as a possible outcome of the Conference cannot be reached, there is a need to promise to European citizens that their preferences on the future of Europe will somehow be taken into highest consideration at the EU level, and eventually form the basis for legislative proposals and other concrete initiatives by the European Commission.
These should then be accordingly presented, by the Commission and member states alike, as Conference output.
The Union cannot become a fortress for its own citizens. Doors have to be open, and democratic support actively promoted, in order to ensure the sustainability of the integration process in the years ahead.