France to launch bottom-up consultation for European reform

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on the European Union at Sorbonne University in Paris, France. [EPA/EFE]

Online consultation across Europe, then local debates: democratic assemblies for EU reform should be held from May to October 2018, ahead of the 2019 European elections. EURACTIV France reports.

Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious plan, announced during his presidential campaign, could take shape from May 2018, said a parliamentary report presented on Thursday (7 December) by Valérie Gomez-Bassac (La Republique En Marche) and Michel Herbillon (Les Republicains).

“We are aware of the difficulty of the process, but we were elected with a clear European mandate,” said Sabine Thillaye, chair of the European Affairs Committee in the French Parliament.

According to the report, the mobilisation of citizens could be a two-step process. First a vast online consultation, which would ask citizens some generic questions about the future of Europe. This would be followed by local debates in the interested member states.

Among the questions that would be submitted to the citizens, the deputies listed very general topics:

  • What are the values of Europe?
  • What do you expect from Europe in your daily life?
  • What change do you expect from Europe?

“We propose online consultations ahead of physical debates because we have to change the scale to reach more citizens,” said Michel Herbillon.

These general questions could be supplemented by some more specific issues, depending on the country. In each state, a national steering committee would then trace the result of the debates to “a committee of European elders”, led by the European institutions, “which has the technical expertise and would guarantee a certain neutrality” explained Michel Herbillon.

This centralised committee would be responsible for distilling the main priorities defined by the citizen process.

To develop this methodology, MPs conducted hearings in Germany, Italy, Hungary, Ireland, and Estonia: “We were welcomed, although in some countries, such as Poland and Hungary, there may be some reluctance. But democratic conventions cannot afford to shut off Europe’s critics. We must not marginalise critical states in this process,” said Michel Herbillon.

To formalize the idea, the French representatives imagined that heads of state and government could adopt a declaration on the sidelines of a European summit, with a charter defining the main principles of these democratic conventions.

“Emmanuel Macron has already discussed with Angela Merkel,” said Herbillon, who hopes to see the subject on the table at the European Council in March 2018.

Institutional overlap

If the question of the European citizens’ debate is widely supported, the debate risks being politicised in the conventions wanted by the French president.

“Democratic conventions must be trans-partisan and transnational”, said Valérie Gomez-Bassac (LREM).

But the fact that the idea came from Emmanuel Macron is likely to upset his European partners. “For our European neighbours, we must avoid being seen as related to LREM, it should not appear as an initiative of the majority party in France,” recognizes Michel Herbillon.

But Macron’s party intends to launch a major European march next January, launching the debate in France in view of the 2019 European elections.

According to the general delegate of the party, Christophe Castaner, the debate should be launched in “the villages, with farmers who are worried about the excesses of Europe but know the importance of the Common Agricultural Policy, with our fellow citizens who feel that Europe is a pile of standards.”

An approach very similar to that used in the presidential campaign, when En Marche went door to door to speak with voters.

Castaner also explained at the end of November that “LREM would be everywhere in France in the first quarter of 2018 so that we can carry out this ambition” for the EU.

In this context, it would be difficult for French citizens to differentiate between the party of Emmanuel Macron and the democratic conventions meant to give grassroots inputs for EU reform.

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