The Conference on the Future of Europe, which now-outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel suggested could be the place to solve Poland’s rule of law issues, has been paid little attention. But that does not mean those attending have not been busy.
As much of the EU discourse in past weeks has been dominated by disputes over the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, the situation had been exacerbated following a controversial ruling by the Polish supreme court, which commentators have likened to a “legal Polexit.”
“The Conference on the Future of Europe is actually a good place to discuss,” said Merkel as she entered the European Council on Thursday (21 October).
She also suggested that the CoFoE is a good place to talk about “how the individual members envisage the European Union”. Despite this, even though the conference had its second plenary on 23 October, it failed to make many waves.
“The first three rows should be VIPs or guests; not many of them are here,” said Mark Plesko, representative of the Slovenian national panels, adding that the lack of high-level interest in the conference “is an excellent metaphor for the European Union.”
According to the European Commission, the conference was the epicentre of some 3000 events that more than 140,000 participants attended.
Sadly, not only was it plagued by representation issues, but very few EU citizens participated via the digital platform.
“We have almost 22,500 participants [those who create an account] on the platform,” said conference co-chair Guy Verhofstadt. As the platform has received 3.5 million unique visitors, the contribution rate is relatively low.
Of those 22,500 people who participated in the conference, most were men.
“The second interim report shows that only 15% of participants registered are women,” said Elsie Gisslegard, representative of the Swedish national panels. For the digital platform to reach its “true democratic potential”, it would have to be used equally.
As for the conference results, whether they will have any role to play is still unclear.
Are citizens and leaders aligned?
While Merkel would have citizens debate the issue of the rule of law and each nation’s vision of the European Union, the topics of “climate change and environment” and “European democracy” piqued the most interest.
Almost all other topics like the role of the EU in the world and “stronger economy, social justice and jobs” got more activity and generated more debate. It appears that these topics are perceived as being more relevant to EU citizens.
One of the most common themes was ”a more social Europe, and how more social rights can improve the lives of normal working people,” explained Eoin Stafford, representative of the Irish national panels, noting the talking points of his fellow Irishmen.
He explained that the EU’s “stimulus package could help enormously with the transition out of the COVID crisis by creating jobs, but at the same time, ensuring social rights are protected,” something he would aim to highlight in his working group.
Whether the long-planned CoFoE, which has seen little attention ever since Europe Day on 9 May, will be able to deliver the liberating blow on the rule of law that Merkel seems to hope for is questionable, as other topics like climate change, health, and social issues drove the agenda at the CoFoE’s second plenary.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]