EESC: initiating CoFoE recommendations screening process is crucial

EESC President Christa SCHWENG. [EESC]

A “dashboard” to follow-up citizens’ recommendations must be created, so the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) does not fail its goal of including citizens in EU policymaking, Christa Schweng told EURACTIV.

Christa Schweng is the president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC).

How do you assess the debate on the future of Europe after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February?

First of all, I think the right question to ask right now is: are we sure that it’s the right moment to talk about the future of Europe? In a moment like this, when we see that a country, and the European continent, are bearing with war again? To me, the answer there is clearly, yes.

We see that Ukrainians are pronouncing themselves very strongly for freedom, rights, and values. I believe this is something we also see as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Nowadays, we see at risk what we took for granted for a very long time: peace. As a result, the CoFoE probably couldn’t be timelier than it is right now.

Is the EESC working on different ways to engage citizens?

First, our members are rooted, of course, in their member states. They bring their background to the EU level. This is already something that you can see when they deliver input, and therefore, it’s a way of bringing the voice of organised civil society in the EU.

Second, when we prepare our opinions, we try to connect with people by doing listening exercises.

The French Economic and Social Environmental Council currently includes more and more randomly chosen citizens when they prepare certain opinions. Of course, this could be a model that we can think of as well.

However, deliberative democracy is a pattern of citizens participation that we still have to investigate.

What is your role within the Conference?

The EESC has 18 members in the Conference’s plenary. The body is represented in all the working groups, and I also represent the EESC as an observer in the Executive Board.

All four thematic European panels finalised their recommendations. Do you think that the follow-up process of their proposals can be at risk as now the EU has entered a new emergency?

It is time to make sure that everybody who participated in the conference is heard: first, we have to start a screening exercise. There are a lot of recommendations that have already been dealt with at the EU level, while others are already in the policymaking process. However, there are some recommendations with which we have to deal in the short or the long term.

To make the process transparent and accountable, it’s necessary to initiate a sort of screening exercise: we must explain to the citizens’ panels, for instance, that a particular recommendation they presented exists already at the EU level in a specific Directive, and it might need only some modifications or to be more publicised.

This kind of exercise is urgent for me. I believe this will be work done in the working groups.

Then, we will have recommendations which need to be adopted by the Conference’s plenary.

The Conference’s plenary comprises 198 representatives from the European parliament, 54 from the Council, three from the European Commission, 108 from national Parliaments and 108 citizens.

And here is my firm belief: every party participating in the conference should also have the right to vote on these recommendations or express their own opinions. For me, this is necessary. At the moment, there is no vote within the conference’s plenary.

Some recommendations of citizens’ panels speak about the minimum wage. Can you explain the state of play on such an issue at the EU level?

The Directive on “fair minimum wage for workers in the EU” was published last year and is now in the final stage. We are in the so-called trialogue: the three institutions are trying to find a way to include the different positions.

The EESC has contributed to that by providing an opinion on minimum wage to the Commission. When the Commission proposed it, we also commented on it.

The panel on democracy values, for instance, approved a recommendation that asks for the creation of kindergartens or playgrounds close to companies where parents work. For such a recommendation, how would you implement it?

First of all, I would say we have the so-called Barcelona targets, which foresees that every child of three years old has the right to attend such a place.

This is something that the EU can do and has already delivered. We have a screening and monitoring process that has been ongoing for 15 years. But it is also clear this is not an EU competence.

The EU could not tell Spain, for example, that they have to build a kindergarten in Madrid close to the factory or to the office of a specific building.

How would you act in that case?

For example, to comply with an EU target, member states have to implement specific proposals, for instance, in the case you mentioned, providing parents of small kids with kindergartens. But it is up to member states to decide specifically how to implement EU targets.

Several citizens’ recommendations regard member states’ competences. How would you contribute to implementing them at the member states’ level in these cases?

Member states are part of the conference’s plenary: their government representatives are there.

What I think is essential to ensure transparency and accountability is each recommendation that the plenary eventually assess is monitored via a so-called “dashboard”, where you can see how a recommendation is followed up.

I think this is crucial to make this conference a success. Otherwise, citizens who have engaged over a few weekends, dedicating their time, energy, and intelligence to solutions, will be deeply disappointed. Then, the exercise will fail.

The EU cannot afford that this exercise fails. So, therefore, this will be my request: to get a follow-up mechanism. I call it the “dashboard”.

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