Ahead of the Conference on the Future of Europe, a year-long dialogue with EU citizens that kicked off on Sunday (9 May, Europe Day), EURACTIV Croatia spoke to the European Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica, in charge of the conference organisation, about the overall objectives, and expectations.
The Conference on the Future of Europe is finally being launched. However, it seems as the citizens outside of the so-called “Brussels bubble” do not understand what it is all about. Can you start by explaining how this Conference is going to affect the average citizens of the EU?
The Conference on the Future of Europe embodies several formats, activities, and events, and its main objective is to include the European citizens in the debate about future EU policies. It is our firm belief that Europeans do not wish to be included only through elections, once every five years, but that they want to have a more active role in the decision-making process of the EU.
For that reason, we have decided to offer them a multi-lingual platform on which they can share their ideas and opinions, and have identified nine discussion topics for them to talk about. We also made sure to offer them the option of adding topics according to their specific interests.
This is the biggest project of inclusive democracy in history. It allows transparent and structured debates for all of the interested stakeholders; from citizens, and NGOs, to private and public entities. I would like to use this opportunity to invite all of the citizens to join in.
What do you expect from these forums? They seem to be designed exclusively for pro-EU citizens. How are you planning to reach Eurosceptics?
The Conference has been designed like an open and inclusive process. Our main objective is to activate those citizens who lack confidence and trust in the European Union the most. We must understand their concerns and fears to create effective policies for the benefit of all EU citizens.
I do not believe that the process is going to include only Europeans with positive opinions about the EU, as all of the participants at the Conference will be selected randomly, based on some previously agreed-upon criteria; geographic balance, urban and rural areas, socioeconomic status, age, etc. It has to be emphasized that the most important criterion will be securing one-third of the Conference seats for the youngest citizens, ages 16 to 25 because they will be the ones creating the future of the EU.
I do not want to prejudge the outcome of these discussions, because we do want to hear honest opinions from our citizens. Our top priority is reaching the citizens with whom we do not have frequent contact, especially those critical or skeptical towards the entire EU project.
Your critics often say that the Conference is going to turn into “much ado about nothing” and will result in a non-binding communique. Can you respond to those accusations?
Guided by the ideas of Robert Schuman and other founders, we firmly believe that democracy should not be perceived as static. That is the main reason why we are so eager to give our citizens the voice to participate in making our democracy stronger and better. The Conference is expected to end in Spring 2022 when France will be presiding over the EU.
However, our business is not going to end then. The top three EU institutions (i.e. European Parliament, Commission, and the Council) are going to evaluate citizens’ suggestions, draw conclusions and decide on how to proceed further. The Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already promised to respect the power provided to her by the Treaties in that regard. It is important to take into account all of the opposing views in the EU on this matter to demonstrate the true strength of our democracy.
In April, you introduced a virtual platform for citizens to comment and share their opinions on. Have you already collected some data about their interest in the platform?
The interest that our citizens have shown in the platform has been very reassuring. In its first three weeks, the platform has gathered 7,600 participants, which have published more than 1500 suggestions. Thus far, we have organized more than 400 events and forums, and the number of people interested in participating is growing every day.
One could argue that the overall objective of the Conference is to reform the EU after Brexit. Thus far, such reforms have been made with Treaty changes. Will the final result of this Conference be institutional reform? How are you planning to address the lack of efficiency in the decision-making process?
As I have already emphasized, we are entering this process open-minded. There are no taboos. The EU institutions have continuously been changing and adapting to the needs of the time we are living in. Europe is currently struggling with a crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic but is simultaneously adapting to climate and digital transition guidelines. However, if the citizens do suggest the need for institutional reform of the EU during this Conference, the Commission is going to consider steps it can take in that regard while respecting its current treaty powers.
Are you concerned about the possibility that vaccine affairs might damage the trust in the Commission?
On the contrary, I am certain that this crisis has confirmed the strength of the EU, as neither of the Member States could have invented and manufactured vaccines in a manner that has been conducted by the Commission. If you take the fact that the vaccine has been invented and distributed only 10 months after the beginning of the pandemic into account, we are talking about the historic success. Member States have received more than 200 million doses of vaccines, while a quarter of EU citizens have received at least one jab. At the same time, the EU is leading the vaccine export on the global market; we have delivered more than 200 million jabs to 90 countries, thereby showing a high level of solidarity and generosity. We are aware that we cannot be safe until we are all protected.
The EU institutions have been debating for over a year about their role in the Conference. The compromise has been reached thanks to the Portuguese presidency. Do you think that an average European shares that concern? Was that debate just another proof of the gap that exists between people and „the EU bubble”?
Precisely due to the perception of the so-called „the EU bubble” have we decided to initiate this whole project. I agree that institutional questions should not be the bedrock of our debates. If you analyze my speeches more closely, you are going to see that I was stressing the importance of citizens in this debate, which is why we will focus on those questions that concern the everyday lives of Europeans the most.
In an Op-Ed published on EURACTIV.com, former Council President Herman van Rompuy warned that the Conference should primarily be focused on democracy in the EU, as he believes that it is facing a big threat. How do you respond to that?
Our way of life is constantly changing, thus we are expected to change as well if we want to keep up with the global shifts. By putting the citizens and their needs in the main focus, as we are doing with this Conference, we are making our democracy more resilient, more adaptable, and ready for future challenges. Our democracy has to be “Fit for the Future”. If we miss the opportunity to include Europeans in this process, we are leaving a lot of space for populists to develop less constructive ideas. However, it is worth emphasizing once again that this Conference is not designed to replace delegate democracy, but rather to strengthen and complement it.
Will the Conference deal with the issue of migration? How can we achieve cohabitation within the framework of so-called „EU values”?
If you open our multi-lingual virtual platform, you are going to see that migrations are one of the offered topics. We are firstly going to hear what our citizens have to say about that, and according to their suggestions, we are going to find a common solution. The Commission has published the draft for new migration and asylum policy. We should not forget the negative demographic trends that Europe is dealing with lately!
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]