As Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on, the need to reform the EU and take citizens’ voices into account has become more apparent, according to politicians involved in the Conference on the Future of Europe.
The conference is the EU’s first deliberative democracy experiment where citizens from across the bloc have a say in policy-making and even possible treaty changes.
In the context of the war, “it is clear the challenges to the functioning of the EU are numerous. We have to think bigger. We have to act faster. We need to reform Europe,” Manfred Weber, president of the European People’s Party, told EURACTIV.
He added that citizens’ are crucial to this process as “they want to be informed and engaged in the European project, to give them a real voice.”
S&D President Iratxe García Pérez also told EURACTIV that citizens “are rightly asking for a change. We now have a duty as politicians to ensure the appropriate follow-up”.
The conference started last autumn when 800 randomly elected citizens came up with 178 recommendations on how they think the EU and their societies should work through in-person and online meetings.
Recommendations were approved between December and February, and they have been discussed by the conference’s plenary, consisting of 363 EU and national politicians, and 108 citizens, since March.
The “baton” to EU institutions
The European Commission and the Council must now play their role, properly following-up citizens’ demands as the end of the conference draws nearer.
“In Parliament, we will make sure the citizens’ voices are heard in Europe,” Weber said.
Weber and García Pérez participated as chairs of thematic working groups during the second part of the conference.
Working groups represent the core “workshop” of the conference’s second stage. Citizens had the chance to discuss their recommendations with politicians to develop common ground on priorities and recommendations’ implementation.
Both presidents positively assessed working groups’ discussions.
“It was hard work, but I enjoyed it a lot…it was fascinating to see how we managed in the end to create ideas and positions that were supported by the working group,” Weber said.
García Pérez explained that citizens were very engaged across all topics and were ready to defend their recommendations thoroughly and constructively.
“Their commitment paid off, and in the final conclusions, we kept their recommendations intact, and this was also a priority for me”, she added.
Criticism of working groups
But not everyone had such glowing reviews.
The functioning of the working groups was criticised by Séamus Boland, president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) diversity Europe group.
He told EURACTIV that “the progress at the beginning was limited, mainly because we had different chairs, which meant a lot of inconsistency in terms of management of the agenda…I understand that other working groups had difficulties at the beginning as well”.
Boland spoke of the lack of involvement and “interaction with organised civil society”, which he defines as “extremely worrying”.
“The main exclusion of organised civil society occurred during the plenary discussions and on occasion during the working group meetings”.
He also believes that civil society organisations should play a vital role in the conference’s follow up process.
Voices left unheard
Many civil society organisations and experts questioned the follow-up process as there is no detailed plan on recommendations’ implementations, except for general guidelines. Furthermore, EU institutions seem to have different ideas on approaches, particularly regarding the possibility of treaty changes.
According to EU law expert Alberto Alemanno, as much as 12% of the 178 proposals could require treaty changes,
However, calculations by European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová estimate that roughly half of the citizens’ proposals would require a treaty change.
While the Commission said it would opt for treaty changes as a last resort, the Co-Chair of the conference, MEP Guy Verhofstadt told journalists that “I cannot see a situation in which the Council, the Commission or the Parliament declare that they do not follow up some citizen’s recommendations. The task for the plenary will be to react and accommodate each of them. There is no escape from this”.
Working groups will have their last meeting on 29-30 April in Strasbourg, where they will finalise the recommendations.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]