Europeans must mobilise in demanding a better EU as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE). However, a more united and democratic Union is not in everyone’s interest, and some political actors are consistently striving to make the consultation process meaningless. In response to this, we must make the Conference too big to ignore.
Leonie Martin is the former President of the Young European Federalists (JEF Europe), a non-partisan political youth NGO advocating for a more united and democratic Europe.
The preparations for the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) were an uphill battle for those who wanted it to be meaningful and reformatory. What had been initially meant to be a comprehensive 2-year process with the potential to redefine the foundations of the EU, after a year of delay was turned into a 9-month exercise with a vague commitment for a follow-up on its outcomes. However, the Conference’s model, born amid intense negotiations between federalists, reformists, institutional conservatives and Eurosceptics, still leaves room for denting the European status quo if given enough weight through citizen mobilisation.
The climate crisis, migration, rule of law violations, the pandemic: Europe knows many crises which Member States cannot handle by themselves but which equally the EU is not fully capable of tackling in its current shape. This state of institutional impotence is maintained despite a clear expectation of reforms. Recent surveys provide evidence that the European public supports a higher number of decisions to be taken at the EU level, the Spitzenkandidaten system, protecting the EU’s fundamental values, shared EU-national competence in taxation, more EU-level action in social affairs and health, collective EU response to global challenges, or common migration policy. CoFoE can prepare the EU for the next decade if carried out and followed up in line with citizens’ demands.
Although the institutional model of the Conference will have limited capacity to address these issues adequately, some forces hope for the whole effort to be a quickly-forgotten debacle of the pro-European camp. Many Euroskeptics still continue their campaign of undermining its potential and scale: They seem to be afraid that these public expectations can gain prominence during CoFoE and give birth to clearly-articulated pan-European demands. Keeping the Conference branded as a low-profile exercise for EU geeks is a safety guarantee for those seeking to discredit its potentially inconvenient outcomes as deprived of broad public support.
The task of the European civil society and the reformative forces in the institutions and Member States is thus to now mobilise the ‘silent majority’ of Europeans: The whole experiment must become too big to be ignored by Euroskeptics and supporters of the status quo. CoFoE must be shown as an opportunity to go beyond a EU, which, in its current unfinished shape, is increasingly failing to respond to modern-day challenges of both Europe as a whole and its individual citizens in areas ranging from climate action to social security. The message to the European public should be simple: now is the time to re-shape Europe, so it can meet the expectations of its citizens better. The Conference might not be the best set-up, but it’s the best thing we have to ensure that Europe has democratic competences to tackle contemporary challenges.
The Conference can also play a key role in stimulating the rise of pan-European public opinion. While polls show that Europeans expect stronger EU action in many areas, citizens may not be aware that their demands are shared across borders when media in most countries tend to prioritise the national perspective while presenting everyday problems. Winning over the national media will be therefore crucial for making the Conference both visible and successful in stimulating pan-European debate.
Ensuring the success of the EU-led consultation alone will not be enough, however. People must be made aware that the willingness of the institutions and national governments to follow up on the Conference outcomes will depend on the level of civic mobilisation. Europeans shouldn’t shy from bending the frames of the process and demanding change even beyond the official timeline and consultation channels, until their demands are met. CoFoE Citizens’ Panels cannot be conveniently put into policy boxes reflecting the existing priorities of the European Commission in order to sell already-planned institutional proposals as citizen-led. The institutional CoFoE slogan is “The future is yours”, which means it cannot be pre-defined by someone in the Berlaymont.
The conclusion of the Conference can be just the beginning of a long campaign to have its outcomes implemented, beyond a colourful PDF publication on the Commission’s website. Ideally, CoFoE can be a stepping stone to a Constituent Assembly allowing to replace the current EU Treaties with a more comprehensive constitutional framework. To avoid being derailed by individual vetoes, this process should comprise a core coalition of the willing, with the possibility for other countries to join the club once they are ready to democratically meet their citizens’ expectations for Europe. This is how the EU started and it seems the right approach to finally move it forward after years of stagnation since the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty.
The CoFoE has a potential to become a democratic milestone for the EU, surpassing the predominantly top-down efforts which have left the European integration process undone so far. The mobilisation of European citizens in CoFoE is key to achieving this – their, our voices must become too many and too loud to be disregarded.