Local communities mull EU treaty change in bloc-wide democracy experiment

While the EU is right to reshuffle its policy priorities in the short term to respond to Russia’s war of aggression, European leaders should not turn a blind eye to democratic backsliding within our own borders in the name of unity against Russia, writes Sophie Pornschlegel. Photo: Shutterstock, Melinda Nagy

The success of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) depends on the geographical spread and depth of the debate and proper follow-up, EU stakeholders warn.

MEP Sandro Gozi (Renew, FR) and stakeholder in the conference, told participating citizens that, “the wider the debate, higher the participation, more intensive the initiative, more widespread the events, the stronger is our chance to have a proper follow-up to this exceptional process,”

“It is clear that the Conference on the Future of Europe will only be a success and effective when we have the debate on local level everywhere in Europe, everywhere there is at least one citizen is interested in Europe”, he added.

CoFoE is the EU’s deliberative democracy experiment where citizens across Europe are invited to take part in EU policymaking.

It involves citizens in three different ways: first, 800 European citizens, randomly selected, are working on recommendations to be discussed with the Conference’s plenary between January and February.

Second, the organisers created a multilingual digital platform on which anyone can submit ideas and organise local events related to the Conference. Third, member states are organising national panels to gather ideas. Proposals from the platform and national panels will both be assessed by the Conference’s plenary.

Local citizens’ panels have indicated an appetite for ambitious EU reforms, the cross-European event has shown. Particular areas of interest for citizens include EU security, migration, climate, workers’ rights and the rule of law.

Supporters of the experiment hope that it could introduce a new phase of democracy based on more transnational participation.

European Commissioner for Democracy and Demography, Dubravka Suica, who leads the Commission’s work on CoFoE, has referred to the process as “the emergence of a European public sphere”.

However, as EURACTIV reported so far, the process has generated only limited media interest and low numbers of participants on the multilingual platform, mainly due to the uneven promotional efforts by member states.

The European Parliament has been a keen supporter of the process, and the citizens’ panels have produced proposals such as the election of EU lawmakers from transnational lists and ideas for the EU to move towards more qualified majority voting to speed up decision-making.

Follow up is key

The challenge will be to ensure these proposals are correctly followed-up first, by the Conference’s plenary, and then by its Executive Board and the Joint presidency.

The CoFoE plenary will draw up a report with the Executive Board, which will be assessed by the three EU presidents of the European Parliament, European Commission and the European Council.

“We have to be ready to assure full and proper follow-up to the main recommendations that are coming up from citizens – we would fail if we tell them it was great they contributed and then went on to business as usual,” Gozi warned.

France, which recently took over the EU Council Presidency, and the new German government have said they are committed to driving the process forward.

Considering the high number of proposals – from citizens’ panels to local events across the bloc – French officials suggested drafting a political roadmap for the future before the end of the French Presidency.

This would include five to ten major subjects, based on ideas “supported across the board in Europe”.

“We need to be ready to discuss and modify the treaty,” Gozi said, adding this could be most feasible in areas such as EU foreign policy and taxation.

Despite the Conference’s website specifying that proposals will be discussed according to the Treaties, some citizens ‘proposals have requested treaty reform. Gozi and the co-chair president of the Conference, Guy Verhofstadt, told journalists that Treaty reform would be possible if citizens ask for it.

However, despite the support of France and Germany, it is well known that some EU member states such as Hungary or Poland will likely veto any attempts to change the EU treaties.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox/ Alice Taylor]

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