With impeccable timing, just as the UK prepares to leave it, the European Union will kick off a major debate on the future of Europe. The new president of the European commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is honouring a promise she made after her surprise appointment last year, to launch a two-year deliberative process tasked with overhauling how the EU works and listening to the voices of its citizens.
Yet the conference may achieve the opposite of its goal. By raising expectations it can’t easily deliver on, it risks eroding citizens’ trust at a time when public engagement (as seen in the most recent European elections) is running at record levels.
The only participatory dimension comes from six citizens’ assemblies which will deliberate on a set of predefined areas
At this stage there are more questions than answers as to the conference’s aim, process and key players. And scant evidence of any political or public clamour for a fundamental revision of EU treaties.
Although reminiscent of the ill-fated 2003 Convention on the Future of Europe, which drafted the EU’s never-ratififed constitution, the new conference won’t directly prepare treaty changes. Rather, it is meant to be a preparatory process that could lead the European council (the leaders of the 27 governments) to initiate them. Crucially, however, this time the conference is supposed to be “a bottom-up exercise where European citizens are listened to and their voices contribute to the debates on the future of Europe”.
Yet, when measured against this ambition, the plans for this exercise in democratic renewal, published by the European parliament last week, disappoint everyone but the three bodies that already run the EU. The council, the commission and the parliament are currently fighting to be in the conference’s driving seat. Indeed, none of the proposed governance bodies foresees the participation of citizens or – shockingly – civil society organisations, other than European trade unions and the employers’ organisation BusinessEurope. With a contingent of 135 MEPs out of a total membership of 200, the European parliament is set to dominate the conference plenary. So will the self-proclaimed most bottom-up experiment in EU democracy go down in history as one of the most top-down?
The choice of former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt as a chair of the conference is certainly a tactical blunder. It smacks more of a consolation prize for the veteran arch-federalist – who previously failed to get an EU top job – than a thoughtful, consensual and timely choice. A Verhofstadt-led conference risks being perceived as a pro-EU hijack and could well alienate anti-Europeans and EU sceptics who now represent a quarter of seats in the European parliament and thus have a role in shaping Europe’s political reality. Verhofstadt is a committed European but paradoxically could contribute to undermining the conference’s legitimacy and its ability to reimagine Europe’s future.
The only participatory dimension comes from six citizens’ assemblies – or agoras – which will deliberate throughout the conference process on a set of predefined policy areas, from the climate crisis the digital revolution to the redrafting of EU electoral law. Each agora will be made up of between 200 and 300 participants, randomly selected, demographically stratified (to ensure they are a microcosm of the wider population) who will peripatetically meet across the EU.
While such an attempt at involving citizens is long overdue in the EU and must be praised, it remains unclear how the agoras will actually be run and moderated, and, more importantly, how their conclusions will feed into the work and final conclusions of the conference. Will the agoras be useful sounding boards for the main event, or a cosmetic add-on imposed by the growing participatory zeitgeist?
Besides the methodological vagueness and doubtful contribution to the eventual outcome of the conference, the agoras are not expected to play any agenda-setting role either. Thus, by being left out of the business of choosing themes to be debated, the citizens’ agoras risk being the decorative cherry on top of a very Brussels-baked cake.
The three big EU institutions should go back to the drawing board and come up with a more meaningful, sophisticated format aimed at capturing the unprecedented vivacity and readiness of EU civil society to engage with the union. The EU needs to move away from ad hoc and one-off participatory processes that are designed as quick, often patronising fixes for the original democratic deficit of the union.
Why doesn’t it learn from – and capitalise on – the countless democratic innovations already taking shape across the continent, from the Irish citizens’ Constitutional Convention, which reviewed the constitution, to the Ostbelgien Citizens’ Council in the German-speaking community in eastern Belgium – a permanent mechanism and the first of its kind, letting randomly chosen ordinary citizens take part with parliamentarians in developing recommendations for the local parliament.
The ultimate success of Von der Leyen’s conference will be defined by its ability to devise a mechanism that is capable of capturing the most relevant of citizens’ proposals and turning that into a permanent channel to feed into EU decision-making. Existing channels, from public consultations and petitions to complaints to the European Citizens Initiative (ECI), are not intended to have a direct impact on the decision-making process. Worse, while unknown to most EU citizens they are overused by corporate lobbyists. The challenge is to be able to gauge the strength of the often chaotic popular demand for direct involvement and to accommodate it within the EU’s rigid institutional framework.
Europe will not find its democratic soul in a large-scale, standalone and pre-cooked exercise. It should instead set up an accessible, permanent and safe space in which citizens, from all corners of Europe, can regularly engage with EU decision-making. This is the only way that the EU will overcome its own chronic democratic malaise. It could in turn foster a Europe-wide debate on matters of common interest, shape policymaking and lead to more helpful electoral conversations.
• Alberto Alemanno is an Italian living in Bilbao, Spain, and professor of EU law at HEC Paris