The official launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe in Strasbourg is not just a political spectacle; it proves that participatory democracy means more than casting a vote every few years.
However, considering how long it took to launch the conference, its success is everything but granted and requires our attention.
Due to economic and social hardship brought about by COVID-19, expectations towards the conference remain high. But we should not build up those expectations too much. It is better to arrive at tangible conclusions that are acceptable to all rather than discuss high-level theories and not agree on anything.
However, agreement is just the first step. The results of the conference must be conclusive - this is one of the conditions for success. The conference must make concrete and measurable progress. It cannot just consist of non-binding discussions with citizens that lead nowhere.
A feedback mechanism must ensure that the ideas expressed during the conference events result in specific recommendations for EU action. That is why I support the proposal, made by European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, to include the results of the conference into the Commission's work programme for 2022.
According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, climate change and environmental issues are seen as the biggest challenge for the EU, followed by terrorism and risks related to health. These topics, together with migration, digitalisation and globalisation - to mention just a few - will keep appearing in upcoming discussions.
"The results of the conference must be conclusive - this is one of the conditions for success. The conference must make concrete and measurable progress. It cannot just consist of non-binding discussions with citizens that lead nowhere"
For the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), which I chair, two major transitions - towards green and digital Europe are of the utmost importance. The conference creates a unique opportunity to advance our greening and digitalisation efforts while ensuring that no one is left behind.
The EESC believes - as expressed in our recent resolution - that the success of the conference will depend on its ability to sketch out a new narrative for Europe as a great place to be and prosper.
A Europe that is a guardian of shared fundamental values; a global promoter of sustainability, open and fair trade and multilateralism; a haven for a unique economic and social model and a driver of sustainable prosperity.
For too long Europe was mainly focusing on the shortcomings of its integration project. It's time to be proud of its numerous achievements. Time to appreciate the multiple crises we have overcome together.
The objective is to rediscover and renew a much needed sense of community. We need this to face the current and future challenges - such as the post-COVID-19 recovery.
The start of the conference was delayed by one year not only due to the pandemic but also due to inter-institutional "discussions" - to put it mildly - about who chairs the conference.
"The voice of organised European civil society is a key element of this discussion and cannot be sidelined. While feedback from individuals is extremely valuable, feedback from organisations that represent whole societal groups and economic sectors can often be even more substantial in terms of content and representativeness"
If the focus remains too much on the role and importance of each institution, we risk losing focus on what really matters - the needs and ideas of Europe's citizens for a better future for OUR Union.
The same Eurobarometer survey indicated that 50 percent of Europeans would be willing to take part in activities linked to the conference. That is far from enough.
This is one of the challenges for the institutions, for national governments, for the members of all honourable assemblies and bodies, for politicians and for European civil servants: to convince people to have their say. The momentum and outcome created by this grassroots activity might be surprising for all of us!
The voice of organised European civil society is a key element of this discussion and cannot be sidelined. While feedback from individuals is extremely valuable, feedback from organisations that represent whole societal groups and economic sectors can often be even more substantial in terms of content and representativeness.
The EESC, invited to act via its members in the conference plenary and as observers in the Executive Board, wants to be an institutional intermediary between the conference and national organisations representing civil society.
In the upcoming months, we will focus our efforts on spreading the news and on encouraging national, regional and local civil society organisations to take part in this unique celebration of participatory democracy.