The first of the citizens’ panels of the will be held in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 19 June, it has been confirmed.
Civil society is supposed to be at the heart of the conference, which finally got going over the weekend, and the citizens’ panels will be a chance for the public to have their say on future EU reforms.
The long-awaited kick-off event went ahead in Strasbourg on Sunday despite fears that disagreements over the way the conference will operate might lead to its cancellation.
However, new rules dictating how the conference, especially its influential plenary, will function were thrashed out over the weekend by representatives from each of the EU institutions, including Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian Prime Minister.
On Monday, a source close to the discussion confirmed details of how the process will work, saying the conference will comprise 433 participants, including some 108 MEPs and 108 national parliamentarians.
The plenary, expected to meet four times over the 12 month duration of the conference, will be made up of 108 representatives from the citizens’ panels, two representatives from each national government, three from the European Commission and 18 each from the Brussels-based Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and Committee of the Regions (COR).
"The Conference plenary composition is certainly better than it was. If we really want to bring the European project back to citizens, civil society should be in the driving seat” EESC president Christa Schweng
There will also be representatives of social partners and civil society.
At Sunday’s launch – Schuman Day 9 May - the presidents of the main EU institutions delivered set piece speeches welcoming the start of the conference, while over 500 citizens attended the event remotely.
French president Emmanuel Macron also spoke, saying, “I'm quite a happy man to see that we can gather once again together during this Europe day and very pleased that we're celebrating it with a shared political commitment orchestrated by what will become our universal language. “
“Here we are gathered in Strasbourg on 9 May, which tells us a great deal about who we are, how we're going to work to shape ourselves after the 70 years of a common experience and looking at the founding moments in our archives.”
Ministers for European affairs, MEPs, national MPs and other VIP guests also joined remotely.
In the coming weeks, discussions will take place via the public panels, plenary and also the conference’s Multilingual Digital Platform, launched recently by the Commission.
There will also be a youth event organised by the European Parliament in October.
“There is very little that a top down approach can do to galvanise the energy that comes from a grassroots movement for the renewal of democracy in Europe. We need to calibrate our expectations and recognise that this will be hard to achieve in one year alone" New Europeans' Roger Casale
Speaking to this site on Monday, EESC president Christa Schweng said, “For me the most important thing is to start work without further delay and to deliver tangible results for European employers, workers and civil society at large.”
“As for the Conference plenary, composition is certainly better than it was. If we really want to bring the European project back to citizens, civil society should be in the driving seat.”
Against that background, I am pleased that the role of the EESC as a voice of organised European civil society is adequately reflected and the balance with the COR is kept as provided for in the Treaties. I personally do understand, social partners in their request being given a more prominent role.”
Further comment came from Roger Casale, of New Europeans, a civil society group that aims to be closely involved in the conference.
The former UK Labour MP, who has championed the conference for several years, told PM, “Whatever the institutional arrangements, the Conference on the Future of Europe can only work if citizens see it as a vehicle to express their hopes, aspirations and dreams for the future (which it is).”
“There is very little that a top down approach can do to galvanise the energy that comes from a grassroots movement for the renewal of democracy in Europe. We need to calibrate our expectations and recognise that this will be hard to achieve in one year alone - the organisers of the conference should commit from the outset to creating a permanent mechanism for citizen consultation in Europe between elections."
Elsewhere, in a joint letter, EU heads of state said, “We call on all EU citizens to use this unique opportunity to shape our common future. It may seem that there is not sufficient time for an in-depth discussion on the future of Europe in the current situation.”
The statement continued, “On the contrary, the COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of what is truly important in our lives. It has showed the strengths of European integration, as well as its weaknesses.”
“We need to talk about all of this”