EESC demands ‘full say’ in upcoming Conference on Future of Europe

The body representing civil society in Europe says it wants to be in the “driving seat” of the Conference that starts on 9 May and will last a year.
European Commission Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

29 Apr 2021

The overarching idea is that the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) should be the vehicle to bring about long-lasting change in the EU, including an increased and more meaningful involvement of citizens and of organised civil society in EU decision-making.

EESC President Christa Schweng says there should be a particular focus on the input and participation of the EESC and organised civil society.

Schweng also stressed the importance of achieving “tangible outcomes” for a forum that will last one year.

She said, “The Conference must make concrete and measurable progress and not just consist of non-binding discussions; that means the ideas expressed during the Conference events should result in concrete recommendations for EU actions.”

Schweng also insisted on the need to regain citizens’ ownership of the EU.

“The future of Europe also needs a new, positive narrative. We have to prove and remind that Europe is a great place to be and to prosper. Moreover, the voice of organised European civil society cannot be sidelined. If we really want to bring the European project back to citizens, civil society should be in the driving seat.”

The EESC, she says, asks that the EU supports “the pivotal role played by civil society organisations in promoting and defending European values, democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law, against increasing illiberalism, populism and ‘shrinking civic space’.”

“The Conference must make concrete and measurable progress and not just consist of non-binding discussions; that means the ideas expressed during the Conference events should result in concrete recommendations for EU actions” Christa Schweng, EESC President

A resolution adopted by the EESC, ‘A new narrative for Europe’, contains a series of recommendations “to make the most of the opportunity” presented by the Conference. The aim, it says, should be to “design a more prosperous, sustainable and equitable future for the EU.”

Leaders of the three groups represented at the EESC have endorsed these demands.

Stefano Mallia, president of the Employers Group, wants the Conference to “focus on the most pressing needs and expectations of European companies, workers and citizens.”

Oliver Ropke, for the Workers’ Group, says the Conference can be “an opportunity to give a new impetus to our vision of the Union built on strengthening the links between the people of Europe.”

Diversity Europe Group president Séamus Boland says, “The Conference is an opportunity to bring about sustainable and people-centred change. What we want to see come out of the Conference is a genuine recognition by European and national authorities that civil society is integral to identifying solutions and has a key role in building trust, shaping public opinions and acting as positive agents of change.”

Irish MEP Barry Andrews told this site on Wednesday, “I fully endorse the call for citizens’ involvement at all stages of shaping a Europe that meets the expectations of our citizens.”

“Ireland is a pioneer in participatory democracy through the successful deployment of Citizens’ Assemblies. This model was critical to unlocking some extremely contentious public policy issues.”

“I fully endorse the call for citizens’ involvement at all stages of shaping a Europe that meets the expectations of our citizens”

Barry Andrews, Renew Europe

Commenting on the role of civil society, Roger Casale, of New Europeans, a civil society group, told this site, “Christa Schweng is right to demand that civil society should be at the heart of the debate about the future of Europe and that the Conference should have tangible outcomes.”

“One such outcome should be the establishment of a permanent mechanism for consulting citizens directly between elections as first proposed by Europe’s People’s Forum.”

After the recent launch of the Conference’s multilingual digital platform, its executive board has fine-tuned arrangements ahead of the launch, which will take place on Europe Day.

It will be broadcast live and will feature remote citizen participation and interventions by the presidents of the three EU institutions.

It comprises European citizens’ panels, each of which will comprise 200 citizens, and will ensure that at least one female and one male citizen per Member State is included.

Citizens will be chosen randomly to set up panels that are representative of the EU’s diversity, in terms of geographic origin, gender, age, socioeconomic background and level of education. Young people between 16 and 25 will make up one-third of each panel.

Parliament’s co-chair of the Executive Board, Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, said, “We are preparing the ground to get as much interaction as possible between the two starting tracks of the Conference - the platform and the citizens’ panels.”

“The next step is to set up the plenary to reflect Europe’s diversity of opinion and take up the ideas and suggestions from citizens, on which the success of the Conference depends.”

Commission Vice-President for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Šuica, said, “This Conference is all about engaging and empowering citizens. We keep them at the forefront of all our thinking on the Conference.”

“Whether they are pro-Europe or sceptical, we want to hear from them, so we can respond to their concerns.”

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