The European Parliament has always been very clear: the Conference on the Future of Europe cannot only be a simple dialogue with citizens; it must be a forum for debate and reflection, directly involving European citizens.
It must be an innovative forum in terms of citizenship representation capacity, tangible in all corners of Europe. This is not just another digital consultation or a well-intentioned call for participation. Following the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, there have been four major European crises.
First, there was the sovereign debt crisis, then the crisis around migration, Brexit and, finally, the Coronavirus pandemic. Each crisis has created huge political challenges for the European Union and all of them together have substantially changed the assumptions that justified the great step that was the Treaty of Lisbon. In addition to all of this has come a profound change in global geopolitics, which also forces the Union to rethink its global role.
With all of these changes in mind, the EU must strategically rethink its future, in order to prepare itself for the next 10-20 years. Moreover, citizens’ engagement in this process of reflection and reform cannot be business as usual; it cannot be a continuation of previous initiatives, which were positive, but had no intention of rethinking the EU’s place in the coming decades.
That is why it is so important to extend the discussion to the entire territory of the Union, for example, organising a debate in each European library, from the smallest village to the most cosmopolitan city. It is essential to experience the so-called “agoras” - face-to-face assemblies of citizens representing European diversity, very much inspired by the Irish precedent of citizen assemblies.
Without this type of qualified participation, the Conference will be just another centralist initiative, more top-down than truly bottom-up. Right now, many people want to pre-define the Conference’s agenda. On the one hand, those who want to reduce it to the policy debate, for example, what new competences can be attributed to the EU (health, for example).
“No subject should be taboo. The Conference on the Future of Europe’s agenda must be free. There must be room for manoeuvre so that citizens can set the agenda for their discussion”
On the other, those who want to focus the discussion on purely institutional issues (such as the electoral system and powers of the institutions). In my view, no subject should be taboo.
The Conference on the Future of Europe’s agenda must be free; there must be room for manoeuvre so that citizens can set the agenda for their discussion. Of course, the Conference, as such, is not a deliberative structure.
Therefore, its results and conclusions will, in the end, be forwarded on to the relevant EU institutions. The EU is a representative democracy and only representatives with democratic legitimacy can make decisions on behalf of the European people.
But I have no doubt that the input from the Conference will make a massive contribution to the strategic decisions on the future of our Union. We have all the means to promote unparalleled citizen participation and to design a future for the EU that matches our citizens’ aspirations and dreams.