Civil society organisations like New Europeans and the Citizens Take Over Europe alliance we co-founded last May have a significant role to play in promoting the conference and encouraging participation.
In fact we in the pro-European movement need to recognise that we are as much part of the Brussels bubble as those who work for the EU’s institutions.
If CoFoE becomes simply a conversation between the EU and organised civil society an important opportunity will have been lost.
So far 780,000 EU citizens have accessed the digital online platform that allows individuals and groups to post ideas under ten headings for the future of Europe.
Inspired by initiatives such as Europe Future Fringe, an online network set up in 2019 to encourage organisations to showcase and share each other’s ideas, the online digital platform is a valuable addition to the CoFoE’s array of regional, national and European citizens’ assemblies.
If CoFoE becomes simply a conversation between the EU and organised civil society an important opportunity will have been lost
The EU’s population stands at over 445 million, so participation is 0.2%. This is still an improvement on previous attempts at engaging EU citizens. It is a case of the glass being 0.2% full not 99.8% empty. We should celebrate this modest progress.
COVID has reminded us not only how difficult it can be to secure consensus for top-down policy measures but also exposed the scale of the challenges we face to build a healthy, green and digital future for Europe.
The Conference is an unprecedented attempt to tap into the aspirations of all who live and work in Europe. It will take time to do this sustainably but many in the EU institutions know very well that citizen engagement is the key to the resilience of the European project. Three key obstacles stand in the way.
Firstly, the Conference has many more detractors than admirers. Illiberal authoritarian nationalists like Viktor Orban will be looking forward to saying: “Well that was a gigantic waste of time, we won’t be doing that again.” Were such views to prevail they could set back the cause of citizen engagement for decades.
Secondly, despite efforts by the Joint Secretariart of the Conference, the citizens panels, the face-to-face assemblies that complement the contributions being made through the online platform, are not yet sufficiently inclusive.
An open letter from 50 NGOs including New Europeans has called on the Conference to implement a diversity assessment of the citizens’ panels and to take measures to ensure the inclusion of marginalised communities.
In their reply, the co-Chairs (Guy Verhofstadt, Dubravka Šuica and Gašper Dovžan acknowledged the need to work for a more inclusive approach but stopped short of introducing measures to monitor the degree of diversity amongst participants.
The problem, however, as Michaeal Moua, the EU’s first Anti-Racism Co-ordinator has pointed out, is that without measuring and quantifying the extent of discrimination and inequalities in Europe it is very difficult to effectively tackle them.
“All EU policy areas need to take anti-racism into account, and we need to ensure the intersectional viewpoint,” she said following her appointment earlier this year.
Those of us fighting the European cause in our communities have welcomed the Conference because we know it is an opportunity for our voices to be heard. We should be careful however not to overplay our hand by turning it into a lobbying exercise
The Co-chairs would do well to heed the EU’ Anti-Racism Coordinator’s advice if they want to ensure that all can feel that the CoFoE is a safe space to bring forward their ideas and make their voices heard in the conversation about Europe’s future.
The third obstacle has to do with civil society organisations themselves. Those of us fighting the European cause in our communities have welcomed the Conference because we know it is an opportunity for our voices to be heard. We should be careful however not to overplay our hand by turning it into a lobbying exercise.
Having opened the door to new instruments of citizen engagement in Europe, civil society organisations must avoid the temptation to push our own issues to the fore. Such behaviour would crowd out the voices of the 99.8% of EU citizens who are yet to access the online platform, or notice the acronym CoFoE on their smart phones.
Instead, civil society organisations need to respond by showing the institutions that we are also ready take responsibility, widen participation and build a more inclusive conversation about Europe’s future.
The Conference can then become the next but important step in developing new instruments to engage with citizens. In turn, that can be a valuable way to build consensus, source new policy ideas and strengthen European democracy.