Despite its limitations and public neglect, the Conference on the Future – an unprecedented exercise of transnational democracy entailing the participation of randomly selected citizens – is set to go down into history as a major catalyst for EU integration.
Initially dismissed as yet another Brussels gimmick—a top-down, perfunctory exercise with a major pro-EU bias—, the Conference revealed a genuine, possibly one of the most consequential, attempts at upgrading the Union to the new geo-political and social realities of the continent. And for the first time it did so with some citizens’ involvement.
As the Conference just ended, let’s examine what we have learned from this unprecedented democratic exercise before predicting what its legacy might be.
A new logic: It’s the citizen, stupid!
Contrary to previous efforts at institutional reform, it’s not the EU member states nor the EU institutions but hundreds of citizens of Europe – of different geographic origin, gender, age, socioeconomic background and level of education – who this time demand for a overhaul of the bloc.
This is a game-changer insofar citizens have historically been side-lined in European integration. The new logic underpinning the Conference, as a citizen-driven, bottom-up process, may put governments and institutions in an unprecedented bind.
Following the publication of citizens’ recommendations, no political actor in the EU – not even the democratically elusive European Council gathering all heads of state and government – will be able to escape some form of accountability on how it intends to follow up on citizens’ demands. Hence the present effort by some capitals to delegitimize the process instead of taking issue with its recommendations.
A new method: deliberation works
As revealed by previous citizens’ assemblies organised at the national level, the Conference on the Future of Europe proved capable of unlocking some of the most contentious issues within the bloc, ranging from the need to have an EU-wide energy policy to a unified electoral competition.
Similarly to what happened in Ireland where citizens’ deliberations led to the liberalisation of abortion laws and legalisation of same-sex marriage, the EU citizens’ fresh look at some of the hardest topics confronting the Union paved the way to EU political reform. While this conclusion was facilitated by a sentiment of shared destiny prompted by extraordinary events such as the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Conference deliberative format was conducive to – and ready to crystallise into political demand – such a realisation.
Deliberation by randomly selected citizens can work, also in a transnational setting as the EU.
The new logic underpinning the Conference, as a citizen-driven, bottom-up process, may put governments and institutions in an unprecedented bind.Alberto Alemanno
A new reflex: trust the citizens
The Conference also broke another myth that had been chasing European integration since its inception.
Due its original, historical attempt at constraining popular sovereignty in the aftermath of World War II, the EU has historically been suspicious toward any expression of popular will. Put it simply, how could one still trust people who brought fascists to power? Yet today the Union’s atavistic hostility toward citizens’ input might be in the process of being overcome.
The Conference’s experience plainly revealed that the expression of popular will can be trusted, and that it may be particularly needed in a Union still lacking a common public and political sphere.
Indeed, once offered the opportunity to reflect upon their personal experience of the EU project together with their European peers in the framework of the Conference, the randomly selected citizens didn’t shy away from acknowledging the Union’s imperfect nature and ask instead for a more intelligible, responsive, and accountable Europe.
Ultimately, asking to be better informed about what and how national leaders decide in Brussels, or calling for greater, EU-wide public debates are not the exclusive prerogative of pro-European voices, but rather a pre-requisite to contribute to the Union’s democratic life, or that of any other democratic community worth of this name.
A new feedback loop between participation and representation
One of the most challenging aspects of participatory democracy has historically been how to connect the citizens’ input with the traditional mechanisms of representative democracy.
The EU is no exception: the participatory and representative components of EU democracy are like ships that pass in the night. This is because EU participatory channels – be they European citizens’ initiatives, petitions, or public consultations – are not intended to impact directly how decisions are made, but simply to legitimize existing policy approaches.
How did the Conference change that? It established the first ever plenary assembly mixing randomly-selected citizens presenting their recommendations with elected representatives deliberating jointly. Far for providing a silver bullet, the EU experimented a mechanism exposing – on an equal and mutual basis – elected citizens with citizens who had been drawn. This established and nurtured a ‘safe space’ within which the competing claims of representation – by the elected (‘I was elected’) and by the citizens (‘I was drawn’) could be reconciled. Despite the dominant corporatist bias among political representatives vis-à-vis participatory democracy, they also realize how much representation urgently need an additional source of legitimacy.
As the Conference has come to an end, the challenge is how to codify these major learnings into the constitutional, administrative and ultimately political culture of the EU.
The first (and only) tangible outcome of the Conference (thus far) has been the public acknowledgement by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who declared herself ready to learn to establish a permanent EU citizens’ assembly to receive their advice before submitting important legislative initiatives. As this can be done without re-opening the Treaties and appears to receive bipartisan consensus, this might reveal the most immediate Conference’s legacy.
The Conference’s experience plainly revealed that the expression of popular will can be trusted, and that it may be particularly needed in a Union still lacking a common public and political sphere.Alberto Alemanno
When it comes to other taboo-breaking citizens’ recommendations, several of them do require transferring new power to the Union – from taxation, energy to education – to be realized, and only a treaty change may do.
As a result the question urgently facing EU leaders in the aftermath of the Conference is whether to content ourselves with the patchy responses provided by the Union to the new emergencies – as twelve countries resisting treaty chance publicly demand (including the next two rotating presidencies of the Council, Sweden and Czechia) – , or rather to embark on a ‘quantum leap’ and upgrade the Union to the ‘brave new world’ in which we find ourselves in.
The answer to this question, which will be first discussed by the next European Council in June, will not only define EU’s course of history but also that of its 450 million and the many more waiting at its doors (ask the Ukrainians, Moldovans, Georgians, etc.).
Europe is, once again, on the making. And from now onwards with citizens on board.