Future of Europe: it’s not about Treaty change, it’s about European Democracy

REV DEM – Michal Matlak interviews Alberto Alemanno* in the aftermath of the publication of the first batch of recommendations coming from the Conference on the Future of Europe Citizens’ Panel. They discuss what representativeness – if any – this group of citizens has, how the recommendations are facilitated and drafted, and what impact this might have on the future of Europe.

Michal Matlak interviews Alberto Alemanno* in the aftermath of the publication of the first batch of recommendations coming from the Conference on the Future of Europe Citizens’ Panel. This initiative provides an opportunity for a highly diverse group of randomly selected ‘ordinary’ European citizens to voice their wishes with EU-level decisionmakers on how to change the European Union. They discuss what representativeness – if any – this group of citizens has, how the recommendations are facilitated and drafted, and what impact this might have on the future of Europe.

Michal Matlak: The subject of our conversation falls squarely within one of your current academic interests, the Conference on the Future of Europe (see Alberto’s recent paper on that here). We are now mid-way in this self-proclaimed transnational democratic exercise, but still the vast majority of people in Europe still doesn’t know much about it. What is the Conference on the Future of Europe?

Alberto Alemanno: The Conference on the Future of Europe represents, at least in my opinion, an attempt at creating a new, yet temporary, transnational opportunity structure for participatory deliberation capable of compensating for the lack of a genuine, pan-EU political and media space. It dates back to the days before the last European elections in 2019, when President Macron decided to synchronically publish an op-ed all across Europe addressed to all EU citizens and calling for their input to shape Europe’s future. This idea was then picked up by Ursula von der Leyen when she was designated in a surprising set of circumstances as a possible solution to her ‘original sin’, the fact of having been designated by the European Council without being a Spitzenkandidaten, nor event running for a seat of the European Parliament.

Amid the pressure of the EU Parliament and public opinion, she promised that a  similar rocambolesque, and State-led appointment for the nomination of her successor would not happen again because by 2024, they would have fixed the ‘rules of the game’. And that in so doing,  following the Lisbon Treaty, a further  parliamentarization of the EU, linking the actual act of casting the ballot votes and the political color of the European Commission, would be needed. The Conference is a remedy to that, but is so much more in terms of process. In particular, it is a recognition that the ultimate constituent authority of the EU is not the Member States and the EU institutions but the citizens. 

What does the structure of the conference? 

The Conference has a pyramid-shaped structure across its three main levels: (i) the consultative – catalysed by the Multilingual Digital Platform set to define the agenda of the next two levels based on one of the nine teams, which range from social justice, the economy, human rights, the environment, all the way to democracy and the rule of law – ; (ii) the deliberative –  personified by Citizen’s Panels entailing the participation of 800 randomly selected, demographically representative EU citizens tasked to deliberate on that agenda – ; and, lastly, (iii) the deliberative-constituent, embodied by the 450-member Plenary mixing institutional actors with ordinary citizens, and expected to propose a set of recommendations to the EU political level by Spring 2022. 

The conference started in May this year, so we are already half a year after its launch. What happened up until now?

The conference was supposed to be launched on May 9th, 2019, and last for two years. This didn’t happen for a two main reasons. The first and foremost has to do with major inter-institutional and inter-governmental skirmishes:  neither the three institutions nor the governments couldn’t agree on the mandate and governance of the Conference. Until Spring 2021, there was simply not a clear political majority among the Member States supporting the launch of the initiative.

The second reason was COVID-19, that raised the question how to methodologically run transnational and multilingual citizens’ panels online. This one-year delay was put to good use  by the European Commission and the other institutions, as well as some member states, to rethink about the process, and ultimately led to the launch of the Conference on May 9th, 2021 but for a now shortened duration of approximately one year in total. 

After the conference has been up and running for the last 6 months, we are now approaching  a crucial moment because as citizens’ panels produce their recommendations, these will be immediately made public and discussed by both the media and political classes, both at national and EU level. By early February, we might have all the recommendations coming from the citizens panel out and therefore the plenary of the Conference, unprecedently mixing some   citizens’ panelists (the ambassadors) with elected representatives and other institutional actors, will have to position themselves on those recommendations. 

Over the last weekend, I’ve witnessed – acting as one of the expert observers – the emergence and adoption of the first batch of recommendations ever produced by the citizens in the so-called Panel 2 working on Democracy and the Rule of Law.  This gathered in Florence at the European University Institute, and will now be followed by the other three panels for their last round of deliberations. Out of the 42 recommendations that emerged out of these three weekends for Panel 2, 39 were adopted having reached the required threshold of 70% of support among participants. Usually, deliberation does not require voting. It’s more about identifying the arguments in favor or against a given idea. But in this instance, the Secretariat of the Conference required the professional facilitators to organize a vote. This was needed because most of these recommendations were developed by streams. There were five streams, and each stream was divided in subgroups. To give the chance to everybody to own those recommendations, there was a vote which is a bit of an anomaly in deliberative processes. This methodology has now been consolidated and will be extend to the other three missing panels.

You have acted as an expert observer during the Conference. What is the role you were asked to play?

Well, I’m speaking here as a researcher, but also as an observer to the conference, in particular to the citizen panel Democracy and the Rule of Law, and also as an expert. I’ve been providing a presentation on the channels of EU participation available to citizens during the second session, but in Florence the role of the experts was not only very minor but also indirect in nature. While we were not entitled to speak to the citizens during the sessions, we were asked to provide written answers to the questions raised by the citizens during the deliberation.

The facilitators, who are not experts in the matter, really managed to engage the citizens to discuss about issues that affect their daily life, and to do so with citizens who actually don’t have a transnational experience of life. 

If one looks at the conclusions that you posted on Twitter, which are also now available online officially, one might have an impression that this was a meeting of the European Federalists, or a very pro-European group. Is this the case that the citizens who were chosen were just by accident very pro-European, or was it deliberation that produced this kind of pro-European feelings? How was the integrity of this process secured? 

True: the recommendations look suspiciously integrationist in their orientation. Yet, based on my own observation, these recommendations are more the by-product of the genuine transnational experience gained by the Conference’s participants than the inevitable result of a supposedly pro-EU biased initiative.

While this is an EU-sponsored event, the methodology used respond to well-established and sound participatory deliberative practices.

In other words, once offered the opportunity to reflect upon their personal experience of the EU project together with their European peers, the randomly selected citizens don’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, pan-EU public debates are not the exclusive prerogative of pro-European voices, but rather a pre-requisite to contribute to the Union’s democratic life. As such, the conference’s citizens panels carry the potential to liberate the European project from its deeply engrained polarization between the pro-EU and the anti-EU voices, by eventually giving voice to the silent majority of EU citizens not belonging to any of these two camps. 

The group revealed statistically quite representative of European citizenry, and therefore you could experience that the majority of individuals had not travelled beyond their borders, were not used to talking about Europe, and they were certainly not used to using an interpreter.

It wasn’t easy, but this tells a lot about the genuine nature of the exercise. While the Conference was obviously pretty much pre-framed, perhaps over-engineered by the EU, the ensuing transnational conversation was ultimately created by relying on citizens who are quite ‘ordinary’, meaning they are more statistically representatives than those usually engaging with the EU.

I met professionals working for big corporations, but I also met pensioners, many young people, mainly students, but also workers who are below 25, because one quarter of the group is below 25. The overall process, I think, was sound. Obviously, we need to understand that this transnational deliberative exercise is quite new. It is the first time in which we have such a wide mini public in terms of volume and number of issues covered.

Probably the level of deliberation was not as intensive as it has been in Ireland or as it has been during the Climate Convention in France, and that mainly due to multilingualism as well as the breadth of themes discussed in lesser time, but overall I would say the integrity of the process was guaranteed.

Again, we also have to consider that the timing for selecting those citizens was limited. The methodology used, as far as we know (we don’t really have full publicity on this) is to basically rely on the telephone book of Europeans, and to identify 800+ holders of those numbers, to dial them up and to actually invite them to show up on two weekends in different cities of Europe, the first Strasbourg and the second one might’ve been Dublin, Warsaw, or Florence, and basically asking those citizens whether they wanted to come. Some people said no, some invited their family members or colleagues. We still don’t know the percentage of people who turned down the invitation. 

One highly problematic issue is the fact that there are and were few minorities in the panels. In Florence, there were very few people coming from disabled groups, and this was reflected also on the final recommendations. One of the three recommendations that was not adopted, but was very close (68-69%) to it, had to do with including minorities in policymaking. I think the failure to adopt this must be ascribed to the limited representation of those groups within the larger group. In sum, it might be too early to judge how sound this methodology is, and we probably need to get much more information, but overall the system was pretty sound.

You mentioned the recommendations which were not adopted. Could tell us very briefly the most important recommendations that achieved this threshold of 70%?

39 of the 42 achieved 70%. They are recommendations whose common trends are linked to the desire of citizens to be more informed about what is happening at the European level and how Europe is affecting their daily lives. We are talking about improving the media’s sphere, the public sphere, ensuring pluralism, ensuring a greater access to information about what decisions and how decisions are taken at European level. Overall, there is a call for accountability. We can feel this.

There are proposals that really ask to have independent citizen observers associated to all decision making at the European level. There are calls for providing much more information through the media, but also through Europe Direct and other offices all across Europe. 

There is a group of themes within and across this first batch of recommendations, from institutional reform to media freedom and greater accountability. There is even a push for the possibility of having a European constitution. There is the call for having more instruments of direct democracy, like a pan-European referendum. There are ideas about Europeanizing the political process through transnationalists, and even a push for reducing the number of policy fields in which unanimity is still required, but taking care to protect small Member States. 

There is another group of recommendations that has to do with gender equality, individual rights, which is much more focused on the individual and how the individual can get better chances at the local, national, and European level.

As you can see, proposals that might seem very federalist in nature have been genuinely out forward by the citizens, not necessarily because they are pro-EU, but just because they realize not to be put in the position today to understand, follow and contribute to EU integration as further unveiled by the European response to COVID. 

We are talking about the conclusions of one of the four panels, the panel number two. The same will happen in the other three panels, and then the recommendations will go to the plenary. Can we already say what would be the final product when the conference is scheduled to end in spring 2022, or is it too early? 

Well, there is a timeline and there is a process which might be slightly delayed when it comes to the citizens panels due to COVID-19, but I would say that by early-mid February we’re going to have all the recommendations out.

The beauty of the exercise is its transparency and accountability. The first recommendations were live tweeted and now the Parliament is circulating through the internet. There are ideas floating in the air and already shaping the political conversations within and across the continent. How to avoid them now?

In parallel, we’re going to have the plenary meeting once in January, February, and March. During this plenary, some of the so-called ambassadors, the citizens who will be presenting those recommendations, will need to deliberate with the other members of the plenary (basically the politicians) to hammer down a proposal selecting some of these recommendations, which will then in turn be sent to the so-called executive board after March. The executive board, which represents the three institutions, will have to wrap it up and send it to the political level, basically the European Council.

What is important to mention in the procedure is that in the plenary, the consensus is required among the three institutions and the national political representatives, but not necessarily by the citizens. But should the final proposal for recommendations from the plenary depart substantially from the recommendations put forth by the citizens, this will have to be mentioned in the proposal. So, there’s a sort of ‘dissenting opinion’ mechanism that may enable the media and ultimately to hold political leaders accountable  should they actually distancing themselves  from the original recommendations. This is the only major guarantee that these recommendations might have some weight and possibly stick to the very end of the process.

Many people are asking themselves what result of the conference will be beyond what is written in the official documents. Also, especially after the coalition agreements in Germany that mentions both the conference and the treaty change. I remember from our last conversation that you stressed the importance of the process and not of the outcome.

For you, it was not key to change the treaties, but more to change the way decisions are being made on the European level. What would be in your opinion the most important outcome of this conference?

My prediction regarding the outcome has to do with my own understanding of this conference. I don’t see it as a preparatory process to a treaty change. I rather think of this process as an attempt at creating a new temporary transnational opportunity structure for participatory deliberation that might be capable of compensating for the lack of a genuine pan-European political and media space. 

If we accept that this is the ultimate goal, the most likely outcome is not necessarily a treaty change or a major policy re-orientation by the von der Leyen Commission, but rather a political commitment to embed a European Citizens’ Assembly, or analogous transnational deliberative settings, into the EU day-to-day decision-making. 

The question will be then how we’re going to design the structure. At which stage, if any, of the policy process this citizens’ assembly should come in. Should it be at the very top, playing an agenda setting role? Should it intervene at the pre-legislative phase in parallel to the public consultation? Or should rather step in when a Commission proposal is sent to the parliament and Council, in a sort of deliberative parliamentary working group? Or or even ex-post, once a European policy is not performing well, allowing the citizens to express their desire for change and for revision, like a participatory REFIT?

I think all these options are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They can also be combined, but I think they finally raise a broader, difficult question. 

What is the real added value we are looking for in institutionalizing a European citizen assembly? Is it about input legitimacy, output legitimacy? Is it about creating greater accountability along the process as many citizens sitting in the panels seem to ask for? Unless we address this question of what is the rationale is for a European citizens’ assembly, we’re not going to be able to get the right design and make it fit into the day-to-day European institutional architecture. 

To me the added value of these assemblies and the conference is that the citizens who participate in it are randomly chosen, because this gives us this opportunity to get to the people who are normally not part of the process and are not interested in the EU. I’ll ask you because it seems that in the air there is this paradigm change that we think our democracy could be reformed through these assemblies where citizens are randomly chosen. It seems to be the comeback of the old Greek democratic idea. Is this particular element really so important? 

There is no doubt that the conference must be situated within a broader, global historical contingent effort at getting better and more legitimate policy outcomes by involving ordinary citizens in a fuller and more systematic way in the policy process, in particular on the most intractable issues. The conference is part of this broader trend.

This is ultimately an attempt at rejuvenating representative democracy by creating mechanisms that are complementary – not antagonistic to nor aimed at replacing – representation. Doing this at the European level seems particularly fitting because Europe is felt to be far away and not intelligible enough for citizens to be part of the process, and therefore the format of mini-publics seemed to address the old conundrum of how we can get more ‘ordinary’ people involved in the day-to-day decision-making. 

The Conference must also be situated within a broader political constellation, which might deeply shaping its institutional and political response. We have a new government in Germany on a coalition agreement that mentioned transnational lists. It also mentioned the possibility of setting up a permanent German citizens’ assembly. More broadly, we assist – amid Next Generation EU, more and more governments positioning themselves on major reforms that have been embarked upon individually but also collectively.  We see the French experience already having two citizens’ assemblies. We see a lot of signs also from the other two countries that belong to this core of pro-European governments, like Spain and Italy, for having these kinds of experiences.

I think it will be relatively easy to gather some consensus across Europe for embedding a European citizens’ assembly into the European decision-making and into the actual European architecture.

The final question is on the number of citizens involved, because this is one of the major critiques of the conference that’s not totally illegitimate. Not many Europeans know about the conference, not many Europeans registered on the platform, and it seems that the conference didn’t awaken huge interest. Do you think that destroys the legitimacy of the results of the conference? 

It is a legitimate question that must be unpacked further as we go along with this conference, which is just midway.

There’s no doubt that we haven’t created a constitutional moment. We don’t see millions of people on the European platform. We don’t see media attention. There were only 58 journalists at the EUI panel, probably the most important one thus far, and there no Brussels correspondent who made the effort to come to Florence.

This is a problem, but at the same time I think the current mechanism of having these 800 citizens – statistically representative of the EU population – somehow compensates for the lack of mobilization across the European Union. The random citizens are like you and me – but much more – com people that are similar to the people existing across Europe and representative of different cohorts, up to a certain extent, certainly more than in the past. 

Will this be enough to offset the lack of representation and involvement of citizens at the level of the platform, when we know that at the end of the day in the plenary we have our national and European representative sitting there, so we have also some political representation? In a way, what we see no is a potential clash of competing claims of representation. The ordinary citizens being sorted out and at the same time, the political leaders at the national and the European level being voted. The challenge will be to make sure that these competing representative claims will be able to stay together and merge, and to come up with a process that will be owned and co-owned by all these entities and actors.

For this, the jury is still out. We need to see whether ultimately the national political classes will be somehow positioning themselves on the process and in particular, on the recommendations in the coming months. 

My final claim is that it would be impossible for both the national and the European political processes not to position themselves on those recommendations. This will be the key moment. This will be the moment in which this process will become the process affecting all European citizens, because these ideas will be shaping national political programs, the next European parliamentary elections, and the next political agendas of the different European political groups. 

This will be somehow unavoidable. The conference will become this huge elephant in the room that will be impossible to avoid. This is going to happen by the end of spring with the presidential elections overlapping with the French presidency. With the elections in Hungary, with the elections happening in a few other countries, and in those national competitions, the conference will be a part of their local electoral game. 

I already see this happening with the French presidential election. We see all these opponents to the incumbent, President Macron, who are positioning themselves on Europe. Europe will become the theme of the next French Presidential elections in a way which is totally new, and in different terms, will probably happen the same in Hungary. Interestingly enough, the terms of reference for that national conversation and trasnational conversations is going to happen will be those framed by the Citizens’ Panels recommendations.  and in different terms, will probably happen the same in Hungary.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos

*Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor in EU Law and Policy at HEC in Paris, and one of the leading voices on the democratization of the European Union. His research is centered on how the law may be used to improve people’s lives, in particular through the adoption of power-shifting reforms countering social, economic, and political inequalities within European societies and beyond. He has written extensively on risk regulation, public health, consumer rights, food policy as democratic innovation and participatory democracy. He’s a regular contributor to various media outlets.