Releasing Europe’s democratic genie

SOCIAL EUROPE - Alberto Alemanno - 1/07/21

The Conference on the Future of Europe might sow the seeds of a genuine European political space.

After a year of wrangling among the European Union institutions, causing its delay, the Conference on the Future of Europe gatheredfor the first time in Strasbourg on June 19th. It might be tempting to dismiss the conference as yet another Brussels gimmick—a top-down, perfunctory exercise with a major pro-EU bias and with only one parent, the French president, Emmanuel Macron. Yet that would be premature at best and fallacious at worst.

This is the first time since 2007 that the EU has embarked on a process of institutional reform. To do so in these geopolitically unprecedented times—inside and outside the union—appears quite remarkable. Some might even call it brave, if others reckless. But due to the dysfunctionality of today’s Europe, the conference emerges—as dramatically revealed by the pandemic—as a by-product of the union’s incomplete nature. If the EU had a mature transnational political space, such an exercise would not be needed.

And this conference differs greatly from the 2003 Convention on the Future of Europe, which drafted the EU’s never-ratified constitution. It is not set to reform the treaties directly. Rather, it is meant to be a preparatory process, which could lead the European Council to initiate treaty change.

This suggests EU leaders may have learnt from the past. Rather than getting entangled in highly divisive and abstract themes, the conference will put substantive policy issues affecting EU citizens at its core. Should those issues call for solutions the EU can’t offer within its constitutional prerogatives, then treaty change would be driven by citizen demand—not from the top.

Innovative design

The conference is also unparalleled in its innovative design, methods and scale. It has been devised as the first-ever pan-European public consultation, jointly organised by the EU institutions, a pyramidal structure on three levels:

  • at the bottom, the first-ever transnational platform, open to anyone willing to share ideas or organise or attend an event, will set—through a system moderated by artificial intelligence—the agenda of the next two levels;

  • the first transnational citizens’ panels—composed of randomly selected citizens from all over Europe and different walks of like—are tasked to deliberate inter alia on issues previously defined via the platform;

  • at the top is a plenary of 433 members, including not only members of the European and national parliaments but also citizens from the panels, as well as (few) social-partner representatives—tasked to review, consider and wrap up the proposals, thereby acting as a real ‘constituent’ power. This mix of elected representatives, ordinary citizens and intermediary bodies deliberating jointly is a world first.

An EU-run platform acting as the sole entry point is set to reduce the diversity of voices by self-selection among participants. The citizens’ panels, due to their random selection, may however partly compensate for the limited representativeness of the platform’s input. Much will ultimately depend on the demographics of those citizens who, having been randomly selected, accept serving on the panels. Incentive-based mechanisms, such as daily fees and work permissions, must be considered.

Pro-EU bias might be further offset by the presence of 100+ representatives from the citizens’ panels in the plenary itself,  as well as those representing national panels. The hybrid nature of the plenary, composed of representatives and ordinary citizens, is however limited insofar as citizens are mere participants, not co-decision-makers, when it comes to approval of the proposals to be sent to the political level.

Yet those proposals won’t be decided by unanimity, rather by mere ‘consensus’. This suggests member states might have indirectly—and perhaps unwittingly—relinquished their traditional veto power over institutional reform, by accepting that a wide majority might suffice to let new, perhaps even radical, ideas into the political debate.

In addition, in the absence of clearly defined aims, methods and processes, each level of the conference is set to remain quite free in interpreting its mandate, to adapt to the circumstances. This embedded experimental design is foreign to EU integration hitherto—notably to its institutional design, which has been characterised by some form of control by the member states.

As such, the conference carries the potential to act as a Trojan horse for new ideas and dynamics within the union. Some ideas and dynamics may actually stick, transcending the eight-month expiry date imposed by the member states on the conference. This might be the first time the EU institutions and the member states have created an institutional mechanism where they might end up not being in control. As evidenced by the attempts by Hungary and Poland (and friendly non-governmental organisations) to hijack the conference, this also implies letting in critical and antagonistic voices to the EU project.

New dynamics

These features alone are a testament to the democratic potential of the conference. Its capacity to prompt institutional reform from the bottom up, its embrace of democratic innovation, its striving for popular representativeness and its experimental design suggest that, regardless of the outcome, the exercise might be conducive to new, genuine and permanent, transnational dynamics.

Still, don’t expect the Conference on the Future of Europe to go down in history as a constitutional moment, driven by millions of citizens populating the platform. That’s why, contrary to conventional wisdom, its success should not be measured against its ability to prompt treaty change. Rather, it should be gauged on whether it can mainstream substantive new policy ideas and institutionalise democratic innovations, such as citizens’ assemblies, at the transnational level, thus sowing the seeds of a genuine EU political space.

For once that genie is out, it will be difficult to put it back in the bottle.


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