The future of Europe: who holds the baton?

Social Europe - Alberto Alemanno - 27/01/22

Political leaders must not turn the Conference on the Future of Europe into another EU black box.

Different voices—last Saturday’s plenary of the Conference on the Future of Europe (Mathieu Cugnot, EP)

Nine months after its delayed inception, the Conference on the Future of Europe is entering its second, concluding phase. The first two of the randomly selected European Citizens’ Panels have produced their recommendations, now transferred to the political level.

Last Friday and Saturday, the conference plenary—which in an unprecedented manner mixes elected politicians and other institutional actors with ordinary citizens—met to discuss the first 91 citizens’ recommendations received thus far. The two remaining panels, on ‘EU in the world / migration‘, and ‘A stronger economy, social justice and jobs / Education, culture, youth and sport / Digital transformation’, are due to finalise their work by the end of February.

This was the first opportunity for the citizens to present the outcomes of their respective panels to the plenary’s members, including national and European representatives, European commissioners and civil-society organisations, and for all members to interact with those citizens. It marked a key moment for the conference.

Yet, while it is in the end up to the plenary members—not the citizens’ panels nor their representatives sitting in the plenary—to decide what to do with the recommendations, how they should do so remains surprisingly undefined. Three months before the end of the conference, we still don’t know how the citizens’ recommendations will be debated and discussed, and eventually their fate decided.

Process undetermined

It is ultimately up to the executive board—which gathers the representatives of the three main European Union institutions (the Council of the EU, the European Commission and the European Parliament)—to formalise the conference’s final output. But the process leading to such a decision remains undetermined.

This would represent a manifest anomaly in any deliberative procedure, whose successful unfolding requires all actors involved—notably the citizens and public at large—to be informed in advance about the process. It is even more so in the EU context, in which member states’ actions (and inactions) remain typically hidden from, or at least unaccountable to, the public.

Should the conference’s plenary become yet another impenetrable EU ‘black box’, it will be impossible for the citizens involved in the panels, as well as the public, to understand how their political representatives, be they national or European, have positioned themselves on their recommendations, especially when it comes to the boldest and most unconventional. Who will be the plenary’s members who rejected a particular proposal and on what grounds? Where could they then be held accountable and by whom?

The absence of a clearly defined, predictable framework governing the conference’s decision-making does not only put at risk the democratic legitimacy of the initiative but also defies the rationale it pursues—the creation of an unprecedented, albeit temporary, transnational political space capable of transcending the 27 parallel, siloed public conversations on Europe’s future. What if that much-sought-after transnational conversation gets muted?

Competing representations

In this context of structural and procedural uncertainty, several cleavages emerge, especially among the various categories of plenary members. There is a palpable tension between the citizens, representing their original panels in the plenary, and the political representatives, who represent their constituencies. A battle of competing representations is at play.

If most political representatives perceive the randomly-selected citizens, in the absence of an electoral mandate, as less legitimate to act in the political realm, the citizens tend to distrust the political class, whom they perceive as disengaged at best or opportunistic at worst. Indeed, some citizen panellists have complained that some of the few engaged MEPs in the conference have been giving the impression of trying to ‘force’ some themes into the discussion, such as EU electoral reform (through the introduction of transnational lists).

Another, albeit less intuitive, schism seems to emerge between the citizen panels’ representatives and the civil-society organisations involved in the plenary. As only the former were involved in the panels, some citizen panellists seem to wonder whether and how non-governmental organisations could legitimately speak on their behalf while operating in the plenary.

But there is an even greater, structural cleavage—that between the citizens sitting in the plenary and the overall conference governance. Ultimately, these citizens play, by design, a more minor role than other, ‘institutional’ players: they don’t chair any working groups instituted within the plenary, nor is their ‘consensus’ required for the approval of groups’ proposals. In addition, while very few procedures for the plenary have been developed, some things are strictly disallowed, such as working groups writing anything down—which makes them talking shops rather than privileged loci of transnational deliberation.

Democratic game-changers

Unless the conference’s leadership can overcome these cleavages, which are tarnishing both the quality and quantity of the plenary’s deliberation, it may risk wasting this initiative’s most precious accomplishment. Indeed, if embraced, many of the citizen recommendations already emerging from the conference could be game-changers for the EU’s democratic character: mandating public broadcasters to cover better EU developments, holding EU-wide referendums, making the disbursement of EU funding for member states conditional on respect for media pluralism and the rule of law, and building a European health union.

While for some these recommendations would be suspiciously integrationist—with this put down to a supposed pro-EU bias in the initiative—they are more the genuine by-product of the transnational experience gained by the conference’s participants. Ultimately, being better informed about what and how national leaders decide in Brussels or enjoying larger, pan-European public debates or a more integrated EU health space is not the exclusive prerogative of pro-European voices but a prerequisite of contributing to the union’s democratic life.

Being the first attempt at embarking on institutional reform since 2007—when the failed project of a constitution for Europe ended up with the Lisbon treaty—the Conference on the Future of Europe represents a precious opportunity to clarify the continent’s future direction, with its inhabitants in the driving seat. It would be a pity to veer off that path due to the lack of a clear process, commonly agreed among its main actors. The conference’s mission should be to break open EU black boxes—not make more of them.