The European Union welcomes a “world premiere”. The Conference on the Future of Europe ended on Monday 9 May, following a public consultation process, which resulted in the publication of 325 measures, including 49 proposals. These recommend major institutional reforms that involve a revision of the treaties, such as the end of the unanimity rule for the most important decisions, but also measures to improve citizen participation, the “autonomy” of the EU, or to accelerate the ecological transition.
The Elysée salutes “a moment of democratic breathing”on which Emmanuel Macron relied to call for a “treaty review”, during his speech in Strasbourg. This conference was indeed held on his initiative. It was he who came up with the idea in 2019, before being taken up and announced with great fanfare by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
A conference that did not take off
However, few citizens have heard of this famous conference, which has struggled to take off. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the process – which was supposed to take two years – was reduced to just one year. From a deliberative perspective, the most important instrument was the creation of “representative panels”, composed of 800 citizens, randomly selected from all over Europe, to formulate proposals.
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The only reservation to the representativeness of these panels, a third of the participants were between 16 and 24 years old, for “ pay special attention to young people,” explains the final report. These citizens were invited to debate over three weekends, on four themes defined in advance: a stronger economy, social justice and employment; European democracy; climate change and health; the European Union in the world and migration. Six countries, including France, have also set up “national panels”, whose recommendations have been submitted to the French government. In France, more than 700 people were mobilized.
Lack of diversity
Beyond these “panels”, citizen participation was mainly to go through a “multilingual digital platform”, launched on April 19, 2021. Everyone could propose and react to ideas, which were synthesized by the research firm and consulting Kantar Public. This platform has had limited success. It recorded only 52,346 effective participants. This is very little compared to the 447 million inhabitants of the European Union.
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This is enough to put the triumph of the European Union into perspective, which “a first, not only European but also worldwide, on such a scale and such a level of interactivity and multilingualism”. Importantly, the published data illustrates a lack of diversity among participants. 43% of these were graduates of higher education. Knowledge workers, executives and retirees were over-represented. In terms of the number of contributions per inhabitant, Luxembourg, Hungary and Estonia are the countries which have contributed the most. France is at the back of the pack.
Before being published, the citizen recommendations issued by the representative panels have passed through the filter of a “plenary assembly”. This was made up of citizens representing the panels, but also representatives of EU institutions, national or regional elected representatives, representatives of “civil society” and social partners. Conclusion: there were only 80 representatives of the citizens’ panels, against 108 representatives of the European Parliament or 54 of the European Council in this plenary assembly. The citizens who were to be at the heart of the process therefore found themselves in the minority when it came to deciding on the orientations, even if most of their proposals were taken up.
At the end of the last plenary meeting, they thus regretted the addition of a recommendation, which aims to give the European Parliament the possibility of voting on the budget of the European Union. “We express a divergent position (…) because it does not come from the European panels or the national panels and has not been sufficiently discussed within the plenary working group”they explained.
“Deliberative processes typically include forms of filters. The first being the choice of the topics discussed and the experts called upon to speak before the citizens’ assemblies. The last, the most complex, is that of the articulation between the recommendations issued and the public policies put in place thereafter.explains to Marianne researcher Dimitri Courant, specialist in citizen deliberation processes.
The risk of a sterile process
The whole question now is whether the proposals put forward will experience a political translation. The conference recommends in particular to reform the rule of unanimity, which implies a revision of the European treaties, which half of the Member States oppose. Thirteen countries, including Poland, Romania, Finland and Sweden, have already indicated that they would go against such changes, considering them as “ill-considered and premature attempts”. “This conference has shown that there is a gap between what people hope for and what Europe is able to deliver at the moment”recognized Roberta Metsola, the President of the European Parliament, who is trying for her part to obtain a strengthening of her powers.
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“The promise to bring European democracy closer to citizens by giving them a direct voice in concrete future political choices is laudable from a participatory democratic point of view. However, it was institutionally unrealistic from the outset, especially since there was no clear support from national governments”, says researcher Thu Nguyen, in a note published on the Jacques Delors Foundation website. For lack of having met with substantial enthusiasm, this Conference on the future of Europe risks having missed its objective of reconciling the EU and its citizens.