By Niccolo Milanese, Director, European Alternatives

A decade of crisis from the financial crash in 2018 to 2019 arguably led to the emergence of a new generation of European civic actors, named in an LSE/European Alternatives report the ‘insurgent Europeans’. Interlinked crises undermined the capacity of Europe to uphold solidarity in its economy, to express meaningful solidarity with democratic movements across the Mediterranean and in its Eastern neighbourhood, to welcome those fleeing war and persecution, to address Brexit and its underlying causes, to uphold the rule of law and fundamental rights, and to show global responsibility in addressing the effects of climate change. In response to these incapacities, the far-right nationalist movements recruited new adherents and were able to dominate increasingly large sections of the public debate, but sometimes more quietly, sometimes under the radar to a general public but of immense importance to those directly assisted and involved, solidarity movements, alternative economies of mutual care, and a new generation of civic actors managed to link up across borders, and thought of European affairs in a different way to several earlier generations of civil society: notably, many of these actors do not see European affairs as separate to local or national questions, and see the ‘European’ dimension of many political issues; consequently they also have a different geography of action – less focused on Brussels and more connected with municipalities, more in touch with the citizens and their political problems, and more likely to adopt informal modes of action and organization, as shown in this Carnegie/EUI/EA report.

The Covid-19 pandemic altered the conditions of action of civil society across the world, at the same time as it multiplied the demands of solidarity placed upon it, and now the Ukraine war and associated refugee flows again overload already exhausted civic networks and darkens further the horizon of change for the civic imagination. If the European Union has belatedly found some new capacities to address the economic effects of Covid-19 (through the recovery funds), to attempt to contain Putin’s imperialist aggression to the Ukrainian territory through sanctions and supplying arms, organize solidarity and welcome for those fleeing the conflict, and to a lesser extent to set a path for transformational climate action through the Green Deal, it is at least in part thanks to the determination of civic actors over decades to ensure the EU and its leadership learns something from previous mistakes when it improvises to address new crises.

The two related questions that the last fifteen years of the European project pose for civic actors are consequently as follows: what transformation is required for the European Union to be ahead of events rather than reacting to them? And how can citizens and civil society be involved in co-creating the direction of the European Union, rather than being outside and detached from the formal process by which this happens? If the EU is becoming more rapid in its response times – from decades long when it comes to climate change, to over a decade to react to the financial crisis, to a few months to react to Covid-19, to a few days to react to Putin’s imperial war – civil society still remains a parallel reality of collective intelligence, prediction and solidarity response which maintains the social fabric whilst waiting for politics to catch up. How to recover a collective capacity to influence the future?

Citizens Take Over Europe is a coalition of over 50 civil society organisations from across the continent which has aimed over the past 2 years to seize the moment to ensure citizens are at the heart of the European Union’s future projection. This activity has followed two tracks with multiple overlaps: attempting to shape, influence, evaluate and make productive the official ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ organized by the European Institutions; and running its own independent process of citizens assemblies under the banner of ‘Assemblies of Solidarity’.
Through advocacy, teaming up with academics, evaluating directly the different components of the Conference on the Future of Europe from the digital platform to citizens panels to the plenary, and through direct contact with involved citizens, politicians, bureaucrats and journalists, Citizens Take Over Europe has sought to ensure a maximum of transparency in the process of the Conference, a greater diversity of participation, a high quality process of civic deliberation, and a commitment to meaningful follow up from the institutions. If Citizens Take Over Europe has had marginal but significant impact on the proceedings of the Conference itself, it has established itself as the main actor calling for a more radical empowerment of citizens in the future of European democracy, and is shaping the ways some of the innovations of the Conference on the Future of Europe (both the digital platform, the randomly selected citizens panels, and the plenary which brings together citizens and politicians) are taken forward and institutionalised.
Through Assemblies of Solidarity in over 10 countries, Citizens Take Over Europe has brought together thousands of citizens (by which we mean all residents) in discussions ranging over social justice and jobs, health and wellbeing, democracy, digital rights, migration, anti-racism, LGBT rights, women’s rights, sustainability and climate change. After local assemblies, two transnational assemblies developed declarations on Averting Climate Catastrophe and on a new Charter of Fundamental Rights. These experiences of assemblies and festivals (such as Transeuropa Festival) show a wide demand and capacity of the citizens to organize themselves to deliberate on Europe’s future and formulate far-reaching, transformative demands.
The way these two tracks come together in the future will be decisive. Can a permanent European citizens assembly be created which has institutional weight in EU policy making, but which avoids becoming bureaucratized by rooting itself in the energy of citizens across the territory? Can any future treaty change process of the European Union become an exercise in active and activist citizenship, which transforms the formal constitution into a popular, living, material and cultural set of common understandings aspirations and values? The good news – and we all need to focus on that even as we are aware of the many challenges – is that a networked European civic capacity is emerging and consolidating itself which will be able to make in impact on the answers to these questions.