By Anthony Zacharzewski, DemSoc
The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) is on the point of being announced. Following the publication of leaked drafts of the announcement, there has been a lot of commentary about the institutional arm-wrestling, and disappointment about the timescale.
We here at Demsoc do our best to look on the bright side – and the democratic side. Institutional arm-wrestling is the team sport in any capital city; the timescale is definitely short – but what can be done to make even a brief Conference a positive contribution to the developing European democracy?
First, that it is happening at all is a positive sign. We’re only three years from the first-ever random citizen participation event the EU commissioned (the European Citizen Panel). Rather than a standalone experiment, though, the Conference takes place as citizen participation is starting to pick up steam inside the European institutions.
The Horizon Europe Missions pilot was just the first in a series of citizen participation exercises around Europe’s research budget. The Conference – though downgraded from the central position it had pre-Covid – fits right alongside. It may be less ambitious than earlier plans (set out in a handy table by Janis Emmanouilidis and Johannes Greubel of the European Policy Centre), but being out of the political limelight might even help the process to be a better democratic experiment.
Here are ten ideas for how to make the most of the Conference for Europe’s democracy:
1. Make it experimental. This isn’t going to be writing a new European treaty, so use the opportunity to test different participative approaches on big questions, including how to join up other processes at different levels.
2. Listening means acting. The response to the European Citizen Consultation of 2018-9 was a sentence in a summit document. The outcome has to be more evident – and has to be clear to participants. The Institutions should flesh out how they will respond, not just promise to read the answers carefully. For comparison, the Irish citizen assembly and several local ones produce recommendations that can go straight to a referendum.
3. Start building civil society links now. It’s not hard to imagine a vicious circle of seeming irrelevance leading to civil society inaction leading to minimal responses. Turn it into a virtuous circle by clarifying how civil society can help – and how it matters to their goals, not just the European institutions’.
4. Get officials involved. This is meant to be working at multiple levels – make sure that officials at every level are involved too, either as witnesses, supporting the event management process, or even in special events. Myths around citizen participation are more easily dispelled by taking part in an event than by reading a report – and it helps officials learn how they can use participation in their work.
5. Set a clear pathway for citizen agenda setting. The current draft announcement says, “Citizens are free to raise other issues [than the ones that the Institutions want to talk about].” That’s fine, but raising an issue only to have it ignored is worse than being told you can’t raise it at all. The online idea generation session should have a clear pathway from idea to agenda.
6. Run past the deadline. Less than a year (depending on how you define “Spring”) is not very long – but it’s less of a problem if the Institutions plan now to continue the approach beyond the Spring 2022 deadline. It’s even less of a problem if they have an exact route by which issues not addressed in this “session” can be picked up later, in the run-up to the 2024 European Parliament elections.
7. Leave a legacy. By the time the Conference draws to a close, the programmes selected as part of the Green Deal to create infrastructure for citizen participation in Europe will be starting up. Use universities and others for independent monitoring and research. Ensure that citizen networks, tech platforms, and relevant conversations are passed from one to the next, so the Conference becomes the first stage of a growing network.
8. Let citizens mark the institutional homework. As in France, let a group of citizens who have been involved in the process review what the Institutions do with it. It may lead to a few uncomfortable comments, but it shows that this is a meaningful process. In France, even if participants were critical of some parts of the implementation, they were strongly supportive of the participatory approach.
9. Ensure that technology is open. The EU has funded excellent open-source tools for democracy, including the foundations of CONSUL and Decidim, and hopefully, the promised digital platform will be based on those. It’s equally important, though, that the tools created for this exercise are shared widely. Multilingual dialogue processes on a common European digital framework could speed up the development of a connected European democracy.
10. Build the foundations for trust. The institutions need to trust the answers they receive. Citizens need to trust that processes are run fairly and without outside influence. The creation of that trust is a long-term effort, longer-term than a single year or a single event series. But as the Hippocratic oath says: first, do no harm. Ensure that the processes are open, trusted, and used and that the events’ facilitation and creation are independent or at least independently verified. That means that as citizen participation at the European level expands, as it will in coming years, the Conference on the Future of Europe will have a legacy to be proud of.