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High Noon for the Conference on the Future of Europe

Future of Europe / OP-ED
Johannes Greubel

Date: 02/02/2022
Last weekend, the Conference on the Future of Europe entered a new phase. With most participatory elements of the Conference, including the European Citizens Panels (ECPs), about to conclude, the process enters its hot political phase. A Conference Plenary will discuss citizens’ recommendations and ultimately transform them into the initiative’s outcome.

To bring about the change that the Conference promises, the Plenary needs to accelerate its work, truly interact with citizens’ proposals, and develop from an exchange platform to a real working assembly. Part of this is providing the working groups with a clear methodology and structure and with more time.

An unprecedented exercise

It is this political, hot part of the Conference that makes this process so unique. We have witnessed many European participatory projects before, including the European Citizens Consultations, the Citizens’ Dialogues and a European Citizens’ Panel in 2018. And although the Conference is certainly more complex than previous exercises, it is the direct link between citizens’ deliberations and the political level that makes the process unprecedented.

For the first time, participatory and representative elements come together in the form of a Conference Plenary made of representatives from European and national institutions, social actors, and citizens to debate on how to transform citizens’ recommendations into reality. Last weekend, the Conference undertook the first step towards this goal as citizens presented the recommendations of two ECPs and several national panels.

Turning the Plenary into a working assembly

Working together in the Plenary is a big chance for the Conference to formulate a joint way forward with all institutions, member states and citizens being part of the process. At the same time, however, it presents a danger. If citizens do not feel taken seriously, if they feel not being listened to, the entire process is bound to create more frustrations among citizens than bring about change.

And in nuances, this frustration can already be observed. As one citizens’ representative outlined during a Plenary meeting, his feeling is that “politicians say they are listening, but often it is them mostly talking.”

And indeed, during previous Plenary meetings, we witnessed politicians at times arguing with each other on well-known frontlines or outlining their very own and very general positions on European integration – with little reference to or interaction with the recommendations citizens presented.

To bring about the change that the Conference promises, the Plenary needs to accelerate its work, truly interact with citizens’ proposals, and develop from an exchange platform to a real working assembly.

The good news is that last weekend’s Conference Plenary did make some progress compared to previous meetings, not least due to some tweaks on the setup and modalities of the Plenary debates. In many parts, there was direct interaction with the Panel recommendations, and citizens had the chance to react to policymakers’ interventions during the exchange. There was debate among citizens and politicians, even though on a very general level – but what more can be expected of the first exchange of an assembly of nearly 450 members?

The importance of the working groups

Therefore, the real, deliberative work of the Plenary needs to be carried out in the working groups – they are a key component to make the process a success. At the same time, however, they are the most underdeveloped part of the process. At the current stage, working group meetings are mainly a collection of thoughts of its members instead of a real deliberation on how to transform the recommendations into reality.

But the working groups do need a clear methodology and structure, clear guidelines as to what exactly their role is. How can the groups make sense of the abundance of recommendations from four ECPs, national panels, and the multilingual platform? How to narrow down the still broad discussions to concrete deliberation on each recommendation? How can they help to transform the recommendations into actionable proposals?

All this is unclear at this stage – but these issues need to be urgently addressed so that the groups can effectively start their work on assessing and translating recommendations into proposals. For this, however, they will need more time. As it is envisaged now, meeting for just a few hours right before the start of the Plenary debates will not be enough for effective preparation of the recommendations. Working groups need to meet more frequently to make sense of the abundance of information provided to them and, during the meetings, deliberate more concretely on the political translation of recommendations – and to interact sufficiently with citizens to discuss their proposals.

And EU and national institutions should use the time between Conference meetings to further develop their positions on citizens’ recommendations and their plans how to implement them.

Meeting citizens’ expectations

The Conference created high expectations among citizens involved in the process that their voices and recommendations will be taken into account. And during the Plenary session, it became once again clear that for citizens, this means more than just an endorsement of their recommendations. They want to know what institutions and member states intend to do with them and how exactly their ideas can be implemented. As one citizen outlined during the Plenary session, “what we need is tangible results, not just long speeches. You should listen and work with our proposals to come up with solutions.”

The conference still needs to go a long way to make this reality. It has been mentioned in the past that the Conference might lead to frustration if politicians do not implement the Conference conclusions after the Conference ends. It seems that the danger is even more immediate. Currently, the Conference risks alienating involved citizens already during the process if it does not address citizens’ sources of frustration.

The participatory exercises of the Conference, including the ECPs, have been organized very successfully and have produced thought-through recommendations by citizens. But now, the political dimension of the Conference must live up to citizens’ expectations. Politicians need to show citizens that they are taken seriously by working with them on the recommendations and how they can be translated into policies – in short, the Conference must deliver the results it promised.

Johannes Greubel is a Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre and an Expert at the Conference Observatory.

This opinion piece was first published by EurActiv on 27 January 2022. 

Photo credits:
© European Union 2022 - Source: EP

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