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Conference on the Future of Europe: There are no ready-made solutions to Europe’s democratic woes

Conference on the Future of Europe / COMMENTARY
Sophie Pornschlegel

Date: 26/04/2022
In the Conference on the Future of Europe, citizens developed several recommendations on democracy in the EU. While they do not provide ready-made solutions to Europe’s democratic woes, they pinpoint with astonishing accuracy the issues that decision-makers should urgently tackle in this field.

“Randomly chosen citizens cannot understand complex policy issues because they lack the necessary knowledge and expertise.” This is an often-heard criticism of deliberative democracy. The citizens who participated in the panels organised in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe prove the critics wrong. It is striking how precisely they identify the EU’s core challenges in the fields of democracy, values and the rule of law, despite the limited time they had to discuss those issues.

The recommendations developed by the participants of Panel 2, outlined below, cover a range of challenges, from the EU’s complex institutional design and the dangers of disinformation to the difficulties in stopping national rule-of-law violations. These recommendations will not solve the Union’s democratic problems overnight. However, they do provide insights and novel ideas on what decision-makers could do to complement the EU’s existing toolbox to safeguard democracy.

The EU’s reputation on the international stage is at stake

Firstly, the citizens point to the danger of the EU being considered hypocritical when promoting its democratic values. They suggest that the EU should first strengthen common democratic values within its borders. Only then, in a second step, can it become a ‘global ambassador’ for the EU’s ‘democratic model’ (recommendation #14). To put it more bluntly, the EU should first put its house in order before lecturing others. The EU could lose its legitimacy as a promoter of democratic values if its own member states flout the values that it preaches. This is where decision-makers should listen carefully: Citizens do not want the EU to be perceived as a hypocritical actor. 

There are, however, two caveats to this recommendation. First, it is unclear how the EU should avoid these double standards. Should the EU cancel all its funding for democracy abroad when re-establishing democratic values at home? What concrete steps should be taken to avoid a hypocritical posture? 

Second, while there are common democratic standards – as laid out in Article 2 TEU –, one ‘European democratic model’ can be ‘exported’ abroad. The EU is composed of 27 national democracies (as long as one still counts Hungary as part of this democratic club, a fact that has been questioned) as well as a sui generis European democracy. Each democracy must follow certain standards to be considered a democracy (as outlined by the Venice Commission and in the extensive case law of the Court of Justice of the EU). However, this should not lead to the fallacious belief that there is a standard ‘democratic model’ that each and every nation should strive towards. 

Consequently, there is no ‘one size fits all’ democratic model that can be exported abroad. The participating citizens mention diplomacy and dialogue as the tools to implement such a model abroad – probably referring to the EU’s soft-power instruments. However, we should be mindful of not forcing non-EU countries into some sort of democratic ‘template’. They must go through their own democratic transformation. Previous attempts to do so have mostly failed, whether in the Balkans or Afghanistan.

Improving the EU’s internal rule-of-law toolbox

This does not mean that EU member states should not respect the values set out in Article 2 TEU, the democratic standards for countries already part of the EU. In order to better respect those values, the citizens suggest widening the rule of law conditionality regulation to include all breaches of the rule of law, and not only those affecting the EU budget (recommendation #10). Indeed, the current scope of this regulation is rather narrow, making it difficult for the European Commission to fight against systemic rule-of-law breaches.

However, the concrete implementation of a conditionality mechanism that would apply to all breaches is rather difficult in legal terms: the Commission would need sufficient proof to showcase that a national government deliberately attempted to erode rule-of-law standards, which is almost impossible to do. Therefore, while the Conference recommendation recognises this instrument’s limited effect, implementing a wider scope of the regulation in practice would be difficult. In addition, despite being the ‘Guardian of the Treaties’, in practice, the Commission can only successfully safeguard the Article 2 values with the help of the European Council and, therefore, other national governments.

The citizens also propose organising an annual conference to discuss the results of the European Commission’s rule of law report (recommendation #11). Once again, they pinpointed the main challenge: this report is not sufficiently discussed in public, thereby reducing its visibility and impact. Organising a conference to discuss the reports’ insights and conclusions with a range of stakeholders from all 27 member states could kickstart a debate about the rule of law which goes beyond the report. While such a proposal is more than feasible, the conference would only have a limited impact in practice, as it would be unlikely to lead to any concrete improvements in the European rule-of-law situation on the ground. Nevertheless, it could be a first step in the right direction to give more importance to the report and allow the Commission to make more binding recommendations regarding national rule-of-law standards.

Connecting citizens to ongoing political debates is an end in itself

Three conclusions can be drawn from the citizens’ recommendations on democracy. First, citizens are well-aware of the EU’s problem with democratic erosion. Panel 2 identified the EU’s democratic woes with astonishing accuracy. This experience should remind us not to underestimate citizens’ abilities to grasp complex policy issues and the challenges we face.

Second, decision-makers should not see these citizens’ recommendations as ready-made solutions but rather as an additional tool to improve their decision-making. The EU institutions should further pursue and implement in practice certain recommendations, especially when they add value to EU policies. Some of the recommendations are also easily applicable. For instance, a conference to accompany the rule-of-law report should be rather easy for the European Commission to organise and could improve its endeavours in this field.  

Last, decision-makers should recognise that connecting citizens to ongoing political debates holds an intrinsic value. The citizens themselves recognised this: “We believe that in an atmosphere of mutual appreciation and sharing the participants can take best practices and ideas back to their home countries.” Especially in the field of democracy and values, listening to citizens’ voices should be a much more established practice in the EU. Decision-makers often overlook the implications of insufficient citizen engagement. Perhaps we would not be facing such an acute rule-of-law crisis if citizens had the opportunity to grasp the implications of democratic backsliding for their livelihoods. This is why EU decision-makers must take the recommendations developed by its constituents seriously – and recognise their intrinsic value for EU democracy.

Sophie Pornschlegel is Project Leader of the Connecting Europe project and a Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre.

After one year of citizens-led panels, plenaries, and hundreds of local, regional and national events, the Conference on the Future of Europe is wrapping up. People from all over the EU have weighed in on crucial policy questions about climate change, democracy, foreign affairs, migration and well-being and developed recommendations that they believe will help the Union deal with current and future challenges. But just how feasible are their ideas? And how can EU leaders take them on board? In this series of Commentaries, experts and EPC analysts assess the outcomes of the Conference in a specific policy area and explain how the EU could turn the citizens' recommendations into concrete policy actions.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:
European Union

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