In a time in which the European Union is confronted with existential challenges, from the climate emergency to the rise of far-right populism and a new migration crisis, it is more urgent than ever to think about new ways to engage, involve and let citizens have a say in what the European Union is and does for them. Moreover, the ongoing public health crisis of COVID-19, is also showing the importance of stronger solidarity within the European Union, and when it will be over we urgently need a deep reflection on the future of our Union.
It is exactly under this premises that the idea of a two-years Conference on the Future of Europe was born. Following earlier discussions and numerous forms of citizens dialogues, the proposal to set up a formal Conference was launched by the new European Commission in 2019 and supported enthusiastically by a vast majority in the European Parliament, and also by the Council of the European Union.
Yet, if on the one hand the three institutions agreed on the timeline of the Conference (to start the 9th of May and to end in the first semester of 2022, which is now, however, likely to be changed), there are some relevant differences as far as the crucial elements of the Conference, i.e. its composition, the scope of its work and its organization are concerned.
Whereas the Commission and the Council mainly push for a simple reactivation of existing tools of dialogue with European citizens (for instance the so-called Citizens’ Dialogues which had been run by both the Commission and individual countries in the past) without a clear indication what would happen to any ‘results’ of these dialogues, the European Parliament has instead put forward a much more ambitious and detailed set of proposals. In terms of the functioning and structure of the conference, the EP’s idea is to have a conference plenary at the institutional level, and a set of citizens’ agoras to be held across the Union, with a clear feedback mechanism to ensure that the results of the Conference will be then taken into account by the European institutions.
Moreover, the European Parliament, contrary to the opinion of some member states, has stressed the need not to limit the debates of the conference to a certain number of issues decided beforehand, but to rather conceive of the conference as a truly open and open-ended process. This clearly also means that there should be no taboo around the possibility for the Conference to propose changes to the EU Treaties.
The PES Group in the Committee of the Regions is fully supportive of the European Parliament’s position in this debate. Like the MEPs, we are concerned about the positions expressed so far by the Commission and the Council of Ministers, as they lack in both ambition and clarity. The Conference should have as a clear target the formulation of specific proposals for changes to existing policies or changes to the EU treaties. If we want the Conference to act as a moment to mobilise citizens for the European project, it has to be clear that it can have a real impact on re-orienting the European Union.
As a matter of fact, the high turnout in the European elections of 2019 has shown that European citizens want to be more engaged, more informed and take more ownership of the European project.
It is fundamental therefore to make it possible for all EU citizens who want to actively engage in the Conference process. If we really want to strengthen the democratic foundation of the European Union and to give people a chance to have a say in what the European Union does for them, both the conference itself, and the future European Union it will hopefully produce, need to be create new forms and channels for citizens involvement in EU decision making.
That is also precisely why local and regional authorities must have a say and take an active part in the Conference. If the European Union really wants to reach its citizens, it must involve the more than one million elected local and regional representatives. They often know best what their citizens want, and they are in a good position to assess what is really needed on the ground, how European or national policies work (or do not work), and what issues may have to be solved at higher levels.
As the European Committee of the Regions has put forward in its resolution on the Conference on the Future of Europe adopted in its plenary session in February, the elected politicians representing local and regional authorities across the Union and their experience should be considered a great asset for the Conference. Local and regional authorities are key actors in implementing and communicating to their citizens the policies of the European Union. Their ideas, their expertise on the ground and their proximity to European citizens needs to be taken into account if the European Union is to become more inclusive and if citizens are to feel more in control of what is being decided at the EU level.
"We will make everything to make the Conference on the #FutureofEurope a true opportunity.
— PES Group Committee of the Regions (@PES_CoR) February 12, 2020
Cities and regions are crucial political, social and economic entities that have to have a say on the fundamental issues for the future not just of Europe, but of all of us, such as climate change, social justices, the digital transition, European values, migration and the sustainability of the way we live.
As the daily work of mayors, local councilors, regional presidents and of all local and regional authorities is profoundly affected by the European Union, the Conference must take them on board and create new links to citizens in all areas of the EU, and in all political camps and social groups through them.
Therefore it is not just important that a relevant number of local and regional authorities representatives are part of the Conference plenary, but also that the EU institutions recognise the potential of the Committee of the Regions and its networks in helping to set up the necessary decentralised debates all across the European Union, which should feed into the ‘citizens’ agoras’ proposed by the European Parliament.
Those citizens agoras, made up of randomly selected citizens, must aim at the fullest possible territorial, gender and generational representativeness. Moreover, they should be considered as starting points and testing grounds for new forms of a permanent and structured dialogue between the European Union and its citizens. There is a need for innovative ways of combining the trusted and tested ways of representative democracy at local, regional, national and European level, with bottom-up forms of participation which makes it easy and attractive for citizens to ‘get involved’ and shape Europe.
We, as the PES Group in the Committee of the Regions, will work hard to ensure that the Conference will be as open and inclusive as possible, will provide real influence and clear channels of feedback for citizens who become active, wherever they live in the EU, and that it addresses the issues which are of most urgency for European citizens: environmental and climate challenges, social justice, sustainable development, the digital transformation, the economy and jobs, territorial cohesion and gender equality.