CTOE is concerned: the Conference on the Future of Europe starts as a tiger, but it might end as a bedside rug

2021 May 9th

Citizens and civil society have long waited for the Conference on the Future of Europe (hereafter: the Conference) to officially start, on Sunday, 9th May 2021, in Strasbourg. The EU institutions have promised us a Conference that should be a world-wide innovative exercise in democratic reform and citizen participation: By means of European citizens’ panels and a multilingual digital platform the Conference is designed to reach out to every corner and to each citizen, offering everybody a voice, with new opportunities to contribute ideas and participate in the exciting endeavor to shape our European common future. After years of crises and in a climate of fear, these ambitions are worth our whole-hearted support.

However, we are concerned that the current approach chosen for making the Conference work, fails to match some fundamental principles that are needed for a truly citizen centred Conference on the future of Europe. We see troubling weaknesses, in particular, in three respects:  

First, inclusivity: Citizens Take Over Europe believes that for the Conference on the Future of Europe to be centred on citizens, marginalised people, including residents, should be included in the very notion of ‘European citizenship’ and make part of the Conference’s core. We therefore call upon the EU institutions to actively ensure that all marginalised communities are adequately represented in the European citizens’ panels, and that they have a voice in the Conference process more broadly. They should also be consulted on the organisation of the citizens’ panels and the other components of the Conference (link to press release).

Second, deliberation: Citizens Take Over Europe is convinced that the quality of deliberation is key to a successful Conference. Therefore, the Digital Platform, the European Citizen Panels and the Plenary should maximise opportunities for meaningful contestation, dialogue and deliberation among citizens, between citizens and politicians, including stakeholders and relevant experts. Given that the Conference agenda sets out nine comprehensive policy areas, we see a startling mismatch with the provision of only four European Citizens Panels. These are tasked to reflect the ideas and propositions shared by the citizens in the Digital Platform and to deliberate about recommendations for the Plenary. Unless the Conference Board wants to program the failure and frustration of thousands of citizens participating in local, regional, national and transnational panels, it needs to step-up the number and capacity of the European Citizens Panels. We believe that nine transnational Citizen Panels will be needed, equipped with the necessary infrastructure to seriously reflect the multiplicity of challenges to the EU, to meaningfully interact with national, regional and local citizen panels and to effectively engage with the Plenary and EU decision-makers. 

Third, effectiveness: Citizens Take Over Europe considers that the EU’s innovative exercise of a Conference on the Future of Europe is a necessary, ambitious and complex learning process for everybody engaged with it. We trust that for being successful, the Conference must be effective, and for being effective it must be accountable, that is ensure its proper organisation and follow up. We therefore propose the creation of a Forum of independent and credible observers. This European Civil Society Forum should be set up to include academia and civil society in order to monitor and support the Conference’s proceedings, their inclusively participatory, transnational, transparent and deliberative quality, their visibility and accountability to the broader publics, and, after being concluded, the follow-up by the EU institutions on the Conference recommendations. 

The objective of these three propositions is to ensure the success of the Conference, a success that will, ultimately, depend on its inclusiveness, democratic legitimacy and problem solving effectiveness.