[RevDem Launch Event] Conference on the Future of Europe: Democratic Innovation or Business as Usual?

Virginia Crespi de Valldaura

May 9th marked the opening of the Conference on the Future of Europe in Strasbourg. In the online panel debate one day later, co-organised by the CEU Democracy Institute and its new journal, the Review of Democracy, the panellists discussed its objectives, how to achieve them and whether it can give a new impetus to European integration. They also discussed the lessons of the previous Convention on the Future of Europe, which proposed a constitutional treaty that was ultimately defeated in referendums in France and the Netherlands. The panel was made up of Giuliano Amato, former Prime Minister of Italy, Professor Emeritus at European University Institute and University La Sapienza and Vice-President of Italian Constitutional Court; Ulrike Guérot, Founder and Director of European Democracy Lab and Head of the Department for European Policy and the Study of Democracy at Danube University Krems; Hélène Landemore, Associate Professor of Political Science, with Tenure at Yale University and Thu Nguyen, Policy Fellow for EU Institutions and Democracy at Jacques Delors Centre at Hertie School of Governance. The discussion was moderated by Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law & Policy at HEC Paris.

A bottom-up exercise?

The Conference on the Future of Europe has generated huge expectations of the outcomes it might bring for the European project. As Alberto Alemanno highlighted in his introduction to the  panel discussion, this is the first time that the EU has launched a process of institutional reform since 2007, and the fact that it is happening at such a geopolitically complicated time makes it all the more remarkable. Unlike the 2003 Convention on the Future of Europe, this process is not designed to prepare direct treaty changes. Instead, it is envisaged as a bottom-up exercise to hear European citizens’ voices and generate proposals on the basis of which the European Council can then instigate change.

This Europe-wide consultation will have a pyramidal structure, consisting of a transnational platform through which any citizen can participate in the debate, setting the agenda for the Conference; a transnational and local citizens’ assembly; and, finally, a plenary consisting of EU and national elected representatives, citizens and social partners who will review these inputs and generate concrete proposals. While some have dismissed this as a top-down exercise that will generate impossible expectations, Professor Alemanno highlighted the unprecedented nature of this transnational democratic exercise, which is likely to generate new ideas that will be difficult to ignore. 

Giuliano Amato echoed some of this optimism. Whereas he had initially been sceptical of opening a floodgate of ideas at a time when Europe has so many problems to resolve, he has gained more confidence in the Conference as the procedural structure has become clearer. The chain of events that led to the legalisation of abortion in Ireland is proof that listening to citizens can result in real institutional reform. It is therefore important to ensure that the citizens’ proposals that come out of the Conference are turned into concrete recommendations for reform.

There are of course significant obstacles, as shown by the fact that twelve Member States have already rejected any change to current EU treaties that may result from the Conference. Therefore, it is important to focus the Conference on the concrete issues that need to be solved, and avoid it being derailed by large divisive debates on federalisation or a “Europe of two speeds”. The key will be to work out the adequate division of competences between the EU and Member States on issues such as immigration, the environment, security and social protection in light of citizens’ demands. It is crucial that this be a truly bottom-up process where citizens express their preferences, and not be hijacked by organised groups or derailed by extreme ideological groups. 

A democratic procedure?

Helène Landemore provided a more sceptical perspective, highlighting that the Conference’s procedures do not meet the defined standard of an open democratic procedure. She said the idea of a bottom-up process is an excellent one, but the way the Conference is structured ultimately places institutions, not citizens, at the centre of decision making. It lacks clear commitment on what the outputs will be and lacks procedural transparency. In terms of the citizens who participate in it, they will inevitably be drawn from a self-selecting pool of people who are interested in the Conference and have time to contribute to it.

According to Landemore, a better alternative would have been to select a random sample of citizens who would be paid for participating, as this would ensure a greater diversity of opinions and perspectives, including from those that are highly disillusioned with Europe and would consider voting for Eurosceptic parties. It is unclear how much the Conference’s design has built on lessons drawn from previous attempts at participatory constitution-making (such as Iceland’s 2010-2013 constitutional reform and the French Citizens’ Convention for Climate) in terms of ensuring high inclusivity and transparency. In spite of these shortcomings, it remains a highly valuable exercise to ensure citizens can vent frustrations and give feedback on Europe. It will hopefully also encourage more open democracy in the future, as policymaking élites lose fear of involving citizens in decision-making processes. 

Room for optimism

Ulrike Guérot highlighted that this is the first opportunity to effectively channel citizen mobilisation at EU level that has emerged since the Eurozone crisis. She noted that the European project, for most of its history, has not taken account of citizens as sovereign entities, but that the citizen mobilisation that emerged during the Eurozone crisis and is now emerging during the pandemic can no longer be ignored. Indeed, in her inaugural speech, Ursula von der Leyen – who in herself in a symbol of Europe’s “democratic deficit”, as she was not elected by the spitzenkandidaten system – called for citizen participation in Europe. While it is important to realise that this is not the first time such a process has taken place, as both the Constitutional process of 2001-2003 and the EU Citizens’ Dialogue ultimately failed, there are reasons to believe this time will be different.

The current process appeals to European  citizens, as defined in the Treaty of the European Union, as the main actors, marking a paradigm shift from previous processes where the state has been at the centre of decision-making. Thus, just as the Single Market established legal equality for goods, a process that puts the citizen at the centre should generate legal equality for citizens in all social and civic areas, marking a decisive turning point. At the same time, it is important to consider that European citizens are not merely actors to be consulted, but sovereigns represented by the European Parliament. If such a consultation is necessary, it shows that something is wrong with our current representative structures. Still, we should be proud of this experiment with direct democracy and ensure that it results in enduring, systemic change.

Doing more harm than good?

Thu Nguyen, on her part, was very sceptical about what outcomes we can expect from this conference. Having been marketed as a process whereby citizens decide the future of Europe, the actual design of the Conference seems to fall short of this expectation. To begin with, one year is far too short a timeframe to have substantial in-depth discussions, especially given that most of it is likely to take place virtually. It also has a very top-heavy governance structure, with the three European institutions presiding over it, and it lacks commitment from Member States, which will make it very difficult to carry any policies forward. Although bringing Europe closer to its citizens is a great idea, the Conference might end up doing more harm than good due to the high expectations it has raised.

Originally designed to overcome the disappointment on the 2019 failure of the spitzenkandidaten procedure, there is a risk that the conference will generate further disappointment if it becomes yet another instance of institutional infighting. The marketing message not only generates too many expectations for the conference, but it is also misleading: it implies that this is the first time citizens have a say in European affairs, which is of course not the case, given the existence of the European Parliament. In the best-case scenario, the Conference will result in agreements on substantive issues that will then be taken up by the European institutions; in the worse, it will be an empty promise that does more harm than good to European democracy. All will depend on the level of citizen mobilisation and state support. 

The session ended with a Q&A, which centred on the tensions between representative and direct democracy, as represented by the European Parliament and the citizens involved in the Conference. Ulrike Guérot and Helène Landemore raised ideas about how representative democracy as conceived in the 18th Century was an elitist project that can now be transcended via more direct forms.

There was a general consensus that the Conference can be seen as a useful step in building a European public sphere, and that the type of change it brings about – be it a treaty change, an intergovernmentalist ‘political compact’, or changes within current treaty limits – will depend on the proposals that it generates. Finally, there is a possibility that citizens might want less Europe in certain policy areas, in which case their wishes will have to be carried forward – the democratic principle will have to be respected.

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