On July 1st, Germany will take over the EU’s rotating presidency at a tipping point of Europe’s history after the Covid-19 pandemic. For a period of 6 months, Angela Merkel will have a crucial role to play in defining the scope and format of the Conference for the Future of Europe and in negotiating the announced “Next Generation EU” recovery fund of 750 billion Euros, which will be doubling the budget of the European Union. Announced at the end of May, the plan was presented as the silver bullet to tackle the impact of an unprecedented global crisis while investing into the green and digital transition. As more than 125,000 people across Europe died and member states economies got deeply affected by the impact of the virus – with a projected decline in economic output of 7.5 percent this year – the decisions that will be made in the coming months puts EU legitimacy at stake.
While the proposal for a “Next Generation EU” Recovery Fund is a major step to alleviate the disastrous consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, the debate on the use of the Fund cannot take place exclusively behind the closed doors of the Council of the European Union or in the corridors of European institutions. The Citizens Take Over Europe coalition, which was launched on the 9th May is one of the few coordinated efforts from civil society to ask for the citizens to be at the centre of decisions on the future of Europe. The Conference on the Future of Europe, once promised to be injecting participatory democracy for the renewal of European politics, could be one of these spaces. It has the potential to achieve fundamental democratic and constitutional reform of the EU and finally meet the challenges of climate change and systemic economic and social inequalities. The relaunch of Europe cannot only be economic – it must also be democratic!
The European parliament voted a resolution on June 18th urging to kick-off a Conference on the Future of Europe by the Autumn 2020. Yet, there is still no common agreement among the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Parliament about the conference’s aims, scope, and methodology. The Council of the European Union also made clear in their position published on June 24th that citizens and residents will have almost no access to shape and participate in the Conference. This is an opportunity for the transeuropean civil society, including the Citizens Take Over Europe coalition, to take over, not only by demanding a seat at the table, but by co-creating a long-term process involving citizens and residents of Europe in shaping their future. In an Open Letter to Angela Merkel, the coalition makes clear what needs to be done for the Conference on the Future of Europe to be a meaningful instrument for bottom-up participation in Europe post Covid-19. The EU should:
1. Urgently commit to a timetable for the Conference on the Future of Europe, and engage civil society to co-design an empowering format for the Conference from the bottom-up, through which citizens feel ownership.
2. Ensure complete democratic legitimacy by putting citizens centre-stage in the discussions at all phases, make special efforts to involve minorities and youth, and firmly anchor civil society’s role in the Conference’s structure. Citizens must not only be consulted but also be participants, even through randomly selected Citizens’ Assemblies.
3. Pledge to follow-up to any significant reforms recommended by the Conference, including the possibility of treaty change.
There are many reasons why Europeans need to be at the centre of the Conference on the Future of Europe. One of them is that the crisis has unravelled some of the major flaws of Europe’s incomplete union and the difficulties it had to organise solidarity at the peak of the Covid-19 crisis. At a time when cleaners, nurses, grocery store clerks, parents, teachers and service providers in health and social services have been in the frontline and the most hardly hit by the crisis, the future of Europe cannot be imagined without them.
Often these essential occupations are held by women, racialised and minority ethnic communites and migrants who already have to deal with a long history of discrimination, sexism, racism and xenophobia. Envisioning the future of Europe without their inclusion would be confirming the long lasting cliche of a European Union, far away from the realities and interests of its people, and serving only the interests of the most privileged. Citizens need to have a role as part of a citizens assembly which should be an integral part of the Conference on the Future of Europe.
Another reason is that there are many examples of successful experiments of citizens assemblies across Europe, run on the national or on the local level, which can yield both efficient and legitimate results. Experiences like the Irish Citizens’ Assembly have shown how citizens could powerfully deliberate together for the common good. The most recent example of the Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat that just had its final meeting on June 19-21st also shows that it is possible for citizens to come with clear demands for a complex challenge such as climate change.
The Convention was tasked to “define a series of measures aiming to reach a decrease of 40 percent in gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990) in a spirit of social justice”. Emmanuel Macron is now put in the spotlight as he promised that “what would come out of the commission will be submitted without filter to parliamentary voting, referendum or direct legislative implementation”. While there are some criticisms about the methods, the potential and the limits of such assemblies, for instance, to what extent the proposals will be seriously taken into account by institutions or if it will achieve meaningful constitutional change, they contribute to a fundamental renewal on how to think and do politics differently.
In addition, Angela Merkel should follow-up on any significant reforms recommended by the Conference on the Future of Europe, including treaty change, and give the possibility for Europeans to be part of that process. Without agenda-setting power, nor binding opinions, from citizens, such an exercise will only be a token for politics as usual in the European Union and will increase the disconnect between European institutions and its citizens. Worse, if the decisions are kept to the Council of the European Union, it shows the victory of national Member States over decision making, undermining any efforts to renew politics from the bottom-up across the continent.