On 9 May, Europe Day, the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) came to a close. It was an unprecedented opportunity for European citizen participation. More than 300 measures aimed at in-depth reform of the EU were decided by a broad panel of European citizens selected by lot during a year-long process.
Although the project was a successful exercise in participatory democracy, the result is not as positive as it might have been. Among other explanations were the war in Ukraine and the difficulties in attracting public attention.
Axel Dauchez is president and co-founder, with Alicia Combaz, of the citizen-participation platform Make.org. He acknowledges the problems: "Citizen engagement is complicated. It's easy to always involve the same people, and it's difficult to reach those further out." While CoFoE represents a step forward in the way European citizens see their institutions, and the role people can play in them, there is still a lot to be done – to make the interactions with participants meaningful and, above all, to represent the European population as closely as possible.
The issue of citizen engagement, particularly among young Europeans, was at the heart of a round table organised in partnership with the research company Kantar Public on 18 May for the opening of the Brussels office of Make.org. In this small building in the centre of the Belgian capital, a stone's throw from the major European institutions – "where it all happens", says Dauchez – members of the Parliament, the Commission and the European Youth Parliament gathered to draw lessons from the Conference on the Future of Europe. While not all is lost, the findings are somewhat sobering: only 9% of CoFoE participants were between 18 and 24 years old, compared to 24% over age 55. Across the EU, only 45% of 15-29 year olds think they are listened to. Daniel Ulicna, Director of Evaluation at Kantar Public, sums up: "We have to go to them, because they are not the group that will come to us."
Reaching out to sections of the population with little interest in the subject of Europe is what Make.org thinks it can do. In three online consultations, the independent platform was able to gather the opinions of more than 100,000 young people in France and Germany. These were then fed into the CoFoE's conclusions. "The institutions have a lot of tools that allow them to work in depth," explains Dauchez, "but what they don't have is interaction with people who are removed from the issue of Europe". By going directly to the public and keeping it simple, Make.org claims to be able to create a dialogue "not only with those who are already convinced, but with the silent majority who actually make up Europe."
The organisation also highlights its ability to identify a common set of opinions among citizens of different EU member states. During the three consultations carried out with young Europeans, it was able to pinpoint a number of priorities – environment, democracy, human rights, among others – which were seen as the most urgent for them.
Make.org makes no attempt to take the place of national authorities. For one, because participatory democracy is not a model that attracts widespread public support, at least for now. Make.org sees itself more as a tool that complements public action, a platform for intermediation between the EU institutions and citizens.
Due to a lack of interest or a lack of understanding of the tools available and the groups that should be targeted, attempts by governments and EU institutions to connect with their citizens remain marginal for the time being. The "top-down" policy of the institutions may be useful for a while, but it is not sufficient on its own. Ludovica Formicola is a board member of the European Youth Parliament and believes that "the European Union needs to go to the roots, to meet people who are not traditionally involved in the decision-making process". This includes rural areas, but also linguistic minorities and other local communities – from the bottom up. For now, the road to participatory democracy still looks like a long one.
In the long run, the co-founder of Make.org hopes for a complete restructuring of the democratic process, so as to "reinvent governance so that public policy is designed and implemented jointly with citizens and representatives". At a time when democracy is dividing people more than it is reconciling them, it seems vital to re-establish dialogue and involve citizens more in the decision-making process. "I don't see any other way for democracy to get back in touch with reality," says Dauchez.
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