A Modern Agora
The European chapter of the German traffic light coalition agreement states in the first sentence: the (citizens’) Conference on the Future of Europe, which has been running since June 2021. The coalition partners want results so they are pledging “to use it for reforms”. The idea for a citizens’ conference was originally a French one: it appeared in a letter from France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, to European citizens, in which he called for a “European renaissance” (renaissance européenne) in the spirit of humanism ahead of the 2019 European elections. However, part of the background to his idea is the growing tendency towards division at home in France, where yellow vest protests have been happening since 2018. Macron reacted to these, too, with a public debate series, the national 'Grand Débat'. Citizens' conferences and local consultations were held, and lists of grievances were set up throughout the country via which everyone could submit their concerns and suggestions for reform. Almost 2 million contributions were gathered in this way.
In his appeal, Macron referred to the desire of many people to be actively involved in the political process beyond the traditional representative democracy, yet without being a member of a political party. In this way, this new form of citizen involvement, defined as a modern agora, claims to counteract an increasing disenchantment with politics and give all citizens a voice. However, in the French example, it quickly becomes clear what can go wrong if the process is incorrect or half-hearted. In one example, 150 people were randomly selected to attend a topically provocative climate convention (Citizens’ Convention on Climate). However, in the subsequent parliamentary process only some of the recommendations drawn up at the convention were taken up, which led to some frustration and was suitably exploited in the media. Other central demands from the Grand Débat were likewise sidelined, for example the call for citizens’ referendums or for a reform of institutions.
Is the idea of national and European citizens’ conferences not perhaps first and foremost designed to revamp Macron’s image? After all, he is known for his vertical leadership style and is frequently portrayed as a president disengaged from the people. The question is certainly relevant with that in mind. However, Macron made Europe a central theme in his election campaign for the 2017 presidential elections. When it comes to his re-election in 2022, the Frenchman from Amiens in northern France will once again be relying on European themes. Specifically, the Association for European Renaissance (Association pour la Renaissance Européenne) was created, which will support the election campaign locally throughout France with Europe-focussed events and campaigns.
Macron has also matched his actions to his words regarding the Conference on the Future of Europe. France's engagement looks very different to Germany's in particular, since it complements the European citizen forums organised by the EU with national civil dialogues in France. In this way it ensures that even people who do not already take an interest in Europe are included in the process. In September, only three months after the start of the European conference, national citizen forums were put in place in 18 French regions at lightning speed. Here, the participants were able to exchange views on the nine themes of the European conference (climate change and the environment; health; a stronger economy, social justice and jobs; EU in the world; values and rights, rule of law and security; digital transformation; European democracy; migration; education, culture, youth and sport) and choose their own focal points.
A particular strength of the dialogue processes organised by the EU is the diversity of participants from different social backgrounds, genders, ages, occupations and origins. Since the inaugural plenary session four topical 'citizen forums' have been launched. These will each meet three times before mid-January, with 200 citizens drawn at random each time. Out of the 200 citizens, 20 advocate the positions and recommendations negotiated in the forums at the plenary meeting, and in April, all recommendations from the various conferences will be brought together and discussed at a final meeting.
Despite all efforts, awareness of the conference among the overall population still leaves a lot to be desired, as revealed by a street survey carried out by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, which randomly surveyed citizens in Berlin, Paris and Brussels. Almost no one had heard of the conference beforehand, not even political students. This is also the case for the online platform of the Conference on the Future, which has been operational since April 2021. The close to 10,000 suggestions that have so far been received have been written primarily by Eurosceptics or Europe-lovers who are involved in the EU on a voluntary or full-time basis. There is a lack of awareness within the general population. In Germany, however, there is no higher-level national strategy to raise awareness of the Conference on the Future and, unlike in France, there is also no centrally managed process of citizen forums with randomly selected participants.
It remains to be seen which specific recommendations for reform make it into European politics at the end of the process. But in any event, part of the new federal government's remit is to make every effort to fulfil as much as possible of Macron’s democratic commitment. Only if Germany reaches out to France will important reforms in migration and asylum policy, in digitalisation or foreign policy be able to succeed.
Jeanette Süß is the European Affairs Manager in the European dialogue programme at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels and heads the French activities there.