Conference on the Future of Europe
The "Conference on the Future of Europe" (CoFoE) had been stalled on questions of leadership, structure and nature for months, until the Commission, the Parliament and the Council of the EU eventually signed a joint declaration at the beginning of March this year. Since then, the process has been gaining traction fast. On Monday, barely three weeks before the official CoFoE-kick-off on Europe Day (9 May), the EU published its online platform for active EU citizens engagement. At the press conference, the liberal Belgian MEP and co-chair of the CoFoE-Executive Committee for the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt (Renew Europe), pointed out that the digital platform represents a completely new form of citizen participation at the European level and is thus not comparable with already existing formats, such as the Eurobarometer surveys.
Transparent, Diverse and Democratic
On the platform, every citizen of the EU can submit reform proposals to shape the European future. These suggestions are bundled thematically, with nine topics already predefined to structure the debate. However, further ideas and proposals can be submitted in the category "Other ideas". Within the first three days alone, about 90 ideas have been submitted on this new participatory platform. To ensure that the participants do not just stay in their own filter bubble and only see suggestions that reflect their own views, the platform employs an algorithm. This process known mainly in the context of social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, will display suggestions from other participants at random. Automatic translations of the contributions should be available in all 24 languages, with the help of artificial intelligence. A first self-test showed, however, that so far the contributions are only displayed in the original language, an issue that should still be fixed before the official launch on 9 May!
Mastering the Mammoth Task of European Multi-Level Politics with 3 P's
The complexity of the multiple political levels within the EU - from local over national to European - is to be reflected in the CoFoE’s formation of opinion. To this end, the conference will take place on three levels - the 3 Ps:
- The Platform, which will enable the participation of all citizens on a voluntary basis;
- 4 physically held Citizens' Panels as of autumn 2021, organised by the EU, in which 235 citizens - randomly selected and thus representative of the EU population – will debate;
- A plenary debate with representatives of the three institutions, national parliaments, civil society organisations and representatives of the four Citizens' Forums.
The exact procedure of the plenary debate and the panels will, however, still be subject to clarification in the upcoming weeks. One ongoing point of contention in this debate is the distribution of representatives of national parliaments, the European Parliament, the Commission and the citizens' panels within the overall plenary debate.
Besides this inter-institutional complex bargaining process, a very positive add-on of the platform is its events section, where all events of civil society organisations or individual groups can be listed. This way, events held all over Europe in a decentralised manner are made accessible and transparent for the broader public. Claims formulated throughout these multiple debates can then be channelled and fed into the overall discourse. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom will also participate in this process in various event formats in Germany and abroad.
Freedom of Expression without Hate Speech and Fake News
To ensure that this deliberative form of participation is not misused for hate speech or conspiracy theories, participants must sign a charter in which they pledge to respect European values, to contribute in a constructive way and with concrete proposals instead of spreading illegal, hateful or intentionally false or misleading content.
In its efforts to prevent the site from being hijacked by trolls or disinformation, a group of moderators monitors the compliance with the charter and removes content if necessary. However, a first look at the already published posts shows that a few do not meet these criteria and are still publicly visible - so there is still room for improvement in the content moderation and the moderators need to step up their game and, if necessary, be strengthened!
Drawing Lessons from Prior Attempts
Even though the conference platform is unique, as it represents the first transnational dialogue forum at the European level, it will be of central importance for the success of the CoFoE to draw the right lessons from various national initiatives. In particular, the comparison with the citizens' conventions in France, such as the current one on climate (convention citoyenne pour le climat), holds considerable learning potential with regard to the risks and opportunities of physical and digital forms of citizen participation. The French government's follow-up to the 150 proposals developed by the convention was criticised by the participants themselves as well as by non-governmental organisations as inadequate, as many proposals had been distorted or addressed insufficiently. Basically, this democratic exercise raises the question of the extent to which proposals developed by citizens can or must be included in the framework of regular legislative procedure without further fuelling the disenchantment with politics among broad parts of the population. However, the French Climate Convention is thoroughly positive with regard to the socialisation effects it unfolds: Through the longer and more detailed engagement with political content, the completely randomly selected French citizens were sensitised to the complexity of political decision-making. Conflicts of objectives between idealistic ideas on the one hand, in this case climate protection, and political feasibility on the other hand were made transparent and tangible, which is essential to sooth social tensions against the background of the yellow vest movement and in France. The dialogue between the participants themselves is also valuable in terms of promoting a free and pluralistic debate, as people who otherwise only move within their own social environment have to deal constructively with the positions of others. Representativeness is therefore what makes inclusivity possible in the first place.
Liberal Demands for a Profitable Debate on the Future
While in organised citizens' panels representativeness can be ensured by drawing lots, a central challenge of the online platform is now to ensure that it is not only used by Eurosceptics, EU-enthusiasts or people who deal with EU policy professionally, but by a broad range of EU citizens, as Renew Europe Group President Dacian Cioloş noted on Twitter.
To ensure broad participation of the population, marketing the conference via traditional and social media will therefore be one of several success factors. Other factors for success of online participation formats such as the CoFoE are trust in the respective platform, as well as intuitive handling, as a recent study on e-democracy published by the European Liberal Forum and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation points out. Member States should therefore consciously plan and promote the dissemination of information about the conference and achieve the widest possible reach through media partnerships.
Not least the economic and financial crisis, as well as the health crisis in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have shown that the European Union is in need of reform with regard to its ability to act. Too many policy areas are still dominated by a national spirit and the institutional set up of the EU favours the interests of the Member States instead of effectively searching for a solution on the European level. The CoFoE would be a well legitimised opportunity to set the course now for stronger European integration and to come up with concrete proposals to solve the problems that have arisen so far. However, many of these requests for change will not be feasible without treaty changes. A progressive agenda should therefore not exclude them, because only with treaty changes can the EU become a parliament with the right of initiative and transnational lists, finally introduce the majority principle in the common security and defence policy, reform the inadequate rule of law mechanism under Article 7 TEU, or enforce compliance with an EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Even if not all proposals of the conference can be implemented: further reforms of the EU are urgently needed. We must be open towards the purpose of a more integrated European Union, strengthened in its ability to act. The European Union needs a new framework to effectively tackle its common problems and assert the European way of life in the 21st century.
Jeanette Süß is European Affairs Manager at the European Dialogue Brussels Office of the Friedrich-Naumann Foundation for Freedom.