who holds the stick? – Alberto Alemano

Political leaders must not turn the conference on the future of Europe into another EU black box.

Different voices – last Saturday’s plenary of the Conference on the Future of Europe (Mathieu Cugnot, EP)

Nine months after its delayed establishment, the Conference on the Future of Europe is entering its second and final phase. The first two panels of randomly selected European citizens produced their recommendations, now transferred to the political level.

Last Friday and Saturday, the plenary of the conference – which brings together in an unprecedented way elected politicians and other institutional actors with ordinary citizens – met to discuss the first 91 citizen recommendations received so far. The other two panels, on ‘The EU in the world / migration‘, and “A stronger economy, social justice and jobs / Education, culture, youth and sport / Digital transformation”must complete their work by the end of February.

It was the first opportunity for citizens to present the results of their respective panels to members of the plenary, including national and European representatives, European commissioners and civil society organisations, and for all members to interact with these citizens. This marked a key moment for the conference.

Yet while it is ultimately up to the full members – not the citizens’ panels or their representatives sitting in the plenary – to decide what to do with the recommendations, how they should do so remains surprisingly undefined. Three months from the end of the conference, we still do not know how the citizens’ recommendations will be debated and discussed, and finally their fate decided.

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Indeterminate process

He is finally up to the executive bureau — which brings together representatives of the three main institutions of the European Union (the Council of the EU, the European Commission and the European Parliament) — to formalize the final outcome of the conference. But the process leading to such a decision remains undetermined.

This would represent a manifest anomaly in any deliberative procedure, the smooth running of which requires that all the actors involved, in particular citizens and the general public, be informed before the process. This is even more true in the context of the EU, in which the actions (and inactions) of member states generally remain hidden from the public, or at least inexplicable.

If the conference plenary were to become another impenetrable “black box” of the EU, it would be impossible for the citizens involved in the panels, as well as the public, to understand how their political representatives, whether national or European , have positioned themselves on their recommendations, especially when it comes to the most daring and less conventional. Who will be the members of the plenary who will have rejected a particular proposal and on what grounds? Where then could they be held accountable and by whom?

The absence of a clearly defined and predictable framework governing the decision-making process of the conference not only jeopardizes the democratic legitimacy of the initiative, but also challenges the justification it pursues the creation of an unprecedented, albeit temporary, transnational political space capable of transcending the 27 parallel and siled public conversations on the future of Europe. What if this much sought-after transnational conversation was muted?

Competing representations

In this context of structural and procedural uncertainty, several divisions appear, in particular between the different categories of plenary members. There is a palpable tension between citizens, representing their home panels in plenary, and political representatives, representing their constituencies. A battle of competing representations is at stake.

While most political representatives perceive citizens drawn by lot, in the absence of an electoral mandate, as less legitimate to act in the political field, citizens tend to mistrust the political class, which they perceive as disengaged in better or opportunistic at worst. Indeed, some citizen panelists complained that some of the few MEPs involved in the conference gave the impression of trying to “force” certain topics into the discussion, such as EU electoral reform (by introducing transnational lists).

Another divide, although less intuitive, seems to be emerging between the representatives of the citizens’ panels and the civil society organizations involved in the plenary. As only the former were involved in the panels, some citizen panelists seemed to question whether and how non-governmental organizations could legitimately speak on their behalf while operating in plenary.

But there is an even bigger structural divide – that between the citizens sitting in plenary and the overall governance of the conference. Ultimately, these citizens intentionally play a more minor role than other “institutional” players: they will not chair any working group set up within the plenary, nor is their “consensus” required to approval of group proposals. Also, although very few procedures for the plenary have been worked out, some things are strictly prohibited, such as working groups writing anything, which makes them talkative rather than privileged. premises transnational deliberation.

Democratic Game Changers

Unless the conference leadership manages to bridge these divides, which tarnish both the quality and quantity of plenary deliberations, it risks ruining the most valuable achievement of this initiative. Indeed, if adopted, many of the recommendations of the citizens already emerging of the conference could be a game-changer for the democratic character of the EU: mandate public broadcasters to better cover EU developments, hold EU-wide referenda, condition the disbursement of EU funds EU to Member States to respect for media pluralism and the rule of law, and the construction of a European health union.


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While for some these recommendations would be strangely integrationist – this being attributed to a supposed pro-EU bias in the initiative – they are rather the true by-product of the transnational experience acquired by the participants of the conference. Ultimately, being better informed about what national leaders in Brussels decide and how, or benefiting from wider pan-European public debates or a more integrated European health area is not the exclusive preserve of pro- European Unions, but a prerequisite for contributing to the democratic life of the Union. .

The first attempt at institutional reform since 2007, when the failure of the draft Constitution for Europe resulted in the Treaty of Lisbon, the Conference on the Future of Europe represents a valuable opportunity to clarify the future direction of the continent, with its people in the driver’s seat. It would be a shame to deviate from this path for lack of a clear process, agreed by common agreement between its main actors. The mission of the conference should be to break the black boxes of the EU, not to multiply them.

Conference on the future of Europe

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law at HEC Paris and was an expert and observer at the Conference on the Europe of the Future, Citizens’ Panel 2 on “European Democracy / Values ​​and Rights, Rule of Law, Security “.

Mary I. Bruner