The first European elections to directly elect the European Parliament took place in 1979. In 2012, the European Citizens’ Initiative as the world’s first tool of transnational direct democracy was born. And in autumn 2021, Europe’s very first citizens’ assembly will deliberate.
The Conference on the Future of Europe is long-awaited even before it was given an official title. Civil society organizations, democracy activists, and some politicians have been calling for an opportunity where citizens can come together to discuss seriously about Europe and where its priorities should be. Finally, after the record-high voter turnout of the European elections of 2019, the first EU election since Brexit, it was clear to the people at the top that a real dialogue needs to take place together with the citizens – and not only symbolically.
But how to reach out and hear the voice of the “average” European in a population of almost 500 million? The European institutions looked at participatory examples in the Member States, where countries such as Ireland, France, and Germany have experimented with randomly-selected citizens’ assemblies and even more have included them at local or regional level. However, Europe is very culturally and linguistically diverse, and setting up a “mini-Europe” requires more thought and planning at the transnational level.
European citizens’ assemblies, called citizens’ panels, will be the mini-Europe that discusses the future of Europe. The citizens’ panels will discuss topics that have already been set by the EU institutions, taking into account the institutions’ set political priorities, their strategic agendas, and the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic. The 9 categories are: 1. climate change and the environment, 2. health, 3. a stronger economy, social justice, and jobs, 4. EU in the world, 5. values and rights, rule of law, security, 6. digital transformation, 7. European democracy, 8. migration, 9. education, culture, youth, and sport. A separate category for “other ideas” will be reserved.
The citizens’ panels will be representative of the EU’s sociological diversity and be based on the criteria of citizens’ geographic origin, gender, age, socioeconomic background and/or level of education. One-third of each citizens’ panel will be reserved for young people aged 16-25 in order to strengthen the youth dimension in Europe.
There will be 4 EU-level citizens’ panels, each composed of 200 randomly-selected citizens from all Member States. Member States will be represented by degressive proportionality, just like the composition of the European Parliament, where smaller-populated States have, proportionally, more representation.
The citizens’ panels will meet during 5 deliberative sessions: 1 opening session, 3 working sessions, and 1 closing session. The 3 working sessions will be 2.5 days long, and 1 session will be digital. Each panel will be dedicated to specific categories and themes and will meet in a different European city.
In addition to the categories already laid out, the citizens’ panels will be fed ideas from the online platform of the Conference, which launched on April 19th. On the online platform, all people are welcome to submit ideas and suggestions on the future of Europe, and users can endorse the already existing proposals and comments. However, which suggestions and proposals from the online platform will ultimately go forward to the citizens’ panels, and how this will be decided, is still an open question.
Citizens will also be a part of the 433-member Conference plenary, which will receive the recommendations that the citizens’ panels deliberate and draft the outcomes. A total of 108 citizens will join the plenary. The exact breakdown: 80 citizens will come from the citizens’ panels, 27 citizens (1 per Member State) from national citizens’ assemblies or national events, and 1 citizen will come from the European Youth Parliament. The rest of the plenary membership come from the European Parliament, national parliaments, the Council, the Commission, the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of the Regions, and social partners and civil society.
And last but not least in the web of Conference complexities, the plenary, on a consensual basis, drafts the outcomes of the citizens’ panels after discussing them themselves and submits them to the executive board. A report is produced by the executive board, also on a consensual basis, and publishes it on the online platform. Finally, in spring 2022, the report is presented to the representatives of the European Parliament, Council, and Commission, which make up the Joint Presidency of the Conference, who each decide how to follow-up within their own sphere of competences and in accordance within the Treaties.
While the Conference process is due to end in spring 2022, Democracy International calls that the Conference kick-starts a multi-year process of European democratic review and reform. The Conference should use its unique opportunity with citizens to review the extent of democratic reform that can take place under the current Treaties, and, if necessary, propose suggestions for Treaty amendments. If the Conference recommends Treaty change in its final report, the EU institutions should launch an official Convention, according to Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty, which, like our demands for the Conference, is democratic, transparent, and inclusive. As a final step, there should be an EU-wide referendum on the final outcomes of the EU Convention.