It is a pretty safe bet that most Europeans outside the Brussels bubble have never heard of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE).
To those of us who care about a more democratic culture in Europe, this is a significant challenge – we need to help make sure the Conference is a success.
Civil society organisations like New Europeans have a significant role to play in promoting the conference and encouraging participation.
In fact we in the pro-European movement need to recognise that we are as much part of the cognoscenti as those who work for the EU’s institutions.
If CoFoE becomes simply a conversation between the EU and organised civil society, an important opportunity will have been lost.
In June, the EU institutions set up an online digital platform for the CoFoE.
Inspired by initiatives such as Europe Future Fringe (europefuturefringe,com), the online allows individuals and groups to post ideas about the future of Europe
As of 7 November, only 34,378 EU citizens had accessed the panel. Meanwhile 168,213 had taken part in a range of regional, national and European assemblies. No doubt there is a degree of overlap with those who accessed the online panel.
Given that the EU’s population stands at over 445 million, the participation of something in the region of 200,000 citizens represents less than 0.01%.
This is an improvement on previous attempts at engaging EU citizens. But a neutral observer will still be likely to see the glass as 99.99% empty and not 0.01% full.
Why should we nevertheless celebrate such modest progress? One answer lies in a reflection on the European response to the current pandemic.
COVID-19 has reminded us how difficult it can be to secure consensus for top-down policy measures. It has also exposed the scale of the challenges we face to build a healthy, green and digital future for Europe.
Such challenges will be greater if member state governments lack trust and the buy in from citizens. In Bulgaria, Romania and Latvia, low levels of trust have undermined vaccine take up and COVID-19 deaths are rising rapidly again.
Engaging with citizens, from the earliest stages of policy-making, offers leaders the opportunity to build in consensus and legitimacy from the ground up. Low participation may signal a communication problem between the institutions and citizens and should not automatically be taken as a sign of public indifference.
The Conference is an unprecedented attempt to tap into the energy and aspirations of all who live and work in Europe. It will take time, but many in the EU institutions know very well that greater citizen engagement is key to the sustainability and resilience of the European project.
Three key obstacles stand in the way.
Firstly, the Conference has many more detractors than admirers. Illiberal authoritarian nationalists like Viktor Orban will be looking forward to saying: “Well that was a gigantic waste of time, we won’t be doing that again.” Were such views to prevail they could set back the cause of citizen engagement for decades.
Secondly, despite efforts by the Joint Secretariat of the Conference, the citizens panels, the face-to-face assemblies that complement the contributions being made through the online platform, are not yet sufficiently inclusive.
An open letter from 50 NGOs in the Citizens Take Over Europe alliance has called on the Conference to implement a diversity assessment of the citizens’ panels and to take measures to ensure the inclusion of marginalised communities.
In their reply, the co-Chairs (Guy Verhofstadt, Dubravka Šuica and Gašper Dovžan acknowledged the need to work for a more inclusive approach but stopped short of introducing measures to monitor the degree of diversity amongst participants.
The problem, however, is that without measuring and quantifying the extent of discrimination and inequalities, it is very difficult to effectively tackle them, as Michaeal Moua, the EU’s first Anti-Racism Co-ordinator has pointed out:
“All policy areas need to take anti-racism into account, and we need to ensure the intersectional viewpoint,” she said following her appointment earlier this year.
The Co-chairs of CoFoE should heed the EU’ Anti-Racism Coordinator’s advice.
Meanwhile, all of us in civil society should ask ourselves what more we can do to ensure all feel included in the conversation about the future of Europe? Is the CoFoE is really a safe space for all voices to be heard or will it become just another arena for he or she who looks the part or shouts the loudest?
The third obstacle has to do with civil society organisations themselves.
Those of us fighting the European cause in our communities have welcomed the Conference because we know it is an opportunity for our voices to be heard. We should be careful, however, not to advocate too strongly for our own individual causes at the expense of leaving space for others to have their say as well.
Instead, civil society organisations need to show we are able to significantly widen participation and build a more inclusive conversation about Europe’s future.
Europe’s People’s Forum a collaboration of over 50 organisations and technical partners from all 27 EU member states, has called for a permanent mechanism of citizen engagement as a follow up to the Conference. (europespeoplesforum.eu)
Such a legacy would be a valuable next step in engaging with citizens to build consensus, source new policy ideas and strengthen European democracy.
In the aftermath of the pandemic, benefits like that will be sorely needed.
Roger Casale is a civil rights activist and the founder of New Europeans , a civil rights movement working for a Europe of the citizens: www.neweuropeans.net.