This is the third in Demsoc’s series of blogs, laying out our thoughts on the Conference on the Future of Europe. So far, in the first post we have examined ‘what good looks like’ for the Conference, alongside some best practice case studies. In the second, we compared some of these case studies, along with the positions on the Conference from the European Commission, Parliament and the Franco-German non-paper. In this post, we will be following up by finding the points in common, where the three approaches could be complementary, in anticipation of the Joint Declaration.
The first and perhaps most basic similarity between the Parliament’s resolution, Commission’s communication and the non-paper is the commitment to providing all EU citizens with the opportunity to be involved in the process. There are few details around what this means but we can hope that it will draw on inspiration from other multi-faceted processes that increased accessibility. The non-paper specifically mentioned the importance of a ‘bottom-up process’, but is not clear about at what point this starts. It would be fantastic to see citizens involved in shaping the Conference from the beginning, as is seemingly suggested by the Parliament, in what they have called the ‘listening phase’, which could potentially be modelled on the ‘UK Conversation’ phase of the proposed UK Citizens’ Consultations.
Truly opening the process to as many citizens as possible, will be, as we have learnt from prior experience, far easier if local networks are consulted and activated early on. Using local partners with knowledge of the landscape and feeling. They will know best how to ensure people know about the process, and its relevance to them but they can also guide through how to get involved, set up local events and source and encourage participants. All institutional positions agreed on the need to involve national governments of member states, and the Commission, in their communication, instructed that the involvement of local, national and regional partners was key to success, and in other processes we have seen the added benefit of working with civil society partners.
In having events and conversations at local, national and regional level, the Conference will have to include a wide range of different forms of engagement. Offline this could include taking the form of consultations, debates and discussions as in the case of the Grand Débat. It must also include an online strand. Ideally the digital aspect would not just be for gathering opinions, or live-broadcasting central events and sharing information, but be a portal where citizens can interact properly with the process, and contribute meaningfully. Inspiration could be taken from NHS Citizen, or the digital tools used widely in Participatory Budgeting projects. Online, the Parliament suggested at least three citizens’ agoras in each member state, not including several youth agoras. This is a good start, but must go wider than three centrally located events, with a representative but limited number of people involved. Working to include those who live in rural areas, who are not able to or do not wish to travel, who won’t access digital tools or who aren’t interested in national or european level issues, to name just a few potentially excluded groups, is key to the success of the process. To complement the more formal, larger, central events, it would be wise to also allow civil society and local partners, under ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ branding and whilst adhering to guidelines, to run smaller events across all corners of the EU. Going to where citizens are will actually ensure they feel that their opinions are respected and will hopefully go some way to encouraging longer term buy-in to engagement processes, and will build trust in the European institutions. It will also mean that the Conference can discuss with citizens the issues that matter to them, which will take the Conference away from being a discussion about the efficiency of the institutions, and will instead make the most of citizen expertise of their own experience.
This touches on the last strong similarity between the Parliament’s resolution, the Commission’s communication and the non-paper. All have strong opinions on what themes the Conference should frame the discussion around. For the Commission this is it’s six political priorities, for the non-paper it is issues relating to the Institutions, including how to make the EU more united and sovereign. Laying out the parameters for conversation before the process has been designed is dangerous. It already discourages citizens, who if they disagree with, for example, the premise of making the EU more united and sovereign, may disengage totally. The parliament much more closely reflects Demsoc’s thinking, when it suggests that there should be an open forum for participants to discuss, without limit, any issues, thoughts or ideas they have which can then be shaped into a set of themes. This coupled with smaller local events, and a digital tool that are truly open, may create the most interesting results, and allow for change that accurately reflects what citizens want.
Using lessons and ideas from the Grand Débat and the proposed UK Citizens’ Conventions, amongst other programmes of work, that have similar mixed and multi-layered approaches will also be useful to building the programme for the Conference. Ideally one that brings in citizens from the start, to shape the entire process; one that includes as many types of involvement as possible, to give as many people as possible the chance to contribute; one that involves citizens from the very beginning, allowing them to form a process they want to see; and, one that has long lasting effects, beyond the end of the Conference on trust and collaboration between citizens and institutions.
Taking all of these similarities and differences into account, combined with the review of other best practice from across Europe, it seems that taking a “yes, and…” approach, combining a mixture of agoras, citizen dialogues and digital tools would provide the best reach, most complete conversation and greatest potential success to the Conference on the Future of Europe, as well as adding considerable longevity to the project of including citizens in European idea shaping and decision making, past summer 2022.