Part I: Conference on the Future of Europe – where Europeans Tell the EU what type of an EU and future they want

MEPs celebrated the reforms that enhanced democracy and expanded people’s rights in the EU with Presidents Sassoli, Michel and von der Leyen. President Sassoli speaks of the upcoming Conference of the Future of Europe and addressing citizens’ concerns. Photo credit: European Parliament from EU, CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

EU Leadership tells its members citizens: The Future is in Your Hands

IO – One of the criticisms that the European Union has faced in the last years especially by Brexit supporters, is that ordinary citizens of its member states do not have enough say in the policies and actions of the EU; that as an institution the EU is not democratic enough. Even among citizens of the EU who are happy with their states as part of the union, there have been voices asking that ordinary people be given more of a say in the policies of the EU. Populist movements that have in recent years gathered strength in some EU member states have not been slow to ride the wave of popular discontent by disparaging in-built representative democracy and demanding referendums and other direct forms of democracy; some even going so far as to advocate leaving the EU altogether.

Recently, the EU conducted an exercise in such direct democracy with its ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’. However, Margarida Marques, Euro MP from Portugal says that the Conference was not held as a reaction to Brexit and the rise of populist movements but that in fact the idea to discuss the future of Europe has already been a long time in the making. The Convention on the Future of Europe was already established in 2001 with the purpose of creating a draft constitution for the EU in order to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the EU with its citizens. It envisaged an enhanced role for national parliaments as one way of opening the EU law making process to wider public scrutiny. The member states had come to realize that the EU method of negotiating the use of EU treaties amongst its members via privately held intergovernmental diplomatic was not satisfactory. It encouraged brinkmanship while discouraging visionary thinking and eroded public confidence in the outcome. As these treaties determined EU law and EU law overrides the national law of its member states it resulted in citizens not feeling a sense of ownership of EU laws.

The EU Delegation to Indonesia and Brunei support this view adding that last year it was a strong willingness and enthusiasm from the current President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen to give citizens more of a voice that then made the process possible. She wanted EU citizens to have their say at a ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ and that it would provide a significant role especially for young people, civil society and European institutions as equal partners. Consequently, on the 10th of March 2021, the European Parliament headed by President David Sassoli, the Council of Europe headed by Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal and the European Commission represented by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, signed a Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe.

What followed was an exercise in deliberative democracy whereby the EU provided the opportunity to the citizens of its member states as well as political actors, social partners, civil society representatives and other key stakeholders to effectively tell the EU what sort of an EU they want and what sort of a future EU citizens want. The process took a year before the Conference was held as a concluding event in investigating and putting together the views of European Union society.

Portrait of Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. Photo credit: Etienne Ansotte, © European Union, 2021, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

The EU tried to provide citizens with a central role in the conference. On the 9th of May 2022 the ’Conference on the Future of Europe’ came to a close and presented its conclusions, which contain 49 proposals and 326 measures. Ursula von der Leyen then said, “Dear European citizens: your message has been received. It is now time for us to deliver.”

She made known that in June the EU would set out what is needed to bring EU citizens’ proposals to life. Ms Von der Leyen then promised that she would announce the first new proposals responding to the report on EU citizens’ demands in her State of the Union address in September of this year. Von der Leyen added, “And we need to go even further. For example, I have always argued that unanimity voting in some key areas no longer makes sense. If we want to move faster, Europe should also play a greater role in health and defense. The Citizens Panels have proven that this form of democracy works. It should become part of the way we make policy.”

On the 9th of June the EU Parliament approved the ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ noting that several of the Conference proposals require amendments to EU treaties, and that the EU Parliament would prepare proposals for the necessary treaty amendments

How in fact was, what proved to be quite an extraordinary experiment and an intricate process of deliberative democracy carried out?  Annemie de Clerck, a retired headmistress from Belgium is an EU citizen who participated in the process. She explained, “The EU randomly contacted 800 citizens from its 27 member states and asked them to participate. They tried to have men and women equally represented, but also that two thirds of the participants were under 25 years of age. The education level of participants was not taken into consideration. They were divided into four Citizens Panels, each consisting of 200 citizens. One panel was for climate change, the environment and health, another panel was for Europe in the world and migration, a third panel was about European democracy, values and rights, rule of law and security and a fourth panel was about digital transformation.  Participants could not choose their panels but were randomly assigned. There were nine working groups within each panel.

Annemie de Clerck participated on the Citizens’ Panel for democracy. Photo credit: courtesy of Annemie de Clerck.

During the course of 2021, the participants had to set aside three weekends to meet, listen to experts and discuss the issues regarding the topic or subjects of their working group. The first meeting began with the participants conveying what each of them as EU citizens regarded as important topics to work on for the future of Europe in general. Then only, did they begin discussions and lectures about the subject of their working group. De Clerck’s working group by way of example, only discussed democracy. Finally, the groups and panels made their recommendations for EU leadership and institutions to later implement as EU policies.

What complicated the process is that 24 languages are officially spoken in the EU and it was held that for a citizen to really be able to express themselves and discuss the subject of his/her group, a citizen would need to be allowed to speak in his/her native language. Consequently, there were a lot of simultaneous translations going on during the whole process with a maximum of 5 languages being used in each working group.

From each panel of 200 citizens, 20 ambassadors were then randomly chosen from those who put forward their names as wanting to be ambassadors for their panel. For a further seven weekends the ambassadors then met in Strasbourg where the subjects of their panels were further discussed with politicians, civil society members, unions, EU officials and other stakeholders.

After three weeks the 800 citizens then voted on which of their many, many recommendations would be sent to the Conference on the Future of Europe. Added to this however, the general EU public was also provided with the opportunity to present their suggestions for the future of Europe online via the digital platform provided by the EU. This meant that all EU citizens could express their opinions. Beside this, decentralised online, in-person and hybrid events were held by people and organisations as well as national, regional and local authorities across Europe to gather citizens’ feedback. At the Conference, the Conference Plenary session ensured that the recommendations from the national and European citizens’ panels, grouped by themes, were debated without a predetermined outcome.

Euro MP Margarida Marques of Portugal. Photo courtesy of Margarida Marques

Euro MP Margarida Marques stressed that at the Conference the Citizen’s Panels were given equal status to representatives of EU institutions and there they discussed the various recommendations and reached compromises about the future of Europe.

De Clerck agrees that this was a very important part of the proceedings and is in fact an important part of EU democracy. She commented, “It is not always easy to reach a consensus because the member countries are often very different. When a country like Belgium speaks to a country like Hungary the mindset can be very different so we have a lot of talking to do to reach a decision that is for the good of the whole of Europe.”

In Indonesia, a country with over 300 tribal and ethnic groups which speak over 600 languages and dialects this principle is known as the principle of musyawarah untuk mufakat or ‘discussion or deliberations in order to reach consensus’ which has been a part of Indonesian tradition for centuries and is enshrined in the Pancasila or the ‘Five Basic Principles of State’ and also in several parliamentary legislative products. Serious attempts at finding a consensus that everyone can live with is an important element of democracy in helping to prevent the polarization of society or even parliament itself for when a society becomes too polarized it makes it difficult for democracy to flourish.

In preparing this article the writer contacted 20 acquaintances who are EU citizens living in the EU to ask their opinions of the process and whether they had participated in it. None of them participated in it and nearly none had even heard of it. Anda Djoehana, a French sociologist and academician commented, “Had I known of it, I would certainly have participated in it.”

De Clerck is of the view that the greatest challenge to the project was communicating the idea and the process to the EU public, especially ordinary citizens so that they engaged in the process.  She says that several Belgian Citizens Panels ambassadors, in fact wrote open letters to Belgian newspapers to ask why the Belgian press for the most part had not covered the ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ and the process leading up to it. She says, “It was a good structured process where one could really experience democracy in practice, although a referendum may perhaps have reached out to more people. For some subjects this is a good format but for very specific matters that affect everyone a referendum may be better. The EU needs better communication and PR to inform and reach out to EU citizens about this and also about the digital platform where every citizen could express their views. One of the recommendations to the EU was that the EU must do more to inform its citizens about the EU as well as to combat fake news.

It is interesting to note that among the many responses of EU member states’ citizens, Ms Von der Leyen mentioned two that have been controversial in the past namely, changing the unanimous voting rule that is now practiced in the European Commission in some areas, and increasing Europe’s role in defense.

De Clerck says that she thinks the war in Ukraine influenced many people’s decision with regard to this because a war situation made people far more aware that the whole union cannot be held up by just one country disagreeing. Tyranny by minority is not a good system especially in times of war. Euro MP Marques’ position on this in the plenary session was that before creating additional legislation, “We should explore first all the possibilities in taking political decisions in the various EU treaties.” She says that frequently, the EU takes unanimous decisions not because the rules require it but because there is a lack of political will to take decision otherwise. The Lisbon Treaty for example has a passerelle clause. Passerelle clauses are mechanisms that allow unanimous decision making to be transformed to qualified majority voting or that allow a special legislative procedure to be changed to an ordinary one. The voting procedure of the Council of Europe is now based on the system set forth in the Treaty of Lisbon which allows qualified majority voting.

Child with EU flag outside the European Parliament. Photo credit: European Parliament from EU, CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, as the citizen of an EU member state De Clerck has the following message for the EU leadership, “The Conference for the Future of Europe is not the end of the process but the beginning and we, the citizens want to be informed what you are going to do with our recommendations and if you do nothing then you need to report to us why you have done nothing. The Conference itself is a first step.”

As a step in increasing public confidence as well as a greater sense of public ownership of EU laws, the ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ should be of interest to other democratic multinational unions of states. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also like to read Part II: