Putting the You in European Democracy?

Less top-down, more bottom-up – this is the aspiration behind the European Union’s latest initiative: the “Conference on the Future of Europe”. Henrique Laitenberger sheds light on the opportunities and limitations of this ambitious venture in direct democracy.

The concept behind the Conference on the Future of Europe is simple: ask European citizens what they want the EU to do differently. Whether it is on climate, migration, economic or foreign policy, people can share their ideas on a dedicated website; through participating or organising events with other citizens; or by partaking in citizens’ panels and Conference Plenaries with representatives of the EU institutions. The Conference leadership will gather these views until Spring 2022 and thereupon try to put them into action.

Initially flaunted by French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged to organise this undertaking upon her election in July 2019. At the time, they were both reacting to a moment of uncertainty for the EU: on the one hand, the experience of Brexit and the Trump Presidency had renewed appreciation for the European project. This was not least evidenced by a marked increase in voter turnout at the 2019 European elections. On the other hand, many EU politicians knew that nobody could rest on these laurels: after all, the United Kingdom was still leaving the EU. Far-right, anti-EU parties gained high levels of support in the 2019 elections. Most importantly, a young protest movement was excoriating the political class for its seemingly lethargic response to the fundamental threat of climate change. To renew confidence in the European project, von der Leyen proposed “A new push for European democracy”, with the Conference as its centrepiece – that is, an outlet for European citizens to voice their grievances and thoughts.

Whether it will succeed in its ambition remains to be seen, however. To do so, the Conference must overcome three challenges: the first is logistical. Originally, it was foreseen to be launched in 2020 and last two years. This timetable could not be kept: the Conference was only opened on 9 May 2021. This was predominantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a spat within the EU institutions: while the European Parliament had long insisted on leading liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt presiding over the Conference, this prospect was anathema to many EU governments. After a lot of haggling, a compromise was found: the Conference’s leadership would be divided between the three EU institutions (including Verhofstadt as a member of the Executive Board). However, the delay (partly) caused by the dispute means that the Conference will only run for one, instead of two years. Furthermore, many of its flagship events will only be able to take place in limited form or have to move entirely online due to the pandemic. This will at least limit the scope of exchanges.

The logistical obstacles faced by the Conference will likely exacerbate the second issue: popular participation and legitimacy. As of 27 May, the Conference website lists a little less than 15,000 participants in the process. Even in the most optimistic scenario, it is therefore unlikely that enough EU citizens will be mobilised to pass a clear-cut verdict on the issues affecting the EU. As such the Conference may at best resemble a large focus group than a convent. However, this could lead politicians to claim that Conference proposals did not have enough popular legitimacy and water them down.

This risk is especially evident when it comes to the third and crucial challenge of this Conference which is to find an answer to a hitherto open question: is this venture about policy or politics? Will it only change what the EU does or how it works? While there is little doubt that the Conference of the Future of Europe will provide concrete impulses for new policies, it remains to be seen is whether it will lead to structural reform in the form of changes to the EU treaties. In the eyes of many observers, many of the EU’s fundamental challenges can only be solved through such structural change: this includes granting the EU more powers in areas such as health, taxation or foreign policy and reforming the democratic processes within the EU institutions. Both the European Parliament and the European Commission support the idea of a more throughgoing renewal of the EU. Already in 2019, von der Leyen herself unambiguously stressed that she was “open to Treaty change.” However, the appetite for reopening the treaties is not very big among EU governments. Throughout the preparations for the Conference, they have resisted committing themselves to such an outcome. In the worst case, the Conference may therefore not be able to address the root causes of the EU’s current weaknesses.

This is not inevitable, however: despite the undeniable hurdles it faces, the Conference can still play an important role in moving the EU forward. It will certainly inspire important initiatives that will shape the EU policy agenda in the years to come. Even the seemingly elusive desideratum of treaty change may not be wholly off the cards: if a critical mass of Conference participants voices support for it, this may strengthen the case for treaty reform in the medium-term. Lastly, the Conference can set a precedent for direct citizen participation that the EU can build on in the years to come. This would indeed be its most valuable contribution: for decades, EU representatives have grappled with the accusation of being too detached from the people they work for. The Conference on the Future of Europe offers a unique opportunity to make an important first step in bringing the EU citizens and the European institutions closer together – and this would indeed be a gentle but nonetheless significant push for European democracy.

Henrique Laitenberger is a Consultant at Miltton Europe who holds a German passport but is, for all intents and purposes, a citizen of Europe.