Lack of citizens in the EU citizen debate raises eyebrows | European Commission
Socially distanced places are set, guests will be arriving soon. Everything is ready for the EU’s most ambitious attempt to debate with the citizens. Everything except most of the citizens who are supposed to be involved.
The Conference on the Future of Europe, an 11-month consultation whose centerpiece will be citizens’ assemblies across the EU, is holding its first working session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Saturday. While a full complement of EU politicians and officials is expected in the Rhine city, only around 27 citizens are likely to attend – a quarter of the total who would usually attend such meetings, according to the conference site.
This may seem strange for a project presented by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, as a project where citizens “play a driving and active role in building the future of our union”. An EU official, however, insisted that everything would go as planned. “There is no delay: the panels of European citizens will start to meet from September or October, and we are on time for that.” Although the project has been under discussion for more … than three years, the selection of citizens’ panels – representative groups of people from all over the EU – is incomplete.
Guy Verhofstadt, the veteran EU politician and conference co-chair, rejected suggestions that the absence of many citizens at the start undermines the legitimacy of the project. “Decisions will not be made in June. Decisions will be made in March, February  when the conclusions are drawn, ”he said this week. “What you are saying is that the whole purpose of this conference is to make the link with the citizens. Not at all. The aim of this conference is to develop a vision, a new vision for the future of Europe … and we want to do this based on the contribution of citizens. Meanwhile, organizers expected 67 EU citizens to attend an event in Portugal on Thursday.
Verhofstadt, a staunch federalist, is seen by some EU governments as one of the problems with the troubled project, which has been marred by EU interinstitutional wars since its adoption by Von der Leyen, when she fought for MEPs to vote. she as commission chair. The idea was first launched by Emmanuel Macron in March 2019, as the French president sought to learn the lessons of Brexit. It is no coincidence that the conference will end during the first phases of the French presidential elections in spring 2022.
After the outbreak of the coronavirus, many governments see the project as an unwanted distraction. EU ministers have managed to dilute Verhofstadt’s role: the Belgian is one of three co-chairs of an executive committee, part of the conference’s elaborate structure.
Very heavy bureaucratic structure, plus a foundation jargon filled statement, such as “subsidiarityAnd “stakeholders” have not inspired some observers. Historian Timothy Garton Ash called the conference an “orgy of introspection”. Even sympathetic observers fear the project lack of clear goals and could stimulate Eurosceptics, if there are no tangible benefits.
Others argue that it is too early to undo the democratic experiment. Political scientist Alberto Alemanno was one of the project’s most vocal critics, but was won over by the final plans. “This is perhaps the first time that EU institutions and member states have created an institutional mechanism over which they might end up not having control,” he said, citing the possibility for the assemblies. citizens to interpret the task in their own way. The EU law professor thinks the focus on the issues (e.g. global warming, jobs and health) rather than the obscure affairs of the EU treaty change shows that leaders have learned from the 2002-03 Convention on the Future of Europe An unfortunate European constitution, rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.
The pan-European citizens’ assemblies – which would involve 800 people in locations yet to be determined – were a first for the EU, he added. “This conference has the potential to act as a Trojan horse, both for new ideas and dynamics within the union. In the absence of Member State control, some of these ideas and dynamics may in fact persist. “
Damian Boeselager, the first and only MEP for Volt, a pan-European movement that wants greater public involvement in politics, is also enthusiastic. “A debate on the future of Europe itself is valuable and must be conducted,” he said. Criteria for success should be the scope of the project and whether it results in “concrete changes” in the way the EU operates. “It is not a good result if it is a consultation process that results in a report for the European Council [of EU leaders], then they discuss it for two minutes and it’s done, ”he said. But the EU must first find citizens.