The conference on the Future of Europe was supposed to allow citizens to get involved to identify priorities for a more democratic, sustainable and efficient EU. However political conditions have changed dramatically since the pandemic. Daniel Freund MEP, The Greens / EFA and Gisela Erler, State Counsellor for Civil Society and Civic Participation in a conversation with Dr. Christine Pütz, Senior Programme Officer European Union Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.
The initiation of the Conference on the Future of Europe was an important step taken by the new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, at the beginning of her tenure last year. The conference was supposed to begin on Europe Day on 9th May this year, with the aim of getting EU citizens involved in identifying the key policy priorities for the next few years, and to make the EU more democratic, sustainable, and efficient. The political conditions have changed dramatically with the Covid-19 pandemic. The question now is whether the conference should still be a priority. Daniel, should the EU and the current German EU Council Presidency spend energy on the Conference on the Future of Europe or should they prioritise combating the economic and social effects of the pandemic?
Daniel Freund: There are two answers to this question. We cannot look several years into the future at the height of a pandemic, in which thousands of Europeans have lost their lives. We first have to work on the real issues surrounding the fight against this pandemic. The short and direct response to the crisis by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, with their push for a Recovery Plan, was the right one. At the moment, we need money to respond properly to the healthcare issues and the economic consequences. Given that the infection rates are declining significantly, the restrictions are being relaxed everywhere in Europe, borders are open and people can holiday in Europe again, it would be odd to say that we should not talk about the future. For a long-term response, we need the conference now more than ever. We are facing what is probably the most severe economic crisis since the second world war and the last economic crisis has only ended recently. Greece has just started having slow growth rates for the first time since ten years. The fact that we in the EU have taken longer to overcome the last financial crisis than, for example, the USA or the UK, is because of the faulty financial and economic policies in the EU. I very much hope that the economic crisis which is upon us does not unnecessarily prolong again. But for that, we need institutional changes. And that is what we are supposed to discuss in the Conference on the Future of Europe. It is unacceptable that we in Europe go from one crisis to the next and keep saying “But now we are in a crisis once again, and so we cannot deal with the basic issues”. It is precisely these basic problems that plunge us into crises time and again and prevent us from managing crises efficiently.
What is the Conference on the Future of Europe supposed to be about?
Gisela Erler: The pandemic has made it clear that certain things need to change, e.g. in the transnational healthcare policy or in the economic policy. We have to fundamentally redefine how we distribute funds and how we want to work together. Should we organise centrally or decentrally? The pandemic has shown that we need both. One the one hand, we need a centralised budget and on the other hand we need strong decentralised structures. When we look at France, we can see that it is not necessary to manage healthcare and crisis policies centrally. Now the question is whether we will have to amend EU treaties to achieve that, or if we can find other ways to deal with this. Many warn against amending EU treaties because they think it could backfire.
Daniel Freund, you spoke about a long-term response. The Conference on the Future of Europe is supposed to address political priorities as well as institutional changes. Gisela just spoke about economic and healthcare policies. What should be our main priorities in your opinion?
Daniel Freund: I would focus on continental issues. Issues related to climate protection, the lack of a tax policy which allows large corporations to use loopholes, dealing with digitisation and its effects on our life. The economic policy and the question of solidarity in a crisis are also important. And of course, Europe’s role in the world. How can the EU defend its values and interests with a highly unreliable president in the White House and a rising China? These are the main issues. And then there are institutional and democratic questions. How should the European democracy work? How do we elect the European Parliament, should there be transnational lists, should the President of the Commission be elected directly?
You are getting to a critical point here.. Gisela mentioned the voice of sceptics: “Be careful, stay away from the EU treaties”. What do you think about that?
Daniel Freund: Firstly, I have to say that here we are talking about a conference, and not about a convention or a constituent assembly. I find it strange that we want to have an exchange with citizens from all over the EU about the future of the EU, but at the same time we say “Let’s talk about the future, but not about a future where we change something”. There should be an open debate where citizens discuss their vision for the EU. It’s irrelevant to them if decisions are finally made based on a “Passerelle clause” in the European Council, or through budgetary adjustments, or through new EU-taxes, or by amending a treaty . I think we should not start this debate by looking at red flags, we first need to have a discussion and then talk about how we can implement good ideas.
This is another key issue. Daniel Freund likes citizens to have an open debate. How can we have such a dialogue so that at the end of the day citizens also feel heard and actually involved in the decision-making process? This is an important question because we have to ensure people don't feel frustrated about ‘pseudo-participation’. As the State Counsellor, you advised the state government of Baden-Württemberg for many years on how Citizen's Dialogues can be held properly. What are the criteria for success in your experience?
Gisela Erler: I would suggest a model in which citizens are selected randomly. Daniel and I agree on that. In this process, randomly selected citizens will be brought together across borders from all over EU. A citizen meeting with people from Finland to Malta will not only give us a Maltese or a Finnish solution, but it will enable transnational compromises. We will have some clever recommendations from all the experience, recommendations not only from Baden-Württemberg, but also from Vorarlberg, England, and Ireland. How citizens deal with issues elsewhere won’t just be a footnote, it will be the main point. What should we do to actually involve them and to give them a voice? That’s the most difficult question. We cannot tell citizens what they think up and suggest will be implemented as it is. This process is not direct democracy. However, we must ensure that citizens' recommendations are actually considered seriously and if possible, they must also be implemented. This is not trivial. In all the dialogues, my experience has been that people find this process feasible. They respect the existing institutional structures, and do not assume that they are replacing the parliament or the government. But the pre-requisite is that in the Parliament, in the Council, and in the Commission recommendations made by citizens must be actually accounted for.
I really believe that we can make headway with such a method, compared to something like the European Citizens' Initiative, which often turns out to be pointless because it is not sufficiently embedded and most of all, it is not sufficiently representative. Powerful stakeholders and lobby groups are legitimate and necessary for a democracy, but they are not the same as a citizen meeting, which captures representative opinions and gives them further impetus. Unlike referenda, citizen meetings can be convened several times. People can form an opinion in small groups. Just like in the European Parliament and in the Council. People don’t come in with a fixed position, they have a European experience and they form an opinion. In this way, it differs from direct democracy where people come in with a fixed opinion and then they cannot make any compromises.
You both spoke about two important criteria for success. Firstly, a randomly selected representative body of citizens that guarantees a political and regional balance and convenes multiple times to be a part of an opinion making and decision-making process. Secondly, European institutions being accountable for dealing with the outcomes and recommendations of such citizen meetings. This should enable a real deliberative process which makes negotiation and implementation of outcomes transparent. You have been a Member of the European Parliament for a year now. Do you think the European Parliament can fulfil the last criterion we talked about?
Daniel Freund: Absolutely. The essence of the European Parliament lies in listening to the citizens. In this Parliament, we have to represent, negotiate, and add concrete legislative initiatives for what the voters want. The Parliament generally urges other institutions to take this process seriously as well. Now let me tell you how it should not be done. The way citizens' dialogues of the European Commission have been conducted until now. The Commission and even the European Council have organised hundreds of citizens' dialogues. Emmanuel Macron introduced this with his “Grand Debát”, and he then pushed other administrations to do the same. Such dialogues then followed with sometimes greater or sometimes lesser enthusiasm. And what happened at the end of this process? It was discussed in the European Council for 90 seconds. A 90 second debate. Without any particular outcome. After having talked to thousands of citizens. This is exactly how people get frustrated and disillusioned with the European Union. That should not be the case for this Conference on the Future of Europe.
We cannot promise that whatever the citizens recommend will be implemented as it is. However, at least it should be clear from the start that all the involved institutions will take recommendations seriously. Then this process can be successful. I don’t think it depends on the European Parliament in the end. We see this over and over in the European decision-making process: the Commission puts forward good proposals, the parliament develops them further, and at the end many good ideas die in the Council. It is because of the resistance by individual governments. Often no one knows which proposal was actually blocked by which government in the Council. For me, this conference is a tool which will hopefully increase public pressure on governments in such a way that they let go of their proposal-blocking mentality and do not stand in the way of European solutions for European problems.
Which mistakes should we avoid at all costs in organising such Conferences on the Future of Europe?
Gisela Erler: The biggest mistake would be to raise false hopes which would disappoint people. There is a great wish for direct democracy in the population, yet at the same time people are scared of it. I don’t think direct democracy through referenda in the EU can be ruled out a priori in the future. However, an idea of direct democracy where every member state decides about different topics and by organising a referendum, with nationalistic and sometimes very populist debates, is wrong. We need real translational European discourse among citizens. Now the task is to enable this mechanism. Many people thought primarily we will have national dialogues and then somehow add them up to a European discourse. But that would be something completely different. This mistake should not be made. This approach would only deepen divisions in the EU.
Let’s come back to the current situation. How would such a Citizen's Dialogue work in the near future given the conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Gisela Erler: At present, we are better positioned for this project than before the coronavirus crisis. As Daniel said, the European Council was always the black hole where everything disappeared. In the Council, time and again an intergovernmental and non-European strategy prevailed. My view is that the German federal government has now understood because of the Corona pandemic that this crisis cannot be handled only at the national level. This is an opportunity to have a citizen's dialogue. The old concern was always that citizens could make too many pan-European demands wherever possible. The recent ditizen's dialogues have shown European governments that citizens are asking more for Europe in many fields. An anti-European sentiment was never seen.
Daniel Freund: The digital solutions which we developed in response to the pandemic showed us that on the one hand many problems can be solved digitally. On the other hand, here in the European Parliament we are also experiencing the limits of digital communication when it comes to real debates and finding compromises. The lesson I learnt for the conference process is that we will need to enhance and improve the process with digital media. Having twenty-four official languages and participants from twenty-seven countries in itself would be a huge challenge. And since we will involve people of all age groups and all social backgrounds, that could be another challenge. And that is why, I would prefer waiting for a few months till we are able to control the health situation to the extent that citizen meetings can be conducted in person, instead of having to do them only digitally. This doesn’t mean that digital media cannot or should not be used in the process, but I think for the citizen's dialogues alone at present I would prefer to conduct them in person.
Gisela Erler: I would like to answer that differently. I would like to be brave and say that we should start the dialogue. Unlike you, I think we can do a lot more digitally. For example, I just organised meetings in villages in the Balkans, where grandchildren set up Zoom for their grandmothers and they were able to speak to us about the Danube Strategy. We have the momentum now, people are open now to topics related to the renewal of Europe. We should use this momentum. I would insist on starting the process now. In the end we can top if off with one or two physical meetings. In the current scenario, it will be easy to bring together even more people digitally. The more I use the digital media, the more I realise that now there is almost a “free highway” to the citizens.
What should the next steps be? What exactly should the German Council Presidency do?
Daniel Freund: A clear guideline to the German EU Council Presidency is to make sure that the Conference on the Future of Europe starts ambitiously, and to give the process the necessary gravitas by keeping it at the highest level. The Commission, the Parliament, and the Council must issue a joint statement before summer break. We must bring the three institutions together and tell them how we intend to conduct the conference. Ideally, it should start in September under the German EU Council Presidency. Of course, we need a few months to prepare for citizen meetings, but the three European institutions can come together already for the inaugural event. Then conferences can be carried out for the next two years.
How optimistic are you: Will there be a successful Conference on the Future of Europe in this legislative period?
Daniel Freund: It is our job to do just that. Of course, I would not put in so much time and energy if I didn’t believe in it.
Gisela Erler: In the last fifty years, I have seen a lot of things fail but I still have big hopes. I do really hope now that we can take this project in the right direction.
Thank you for this conversation.
The conversation took place on 8th June 2020.