Conference on Future of Europe aims to give citizens a stronger voice

Presidents Sassoli, von der Leyen and PM Costa signed the Joint Declaration on the Conference on Future of Europe in EP plenary chamber

In the course of the next year, European citizens will have the opportunity to bring in their own ideas on EU reform and policy as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CFE). Largely seen as the brainchild of France and Germany, its inaugural Conference Plenary will take place on 19 June 2021, in Strasbourg. Citizens of all member states can take part in the conference on the local and state levels as well. In order to find out more about the conference and its possible impact on the EU, I spoke to analyst Vendula Karásková from the think-tank Association for International Affairs.

“The Conference on the Future of Europe (CFE) is yet another attempt to give a stronger voice directly to EU citizens, to involve them in debates about the necessary reforms within the EU and to ask them about their opinions on the EU’s future.

“President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said that it is a real opportunity to bring Europeans together and unite them around a common ambition about the future.

“That is a very good motto, but the question is whether we will be able to see some real outcomes coming out of the conference.”

Is this something where we have a real chance to change EU policy, or is it just another way to appease the many calls for reforming the union?

Vendula Karásková | Photo: Association for International Affairs

“The call for the EU to reform is nothing new. We have already seen this before. For example, in 2001, there was the Convention on the Future of the EU and there were calls for an even more significant reform of the EU after the Brexit referendum and the migration crisis in 2016. Right now, even the heads of EU states agree that there is a necessity to change how the EU functions. The question is whether they have the will to do so.

“This is related to the rivalries among the EU institutions. For example, the European Commission didn’t a priory exclude the possibility of amending EU treaties to change the primary law of the European Union, which would allow for deeper changes in the functioning of the EU.

“On the other hand, the member states would prefer to focus only on the sectoral agendas. That means only discussing questions such as whether there should be a deeper health union with the citizens, or what they think about migration.

“The EU member states more or less exclude any possibilities of a deeper change in the functioning of the EU. They want this conference to be more of a consultation process, or an exercise in which citizens are involved in the debate about the EU, but not about bigger changes in the future.”

How can people living in the Czech Republic get involved?

“The question is whether we will be able to see some real outcomes coming out of the conference.”

“Right now, every EU citizen can get involved in the conference. The digital platform of the conference was launched in all languages on April 19. It is a specialised web platform, where all citizens can put forward their ideas or comment on others as well as create or participate in events. Czechs can add their ideas to nine categories. These include topics such as climate change and the environment, digital transformation or migration.

“Czechs are quite famous for their complaining. We like to comment on everything and criticise. Right now, if anyone has a concrete idea on how to change something in the EU, or what the EU should achieve in the future, it is already possible to include this idea on the webpage. People will see it and can vote or comment on it.

“I am already quite pleased that Czech citizens have discovered this platform and there are already several Czech ideas which are quite constructive and commented on. These ideas can now be heard all over Europe.

European Parliament | Photo: Michal Sänger,  Flickr,  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Apart from this digital platform, there should also be physical meetings, if the pandemic allows for this to happen. Everyone should be able to participate in the conference events, or even create their own. We should see events on the local, regional and national levels being organised in the upcoming year by civil society groups or the Czech government.

“The Czech government has actually promised to start a communication campaign about the conference in the upcoming days and weeks. This should bring more opportunities for Czechs to get involved directly.

“It should also be said that the structure of the conference is quite complex. It includes a European citizen’s panel and a plenary session, which should both include randomly selected EU citizens, that means Czechs as well.”

As an EU expert yourself, have you thought of anything that you want to contribute or bring up?

“Right now, every EU citizen can get involved in the conference.”

“That is a very good point, because it is on my list to contribute to this debate. I would just like to point out that everyone can now contribute to this debate and list his or her idea on the platform.

“As for myself, I have not contributed yet. However, I know that for example other organisations have contributed some of their events to the conference and these events are already visible on the conference web page.”

Do you think that the EU and its member states would really be willing to listen to some issue that the public may bring up and, if so, which one?

“Actually, I am quite sceptical about that. Nevertheless, I believe that it could be useful for discussions about the future EU health union.

“Right now, if there was any attempt to change the functioning of the European Union over the past years, it was that of changing how the health sector functions. The health agenda is currently governed by member states. However, during the pandemic, there were strong voices for granting the European Union more significant powers in this area. This was voiced not just by some of the governments, but also by EU citizens and health is one of the topics where those partaking in the CFE can comment on.

“We should see events on the local, regional and national levels being organised in the upcoming year by civil society groups or the Czech government.”

“This is why, if there is one area where I would expect a more concrete outcome and changes, it would be the health sector.”

That is interesting, because one may interpret the establishment of a more unified health sector in the EU as ceding more power to the European Commission. The reason why I am bringing that up is because some people perceive the EU in a way that it has a democratic deficit, being governed by an indirectly elected executive. I was wondering whether this Conference on the Future of Europe was perhaps a sort of attempt to at least give the idea to people that it is becoming more democratic. However, people may end up interpreting it a different way. Namely, that if the health sector is made more centralised then it would be even more unaccountable to them.

“Right now, I would say that the conference is a tool and it would depend on us what we do with this tool. Some states, for example France, would like the outcome of this conference to be a more unified and federalised European Union. On the other hand, it also gives states such as the Czech Republic the opportunity to express our own concerns and perhaps to express that we want a more decentralised European Union where the citizens have a stronger voice.

“I believe that [the conference] could be useful for discussions about the future EU health union.”

“However, this is all dependent on the outcomes of the conference. Certainly, EU institutions, such as the Parliament, or the Commission and indeed states like France perceive it as a tool for a more unified union.

“That is also one of the reasons why the conference started now. It was originally foreseen that it would last for two years, but now it is planned to run for one year. It was foreseen to end next spring, because that is the date for the next presidential elections in France and since French President Emmanuel Macron was one of the biggest proponents of the conference and he likes to see himself as the leader for the future of the EU, he hopes that the conference will help him get elected.”

In an opinion piece on the conference, published on the website, you mention that the Czech Republic will be in a position to realise some of the conference’s recommendations, because its EU presidency begins in June 2022. Could you elaborate on that?

“It will very much depend on the outcome of the conference and on how binding these outcomes will be. Right now, we do not yet know whether the EU institutions will be bound to follow the results of the conference.

“I would say that the conference is a tool and it would depend on us what we do with this tool.”

“However, if these outcomes were to suggest a change in the EU election process and that there should be a reform to elections into the European Parliament; it would mean that preparations for this change would have to start already during the Czech presidency. This is because the next EU parliamentary election is scheduled to take place in 2024. The same applies for the other outcomes and recommendations of the conference, because the Czech Republic will lead the negotiations on the EU agenda during the second half of 2022. That means that it will be in the position to decide what kind of ideas it will include into the files and new legislature.

“It should be said that almost all of the legislature will have to be negotiated, because our presidency will take place during the middle of this Commission’s term. That means that it will be up to us to decide what kind of ideas we want to push through and which ones we want to set aside. At that stage, the Czech presidency will be able to include the concrete recommendations of the conference.”

In the Czech Republic itself, the Conference on the Future of Europe is set to be launched in Prague on June 3.