“A new push for Democracy”, priority number 6, should it not have been the first priority for the Union?

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz.News team 

“A new push for European democracy” is the sixth priority of the European Commission. Democracy and democratic values being the founding principles of the European Union, it could be suggested that these should have been the Commission’s first considerations.

The recent survey Special Eurobarometer 500 which gathered the views of European citizens ahead of the Conference on the future of Europe, the flagship initiative for priority number 6, highlights, without any doubt, that Europe’s citizens are not happy with the current status quo of the Union, inferring that they do not consider themselves democratically included. 

Ursula von der Leyen announced at the start of her mandate that she would lead a spectacular two year Conference as a means of promoting greater democratic participation of EU citizens in respect of the future of the European Union. The Conference was promoted as a means to review ways in which the Union could improve how it works, including assessments of the EU institutions themselves. From the EU Commission side, Commissioner Dubravka Šuica (Democracy and Demography) is responsible for the Conference, working closely with Commissioner Věra Jourová (values and transparency, upholding the rule of law) on electoral matters and Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič (inter-institutional relations, better policymaking and strategic foresight) for inter-institutional relations.

Whilst von der Leyen had the initial foresight for the Conference, the Conference is tripartite, and in January 2020, all three leading European institutions − European Parliament, European Commission and Council of the EU − established the terms of reference and operational mandates for the proposed activities of the Conference. Citizens were heading for the spotlight and the three presidents solemnly committed to follow up on the recommendations generated by the Conference. 

The Conference has been built on a four pillar foundation: a multilingual platform, citizens’ panels, a plenary and an executive board. These pillars should ensure that the Conference has a bottom up approach allowing transnational forums that are representative of the EU population in terms of age, gender, socio-economic background, geographical origin and level of education. Citizen’s  panels are planned to hold debates that will feed into the conference plenary, with recommendations on which the EU institutions will follow up.

With citizens and the EU institutions struck down with the pandemic, the Conference did not begin until 9th May 2021 but promised national and European panels, meeting at least every six months. The panels are to be composed of representatives of the European Parliament, Council of the European Union, the European Commission and national parliaments all on an equal footing with the citizens of the European Union. The Committee of the Regions, European Economic and Social Committee, social partners and civil society will also participate, equally. A fully inclusive domain to collect as many view as possible, to have that push for a new European democracy that President von der Leyen has correctly recognised, is needed. 

How European democracy will actually be strengthened still remains unclear. The leading voices are not those of citizens when Europe’s hierarchy will still have the last word. Add to this that the subject matter is the complete policy list –  health, climate change and environmental challenges, an economy that works for people, social fairness, equality, intergenerational solidarity, digital transformation, EU values and rule of law, migration, democratic process of the EU, plus any other subjects citizen’s may chose to raise, and this is beginning to resemble an unachievable wish list.

Where will better regulation, implementation, enforcement and transparency feature? The European Union has excellent, and globally recognised high, if not over burdensome, standards for industry, consumer protection, health and safety, fundamental rights and so much more. Much of the legislation is complex, and therefore applied differently across member states. Better regulation has been the challenge of many previous Commission’s and still it surfaces, and still it continues to be pushed back instead of being dealt with. Implementation and enforcement of the legislation equally remains a challenge. Yet for the citizens of Europe it is the lack of transparency and inaccessibility to decision makers that frustrates them most. The fact that the principle of rule of law is not upheld by all Europe’s member states equally, that trade negations are conducted in secrecy when the standards argued affect every consumer, and that even the Commission’s own initiatives such as the European Citizen’s Initiative, which was promoted as the voice of citizens in democratic decision making, has not been upheld in accordance with the founding guideline, gives each citizen cause for concern. 

With the myriad of EU institutions, duplication of resources, staff, experts, infrastructure, IT equipment, translation and interpretation, not to mention tax free per diems and travelling expenses just to collect air-miles, it must be time for the Conference on the future of Europe to consider streamlining its activities. The current maze must be transformed to an efficient and accessible new European democracy that genuinely puts citizens centre stage and in the spotlight of creating a European Union which citizens really really want to be part of. It was after all the Special Eurobarometer 500 survey that highlighted that three quarters of Europeans [surveyed] do not like the European Union as it is now. 

The Conference conclusions are due by spring 2022, a year away. There are 445 million citizens of the EU, their views need to be considered and they need to be vaccinated during that time. These are potentially the two greatest priorities that the survival of the European Union will depend on. 

The three leading European Union institutions have their work cut out. 

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