Citizens are the Future of Europe

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

“People need to be at the very centre of all our policies. My wish is therefore that all Europeans will actively contribute to the Conference on the Future of Europe and play a leading role in setting the European Union’s priorities. It is only together that we can build our Union of tomorrow”, stated the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, when announcing the highly publicised Conference on the Future of Europe.

The statement by President von der Leyen begs the questions: Have European citizens not always been at the centre of political priorities? What has prevented, and is preventing, the European Union from prioritising its citizens? Will the long-awaited conference be a solution for a better, more innovative, inclusive, reflective, transparent and credible Europe, or is it just another administration tick box exercise? 

On 10 March 2021, after months of continual delays, pandemic detours and arguments over who should be in control, von der Leyen, alongside President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, and Prime Minister of Portugal António Costa — President of the Rotating Presidency of the European Council —signed the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe. The original intention of having a two year series of events, where the citizen’s visions for the future of Europe would be collected, has now been reduced to a one year timeframe, with most events likely to be online due to social distancing restrictions. 

Finally, the Conference has now officially started as the Executive Board of the Conference on the Future of Europe met on 24 March and held its constitutive meeting in Brussels. The Executive Board, composed of representatives from the European Commission, European Parliament and European Council, all on an equal footing; is tasked with the organization of the Conference. With basic items agreed, the Executive Committee implemented the initial actions to engage citizens by considering a multilingual Digital Platform, Charter for citizen’s participation and visual identity for the Conference. 

A formal event, subject to Coronavirus restrictions, is envisaged for the 9 May 2021, Europe Day, in Strasbourg, France, followed by a Conference Plenary the following day. The Conference is expected to reach its conclusion by Spring 2022. Amongst European civil society, who to a large degree have always been socially distanced from the EU institutions even without a pandemic, there is concern that this initiative is little more than a token gesture and that there is very little likelihood that the views of European citizens, other than the usual suspects, will be considered. 

At a time when citizens and civil society organisations begin to re-emerge after the pandemic, priorities have been reset, especially economic security, sustainability, inclusivity and wellbeing. With the mismanagement of the vaccine rollout across Europe, and little end insight to this crisis, Europe’s institutional and bureaucracy crisis has highlighted the hierarchy’s failings and the lack of understanding of genuine citizen concerns. 

2021 is critical in many ways for Europe. One year after Brexit, a year in which a global pandemic hit with devastating social and economic impacts, 2021 will also mark the second year of a five-year European political cycle in which progress towards significant action and implementation are expected. The EU institutions have in effect had more than a 12 months of declarations and planning to sort themselves out and hit the ground running now. So, Europe’s citizens will be anticipating action from Europe’s decision making bodies and nice words or gestures are unlikely to suffice this time. That said, considering how EU institutions have operated through the pandemic, inaccessible to the public with lengthy delays on decision making and information dissemination, it is difficult to see how the planned dialogues and debates will be implemented effectively to achieve the optimistic objectives and engagement of an inclusive civil society representation. 

It is undeniable that the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the weaknesses and fragilities of the European Union and its institutional bodies. Chasms have opened, especially relating to the distribution of financing, that have laid bare the lack of unity, compassion and empathy between the member states in times of crises. Worst of all, the Brussel’s political elite appear to be unaware that the term ‘Union’ is not abstract concept, but one in which Europe’s citizens live within that Union. 

The citizens of the European Union and Europe’s civil society are an integral part of the Union, not an afterthought. They are not a tick box exercise but are the heart from which European values have been established. The current lack of transparency by Europe’s bureaucracy, alongside the now repeated disregard of retaining European principles and standards, endorses the sentiments of hypocrisy and double standards practiced by the current European leadership. Is this a slippery slope to the end of the European Union, or as Jean Monnet, founder of the Europe project perceived, is this an opportunity to engage the citizens for the benefit of a united, focussed and progressive union of like minded countries and their peoples? If it is the latter, then the Conference of the Future of Europe must ensure that citizens and civil society are an integral part of the Conference from the start.

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