The Conference on the Future of Europe, which formally began its work in May 2021, has to fulfil high and ambitious expectations as set by the EU’s highest-level officials: an unconditionally open practice of listening to the opinions of European citizens in all their diversity.
Days before the last European elections in May 2019, French President Macron uttered what is now seen as the origin idea of the Conference on the Future of Europe, when hesaid that Europe was at ‘existential risk of rupture’ and proposed holding a ‘founding European convention after the elections’ involving leaders and citizens to ‘define Europe's strategy for the next five years, including changes to the treaties’ that may be implemented.
In her inauguration speech at the European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen, then still a candidate, also emphasised this key dimension of European citizenship within Europe’s common future and proposed the holding of the Conference on the Future of Europe, to be launched in 2020.
Finally, in her ‘Letter of Intent’ Dubravka Šuica, the Vice-President, responsible for democracy and demography, referred to the Conference in the following terms:
‘Europeans must have a say in how their Union is run and what it has to offer. That is why I believe we need a Conference on the Future of Europe, starting in 2020 and lasting two years. It should involve citizens of all ages in our Union, as well as civil society and the European institutions. We need a broad debate, clear objectives and a tangible follow-up of what is agreed’ (Šuica, 2019: 4).
Despite these general statements, the discussions around the launch of the Conference were particularly difficult, with disagreements concerning the Presidency of the Conference, its duration, its tasks, and the composition of its Plenary Assembly.
The dramatic outbreak of the pandemic altered the timetable of the Conference, but it also made the need for this debate on the future of Europe more all the more urgent.
The declarations and resolutions of the three institutions involved in this process shed light on the different assessments of the situation in which the Conference will take place, the different expectations regarding its outcome, and the limits regarding the demands that may be expressed through the different channels of citizen participation.
The European Parliament established a multi-stakeholder working group in October and adopted a resolution on the Conference in January 2020. In it the Parliament expresses the need for reform: ‘...that the number of major crises experienced by the European Union demonstrates the need for reform processes in multiple areas of governance’ (European Parliament, 2020: Recital B). And the Parliament proposed a bottom-up process that gives voice to European citizens (Recital E). The Parliament’s resolution proposes holding thematic agoras, random selections of citizens, and, specifically, two Youth Agoras. In general, the Parliament advocates: an inclusive and not predetermined process, so as to allow for more open participation by citizens; that the concrete recommendations resulting from the deliberative process be followed up; that these proposals may materialise in legislative initiatives even leading to the amendment of the Treaties; and it calls on the other two institutions to ‘make the same commitment’ (points 29/30 and 31).
For its part, the Commission published its communication on the Conference on 22 January 2020 (European Commission, 2020). The ambitions expressed in the declaration also refer to a new impetus for democracy in Europe and the need to listen to citizens. However, the Commission favours a more structured debate and, to this end indicates: ‘The conference should be framed around the EU’s main ambitions, as set out in the Commission’s six political priorities and the European Council’s strategic agenda’ (2020: 2). The Commission also proposes that the Conference address democracy and institutional issues, particularly the election of leading candidates for President of the Commission and transnational lists for the European Parliament. The Commission recommends using the experience accumulated in the different processes of structured dialogue with civil society. Finally,
‘The Commission is committed to taking the most effective measures, together with the other EU institutions, to ensure that the citizens’ debate feeds into the political process in the EU’ (2020: 4).
On 20 June 2020 the EU Council tabled its resolution, even though it had already signalled its commitment to the Conference at the December 2019 summit. The Council’s proposal envisaged a Conference offering an opportunity
‘...to underpin the democratic legitimacy and functioning of the European project, as well as to maintain EU citizens’ support for our common goals and values by giving them more opportunities to express themselves’ (EU Council, 2020: 2).
The Council advocates a Conference oriented towards specific policy first rather than a general proposal. To that end, the Council proposes that the content of the Conference should focus on a few key issues, including those of the Strategic Agenda whose breadth, according to the Council, is sufficient to address the most relevant issues, especially in the context of Covid-19 and the economic recovery process. The Council adds that in order to achieve the best results, the Conference should address overlapping issues related to improving the EU’s capacity to implement its policy priorities, such as: improved regulation, application of the principle of subsidiarity and proportionality, and implementation and enforcement of the acquis communautaire (body of common rights and obligations that are binding on all EU countries). In various paragraphs, the Council stresses its pragmatic orientation to the Conference, for example:
‘The organisation of the Conference should be based on some key principles: 1) equality between the institutions at all levels, 2) respect for the competences of each institution, 3) efficiency and avoidance of unnecessary bureaucracy and 4) effective participation of citizens’ (Council EU, 2020: 5). And the Council warned that the Conference will not fall within the scope of Article 48 TEU, which refers to the reform of the Treaties.
Finally, on 10 March 2021, the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe, establishing the framework of shared commitments, was signed by the presidents of the three institutions.
The Declaration echoes the need for a European policy at the level of citizens’ expectations and emphasises that ‘The Conference on the Future of Europe will open a new space for debate with citizens to address Europe's challenges and priorities’ (EU, 2020: 1).
The commitment expressed by the Joint Declaration does not go beyond a commitment ‘...to listen to Europeans and to follow up on the recommendations expressed by the Conference’, but within the context of full respect for the competences of each institution and the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality expressed in the European Treaties. The scope of the Conference and its outcomes are formulated as ‘...a bottom-up, citizen-centered opinion exercise, enabling Europeans to express what they expect from the European Union’ (2020: 2). And a feedback mechanism will be ‘ensured’ so that the ideas expressed during the Conference events are translated into concrete recommendations for future EU action.
Regarding the outcome, a compromise formula has been sought which does not constrain the content of the final report that may be presented but does determine its scope:
‘The final outcome of the Conference will be presented in a report to the joint presidency. The three institutions will examine promptly how to follow up this report effectively, each within its own sphere of competence and in accordance with the Treaties.’
After several discussions concerning the establishing of the Presidency of the Conference, a joint presidency of the three institutions was agreed upon, involving the President of the European Parliament, the President of the European Commission and the head of state or government of the Member State holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union (at the time of writing of this Policy Paper, Portugal).
The political direction of the work of the Conference is ensured by an Executive Committee, which decides by consensus on all matters relating to the organisation of the Conference, the preparation of the plenary sessions, and the drafting of the session reports.
The detailed composition of the Executive Committee consisting of the collegial presidency composed of the three institutions is:
The other members of the Executive Committee are:
This Executive Commitee is assisted in its tasks by a joint secretariat composed on an equal basis by the three institutions with six representatives each.
As far as citizen participation is concerned, the Conference relies on a multilingual digital platform developed by the Commission. The platform allows open interactions of many kinds, at both theindividual and collective level, which can take place in the 24 official languages of the EU. The platform was officially launched on 19 April 2021.
An artificial intelligence system analyses the data collected on the platform and transforms it into qualitative reports for the Citizens’ Panels and the plenary sessions of the Conference.
The European Citizens’ Panels are an essential factor of citizen participation; its aim is to discuss and summarise the proposals made on the digital platform. Each of these panels is composed of 200 citizens, one third of whom must be between 16 and 25 years old, chosen randomly in order to represent the diversity of the EU in terms of geographical and socio-economic origin, age, level of education, and gender.
The Plenary Assembly of the Conference will eventually be the locus for exchange and its activity will be structured on the basis of the recommendations of the European and national Citizens’ Panels and of the contributions collected on the digital platform. Gender balance will be ensured and it will be composed of 433 members, of which 108 will be MEPs, 54 members of the Council (two per Member State), 3 representatives of the Commission, 108 representatives elected from national parliaments (4 per Member State), 108 citizens (80 representing the European Citizens’ Panels, at least one third of which will be between 16 and 25 years old), 27 representatives of national citizens’ panels (1 per Member State), 18 representatives of the Committee of the Regions, 18 representatives of the Economic and Social Council, 8 representatives of the social partners (European Trade Union Confederation and Business Europe) and 8 representatives of the civil society. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will be invited when discussions focus on the EU’s role in the world.
A final event, bringing together the members of the Plenary Assembly and participants in the panels shouldtake place in April 2022, during the French Presidency of the Council. The aim of the Plenary is to transmit its proposals agreed by consensus in the Executive Committee. This body is responsible for the final report of the Conference, drawn up on the basis of the proposals adopted by the Plenary and in collaboration with the latter. This report, approved by consensus and published on the digital platform, will finally be submitted to the three presidents of the Conference. It is up to the institutions they represent to examine the proposals in the report and to decide how to continue the work.
 Countries represent the Council when occupying the rotating presidency of the Council: currently Portugal holds the presidency, which will be succeeded by; Slovenia and then France.
Šuica, Dubravka (2019), Introductory speech.
European Commission (2020), Shaping the Conference on the future of Europe. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/new-push-european-democracy/conference-future-europe_es
European Parliament (2020), Parliament's position on the Conference on the Future of Europe. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2020-0010_ES.pdf
European Council (2020), Conference on the future of Europe. https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-9102-2020-INIT/en/pdf
Originally published at the website of the Institute 25M (Spanish)