Europe is at its most challenging and important crossroad. We have never had a more critical debate on where Europe's path should lead - and rightly so, because EU reforms must take place sooner rather than later if we are to secure a thriving, unified Union of the people. With Europe reaching a turning point and citizens feeling more distanct from decision-makers in the EU, we need to grasp the opportunity in front of us to create a Europe that fits the 21st century reality of people's struggles. The Conference on the Future of Europe is the flagship project of the European Commission, but it will only succeed if many citizens, and not just a small elite, are truly heard, and if the Conference is followed-up with real results.
Around the turn of the millennium, the EU tested the convention method with some success. In 1999/2000, an EU Convention established the Charter of Fundamental Rights and in 2002/2003 a Convention drafted the Constitutional Treaty. These two extensive exercises offered useful insights in the opportunities for civil society and citizen participation, whose input was instrumental in introducing the European Citizens' Initiative in the EU treaties. However, as citizens were not included throughout the entire process, the success of these Conventions were limited. In the end, only a handful of member states allowed their citizens to have a final say by means of a popular vote on the EU Constitional Treaty and the process ultimately failed.
What is an EU Convention?
The Convention process is enshrined in Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty as the only legally valid way to really change the way the EU functions. It is the only instrument in the EU toolbox that offers the possibilty of achieving substantive changes to the EU treaties in a more open and democratic way.
It's clear that the EU must take real and legally secured steps towards reform - reforms which can only be implemented if approved by a Convention. This way, citizens as the Convention participants can directly reform Europe's future!
The Conference on the Future of Europe
The Conference on the Future of Europe was promsied by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to bring citizens together with decision-makers as equals to discuss proposals for Europe's future. The Conference was annouced to last two years and was due to start on Europe Day, 9 May 2020, but due lack of agreement in interinstitutional negotiations and the Covid-19 pandemic, the start of the Conferece has been delayed until further notice. As the flagship project of the Commission, it is imperative that citizens are at the center of the Conference, including in its design and agenda-setting phase.
As much potential as the Conference on the Future of Europe has on involving citizens to make concrete proposals on the mid- and long-term goals of the European Union, it is not a Convention according to Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty that is suitable for beginning a Treaty change process. It is, however, a door to a Convention process, if the Conference allows discussions on issues that would require Treaty change. Therefore, the Conference on the Future of Europe may evaluate the need for Treaty change, and the institutions may decide to trigger a Convention according to Article 48 in response.
Citizens Take Over Europe
As a response to the delayed and ambiguous Conference on the Future of Europe, Democracy International was one of the founding members of the Citizens Take Over Europe coalition that was established in early spring 2020.
The alliance aims to promote a citizens-centered European democracy starting with a democratic, transparent, and participatory Conference on the Future of Europe. Together with now 50 organizations and counting, the coalition has organized three online conferences, submitted an open letter to Angela Merkel and the EU institutions, drafted 10 principles for how a citizens’ conference should be run, and submitted an official petition to the European Parliament followed by a self-organized public hearing.
The campaign goal of the Citizens Take Over coalition is to ensure citizens hold a central role in the Conference as equal partners alongside politicians and that the outcomes of the Conference are adequately followed-up, also by beginning of a process of EU Treaty change, if necessary.
Ahead of the European elections in 2019, Democracy International ran the Now The Citizens campaign which called for more citizens’ participation in EU decision-making, including the introduction of randomly-selected citizens’ assemblies to develop concrete suggestions for Europe’s democratic future. There is a real and rare opportunity that the Conference on the Future of Europe may include exactly this, with citizens' "agoras" that are tasked with discussing specific topics related to Europe’s future in order to re-evaluate Europe’s priorities. As part of the Citizens Take Over Europe coalition, we are ensuring that a Europe for the citizens is not only a political promise, but also becomes a reality.
Democratic Europe Now Campaign
Ahead of the EU elections in May 2014 we ran the campaign “Democratic Europe Now“. Building an alliance of 40+ major organisations right across Europe and coordinating Europe-wide actions, we generated broad support for a Convention. In a vast lobby effort, volunteers and concerned citizens contacted more than 5,000 candidates for the European Parliament, asking them to pledge to bring real democracy on the political agenda. The effort yielded 118 deputies elected to the new Parliament pledging to submit a proposal for a Convention to reform the treaties for a more democratic Europe.