The first European elections to directly elect the European Parliament took place in 1979. In 2012, the European Citizens’ Initiative as the world’s first tool of transnational direct democracy was born. And in October 2021, the Europe’s very first deliberative citizens’ assembly will deliberate.
The Conference on the Future of Europe is long-awaited even before it was given an official title. Civil society organizations, democracy activists, and some politicians have been calling for a an opportunity where citizens can come together to discuss seriously about Europe and where its priorities should lay. Finally, after the record-high voter turnout of the European elections of 2019, the first EU election since Brexit, it was clear to the people at the top that a real dialogue needs to take place together with the citizens – and not only symbolically.
How to hear the voice of the "average" European?
But how to reach out and hear the voice of the “average” European in a population of almost 500 million? The European institutions looked at participatory examples in the Member States, where countries such as Ireland, France, and Germany have experimented with randomly-selected citizens’ assemblies and even more have included them at local or regional level. However, Europe is very culturally and linguistically diverse, and setting up a “mini-Europe” requires more thought and planning at the transnational level.
With the help of a consortium of experts and practitioners on sortition, the citizens’ assemblies, called citizens’ panels, will be designed. The topics to be discussed by the citizens’ panels have already been set by the EU institutions, taking into account the institutions’ set political priorities, their strategic agendas, and the challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic. The 9 categories to be discussed will be:
1. climate change and the environment
3. a stronger economy, social justice, and jobs
4. EU in the world
5. values and rights, rule of law, security
6. digital transformation
7. European democracy
9. education, culture, youth, and sport.
A separate category for “other ideas” will be reserved.
Citizens will be chosen for the citizens’ panels to be representative of EU sociological diversity and be based on the criteria of citizens’ geographic origin, gender, age, socioeconomic background and/or level of education. One-third of each citizens’ panel will be reserved for young people aged 16-25 in order to strengthen the youth dimension in Europe.
There will be 4 EU-level citizens’ panels, each composed of 200 randomly-selected citizens from all Member States. Member States will be represented by degressive proportionality, just like the composition of the European Parliament, where smaller-populated States have, proportionally, more representation.
Five deliberative sessions
The citizens’ panels will meet during 5 deliberative sessions: 1 opening session, 3 working sessions, and 1 closing session. The 3 working sessions will be 2.5 days long, and 1 session will be digital. Each panel will be dedicated to specific categories and themes and will meet in a different European city.
In addition to the categories already laid out, the citizens’ panels will be fed ideas from the online platform of the Conference, launched already on 19 April. On the online platform, all people are welcome to submit ideas and suggestions on the future of Europe and can endorse the already existing proposals and comments. However, which suggestions and proposals from the online platform will ultimately go forward to the citizens’ panels, and how this will be decided, is still an open question.
Citizens part of Conference plenary
Citizens will also be a part of the 433-member Conference plenary, which will receive the recommendations that the citizens’ panels deliberate and draft the outcomes. A total of 108 citizens will join the plenary. The breakdown: 80 citizens will be from the citizens’ panels, 27 citizens (1 per Member State) from national citizens’ assemblies or national events, and 1 citizen will come from the European Youth Parliament.
The Conference officially and ceremonially began on 9th of May, Europe Day, and was livestreamed. With the start of the Conference, it is critical that citizens remain at the center of the exercise, and hopefully, with their first meeting in autumn 2021, a new chapter in Europe’s democratic history can finally begin.
The final report of the Conference is to be published in spring 2022.
Disclaimer: This article was written in May 2021 when all decisions on the Conference on the Future of Europe have not yet been taken.
More information: Online platform of the Conference on the Future of Europe