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Árpád LAPU: The Impact and Conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe. A Future Gone With the Wind?

In the last three years, the (latest) Conference on the Future of Europe was many times at the center of European public discourse. The (in the end) one-year-long exercise had an important mission, to look for possible reforms and future avenues for the European Union, with the inclusion of citizens from all Member States. According to the organizers, the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the Member States specifically, the European Commission, European citizens, stakeholders, and civil society have all participated. During this one-year sprint of European democracy, there were many meetings, sittings, and sessions and finally, the Executive Board of the Conference has adopted a final report from the outcomes of the whole exercise.

However, not everyone was satisfied with the procedure and the outcome of the Conference. Questions have been raised regarding the selection of citizens, experts, the transparency of the Executive Board, and all in all, the legitimacy of the final report of the Conference. Was it really a truly democratic exercise in spite of its flaws? Even if it was, was it really a success? It is doubtful, despite the fact that many proposals have been indeed implemented out of the 336 pages long final report produced by the Conference since its closure more than a year ago. The president of the European Parliament has announced that her institution will initiate the ordinary revision procedure of the Treaties in line with the procedure regulated by Article 48 TEU, still, the revision of the Treaties has not enjoyed the necessary support from the Member States in the Council until this point.

The question is not merely of theoretical nature, as the AFCO Committee of the European Parliament has recently adopted a report proposing “the creation of a permanent representative and deliberative mechanism called the European Agora” in its Article 17. The committee in question has even proposed the amendment of the 2024 general European Union budget to make such “agorae” possible, namely a permanent participation mechanism of European citizens on the basis of the experience gained during the Conference on the Future of Europe. Was the Conference a good sample for such complementary participatory instruments? Did the Conference have the legitimacy, transparency, and added value necessary for such proposals, or would it be more appropriate to postpone the recommendation of the citizens’ agorae?

An outline of the Conference on the Future of Europe

According to the press, the idea of a new Conference on the Future of Europe was first mentioned by Emanuel Macron, in his speech at Sorbonne in 2017 and was repeated in later articles. Ursula von der Leyen, as president-elect of the Commission has promised in her political guidelines that she will actively work for the Conference on the Future of Europe to start in 2020. The Conference, however, has started later than planned, partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but to some degree, to European institutions being hesitant to start the conference in the first place. The European Parliament has already started to hurry the process at the beginning of 2020, but in the end, the Conference was only opened on the 9th of May, 2021 with the inaugural event, even though the Digital Platform and the Executive Board have started their work weeks earlier. The Conference ended on the 9th of May in 2022 and was followed by a feedback event on the 2nd of December, 2022, but there have not been many steps forward with the implementation since.

The goal of the whole exercise according to the political declaration signed by the European Parliament, the Council of the European Union and the European Commission was “launching a series of debates and discussions that will enable people from every corner of Europe to share their ideas to help shape Europe’s future”. In a way, it was meant as a reaction to the chain of crises (further reading on crises here and here) faced by the European Union in the last years and decades and to start a process of reflection on necessary reforms involving citizens. As the political declaration and the Rules of Procedure of the Conference on the Future of Europe have stated, the structure of the Conference has included the Multilingual Digital platform, the European Citizens’ Panels, the Conference Plenary and a supporting secretariat. The digital platform served as a kind of forum, where all self-organized conferences could be uploaded and where the citizens had a possibility to share their views in form of short comments on any European issue. The European citizens panels were composed of altogether 800 citizens, who were divided into 4 panels and had regular meetings. The meetings of the citizens were directed by experts and according to the Rules of Procedure, the data from the digital platform should have been the basis for the discussions. There were 7 Conference Plenaries, usually in the length of two days, where all representatives from all institutions, stakeholders, and citizens’ panels have participated and had a chance to share their views about important European topics usually in the framework of one or two minutes per person.

The most important body, however, was the Executive Board of the whole Conference, which has included decision-makers from the three main European institutions. This body had the strongest power in the structure of the Conference, it was “overseeing” the whole process, it decided the timing of the events, their agenda, procedural steps, questions left open by the Rules of Procedure, and generally, it took every management-decision that had to be taken on a day-to-day basis. In the end, the Conference has adopted a final report, or as Article 18 of the Rules of procedure formulated it, “based on the Conference Plenary’s discussions and proposals, the Executive Board, acting on a consensual basis, shall draw-up a report, in full collaboration and in full transparency with the Conference Plenary (…)”. The final report was adopted during the last meeting of the Conference-Plenary.

Problems of legitimacy, transparency and procedural issues

The Conference had already started with latency not only due to the pandemic, but also there was a tangible hesitation from the side of the Member States as well. Germany and France have made a deal in the beginning that the Conference would start with the German presidency and would end with the French presidency. Even though it did not start during the German presidency, the original plan of a two-year conference was reduced to a one-year event, possibly due to the fact that this way they were still able to close the Conference during the French presidency.

Regarding the legal nature of the Conference, as Evangelos Venizelos has pointed out in his article on Verfassungsblog, the Conference on the Future of Europe had no legal basis, it did not have the institutional character to address the EU’s structural problems, and it is more a “campaign to stimulate public interest for EU politics”, than a deep reform procedure. Its name is “symbolically heavy”, it is a procedure outside of the scope of Article 48 TEU, outside of the procedure for the revision of the treaties.

The Conference had serious issues with regards to transparency and accountability. As mentioned above, the body tasked with every-day management decisions, the Executive Board had the power to decide about the agenda of each part and meeting of the Conference, the length of speaking time, about the organization and the timing of the different bodies, and even the outcome of the Conference. For a body with such strong powers it is curious how it did not have a more transparent way of working as it took all of its decisions behind closed doors. Not to mention membership in the Executive Board: from the European Parliament only three groups were represented with voting rights and four other political groups and non-attached members had no real say regarding the most significant decisions. Such transparency problems have led to further problems, as it is unclear how the citizens were selected on the ground, how the experts were selected – who had an important role in the citizens panels – and how the company that prepared the interim reports from the events of the Conference was selected. Even the final report of the Conference was adopted in a way that certain members of the Executive Board have declared the fact of an existing consensus regarding the content of the report by all institutions, members, representatives, even though there were members of national parliaments contesting the content of the report during the same meeting. One of the political groups has even declared its withdrawal from the Conference on the Future of Europe contesting partially the way of the adoption of the final report and the lack of the possibility to express a minority opinion, but also other issues with the organization of the Conference as well.

There were many topics that the digital platform has included as either an event organized or a reference made by the citizens and yet, they have not become part of the final report. A good example is the topic of constitutional identity, which has not been included in the final report of the Conference, but there were events (see here and here) mentioning it on the digital platform. The Multilingual Digital Platform seemed to play an important role in the whole process of the Conference, as it was supposed to provide the basis for the discussions of the citizens, hence it had an important agenda-setting power. However, the total number of participants registered on the platform after its closure (53 615), as well as the total number of comments (22 242) is drastically low if we consider that the EU has 447,7 million inhabitants.

The idea of trying to improve representative democracy, where the interest of the citizens is conveyed by people selected by the citizens, by selecting citizens who represent their interests seems confusing. The next twist came after this one, the selected citizens have selected citizens among themselves to represent their ideas from the citizens panels in front of the Conference Plenary. An interesting chain of legitimacy, or rather the lack thereof. Were the citizens representatives of the citizens themselves? How could their ideas be followed if they were not elected, are not accountable and have no political responsibility? If they were not representatives of the citizens of the EU, then were they functioning as a continuous, live opinion poll through the whole process? It is arguable, whether the four times 200 selected citizens participating in citizens’ panels would make a functioning sample for a European political opinion poll, but it is surely not representative of the whole EU population, especially with the goal of supporting significant decisions. Furthermore, not all Member States have conducted national citizens’ panels and unfortunately, as Boglárka Bólya has highlighted, some national citizens panels have not been included in the final report of the Conference on grounds unclear for the European public.

The budget usage of the Conference was also not transparent. 22 members of the European Parliament have tabled a written question to the European Commission regarding the use of financial sources of the Conference, but the Commission has only given a vague, general answer without exact figures. In the same answer, the Commission has admitted that the company in charge of selecting the citizens and conducting the interim reports of the Conference was not selected through any kind of tender of procurement.

On the impact of the Conference on the Future of Europe

It has been more than one year since the Conference was closed on the 9th of May. According to its Rules of Procedure, the three institutions are tasked to assess how they can implement the report in the sphere of their own competences. There was an event on the 2nd of December, 2022, where the representatives of the citizens asked questions from the representatives of the three reports on their implementation.

The Council of the European Union has produced an analysis regarding the final report of the Conference, the European Commission has issued a press release regarding its plan on how to follow up on the proposals of the final report. These statements however mostly refer to already existing and planned legislative proposals and procedures and thus it is safe to conclude that the Conference has not made a meaningful impact based on these documents. In the European Parliament, some reports and resolutions (for example here and here) reference the Conference, but usually as a marginal, general argument or reference. The president of the Parliament declared in the closing event of the Conference that the European Parliament will initiate the ordinary legislative procedure in line with Article 48 TEU and it has adopted a resolution on the 9th of June, 2022 intending to initiate the procedure. In spite of this, the Member States did not support this proposal during the trying times of the war in Ukraine, energy crises and other problems, and thus the vote on the initiative has not been on the agenda in the Council for over one year. Therefore, there has been no meaningful progress in the implementation of the recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe in 2023.

The Conference on the Future of Europe is gone with the wind

“Burdens are for shoulders strong enough to bear them.” – Goes the famous quote by Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind. The overall experience of the Conference on the Future of Europe has proven that the shoulders that have carried this burden were not strong enough. The Conference did not live up to the expectation of added democratic value offered by permanent participatory mechanisms for democracy in Europe. There have been numerous legitimacy, transparency, legal and democratic deficit-related problems during the whole process. The selection of the citizens and the experts was not transparent; and an opaque political body has manually directed the process and the final report of the conference. It is questionable, whether permanent citizens’ participation is a method of supplementing representative democracy that has enough legitimacy to support democratic decision-making. Furthermore, since the adoption of the final report (which was also not supported by all parties), no real progress has been made to implement the proposals formulated in the reform. This is what happens when the burden is too heavy for the shoulders carrying it. Unfortunately, the Future of Europe might be gone with the wind.

Árpád Lapu is a policy adviser on constitutional issues at the European Parliament since 2019 and a PhD student of the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary. Between 2017-2019, he worked as an adviser at the Cabinet of the Minister of Justice of Hungary, conducting comparative constitutional analyses. He has earned his JD at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Hungary, has a BA in international relations from the University of Szeged and an MA in European and international administration from Andrássy Gyula German Speaking University in Budapest. He has completed an Edx MicroMaster in cooperation with the Catholic University of Louvain (UCLouvain) in international law. His field of research is non-participation in armed conflicts in international law and constitutional norms regarding non-participation in armed conflicts. He has written publications regarding the future of the EU ETS system of the European Union, institutional reform proposals of the Union, and researches in the field of social sciences.

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