This elite project is intended to lead to the much-quoted Europe of the citizens: it has been four years since the French President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed the refounding of a "sovereign" Europe as a response to the challenges posed by globalisation, the Brexit and populism. Now, after many negotiations and another challenge in the form of a pandemic, this year's Europe Day has seen the start of the project "Conference on the Future of Europe". With ideas for reform from the citizens, the EU institutions aim to prepare Europe's democracy for the future. At the centre of it all, there is a digital platform, on which interested parties can register and contribute, and there are citizens' forums, in which particular importance will be attached to the voice of the young generation.
Together with the Union of European Federalists and the Spinelli Group in the European Parliament, the University of Passau and the Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg have taken that as an opportunity to bring together students, Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and experts right across Europe digitally. 'We want to view this process with a critical eye and thus make an active contribution to the debate about the future orientation of European democracy', said Professor Daniel Göler, who – with his team at the Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics – mainly carries on research into the democratic legitimation of the European Union and thus intensifies the research focus on "Europe and global change" at the University of Passau. Together with Eva Heidbreder, Professor of Political Science with the focus on "governance in the European multi-level system" at the Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, he welcomed the 76 participants to the Zoom webinar.
Moving away from a project of elites
One person who joined the meeting from Strasbourg, where a session week is currently being held, was the MEP Gaby Bischoff, a member of the S&D Group. She is also involved in the newly constituted plenary sittings of the Conference of the Future, which bring citizens together with representatives of all the EU institutions. She reported that four citizens' forums were due to be held in September, each with 235 randomly selected participants: 'This will not be a project of elites again. We now have the opportunity to do it differently with a combination of representative and participatory democracy.'
Someone in the audience asked how politicians were aiming to ensure that the voice of the young could become mainstream at European level. An MEP from the Greens, Daniel Freund, the youngest member of the panel at under 40, remarked on a critical note that they were aware that Europe was an aging continent and that the voice of the young was under-represented. But he said that this was being taken into account at the Conference of the Future: 'The 16- to 25-year-olds are over-represented and are the voices for their younger co-citizens. We need to make sure that the voices of young people are heard and their proposals discussed.'
Every generation has the right and duty to ask what Europe is for.
Member of the European Parliament Danuta Hübner
Ivo Belet, deputy head of cabinet in the team around EU Commissioner Dubravka Šuica, responsible for democracy and demography, revealed that 'the young generation makes up for a third of the citizen panels. This was a disputed but very important aspect.'
Danuta Hübner, member of the EPP Group in the European Parliament and a former trade commissioner, added: 'Every generation has the right and duty to ask what Europe is for.' She defended the Conference of the Future against criticism from the audience which claimed that the process tended to shut out anti-EU opinions: 'Why should we invite people who want to destroy Europe?' She said that they were requesting the citizens who took part to make a commitment not to make contributions with destructive intent, and that that idea also found expression in the joint declaration on the Conference of the Future.
Call for concrete reforms
In his keynote speech, the S&D MEP and president of the Spinelli Group, Brando Benifei, stressed how important it was for the dialogue to be in close touch with the people, particularly in these times of ever more complex crises. In his keynote, the Renew Europe MP Sandro Gozi, President of the Union of European Federalists, insisted that this dialogue must also lead to concrete proposals for reform. 'The big question is: What’s next? What should we do at the end of the conference?' He called for this issue to be addressed without any taboos, and said that that also included amendments of the EU treaties. A point of contention to which the EU Member States are opposed.
Carmen Descamps, the presenter, surveyed the audience to find out which topics at the Conference of the Future they thought were the most important. "Democracy in Europe" came first with 62 per cent, closely followed by "climate change and the environment" and "values and rights, rule of law, security". The audience thus reflected the current pattern of opinions on the on-line platform of the conference.
Students from 24 universities all over Europe
Students from 24 universities from all over Europe joined the panel, including the Andràssy University in Budapest, the Comenius University in Bratislava, the University of Economics and Business in Prague and the Universities of Antwerp, Innsbruck and Ljubljana. Other participating universities from Germany were Duisburg-Essen, Paderborn and Frankfurt's Viadrina University.
'It’s extremely important that the universities are with us in this new kind of public dialogue', said Danuta Hübner, who has been an MEP for many years. 'Please stay with us until the end of the process'.