Last weekend, the Conference on the Future of Europe entered a new phase.
With most participatory elements of the Conference, including
the European Citizens Panels (ECPs), about to conclude, the process
enters its hot political phase. A Conference Plenary will discuss
citizens’ recommendations and ultimately transform them into the
To bring about the change that the
Conference promises, the Plenary needs to accelerate its work, truly
interact with citizens’ proposals, and develop from an exchange platform
to a real working assembly. Part of this is providing the working
groups with a clear methodology and structure and with more time.
An unprecedented exercise
is this political, hot part of the Conference that makes this process
so unique. We have witnessed many European participatory projects
before, including the European Citizens Consultations, the Citizens’
Dialogues and a European Citizens’ Panel in 2018. And although the
Conference is certainly more complex than previous exercises, it is the
direct link between citizens’ deliberations and the political level that
makes the process unprecedented.
For the first time,
participatory and representative elements come together in the form of a
Conference Plenary made of representatives from European and national
institutions, social actors, and citizens to debate on how to transform
citizens’ recommendations into reality. Last weekend, the Conference
undertook the first step towards this goal as citizens presented the
recommendations of two ECPs and several national panels.
Turning the Plenary into a working assembly
together in the Plenary is a big chance for the Conference to formulate
a joint way forward with all institutions, member states and citizens
being part of the process. At the same time, however, it presents a
danger. If citizens do not feel taken seriously, if they feel not being
listened to, the entire process is bound to create more frustrations
among citizens than bring about change.
And in nuances, this
frustration can already be observed. As one citizens’ representative
outlined during a Plenary meeting, his feeling is that “politicians say
they are listening, but often it is them mostly talking.”
indeed, during previous Plenary meetings, we witnessed politicians at
times arguing with each other on well-known frontlines or outlining
their very own and very general positions on European integration – with
little reference to or interaction with the recommendations citizens
To bring about the change that the Conference
promises, the Plenary needs to accelerate its work, truly interact with
citizens’ proposals, and develop from an exchange platform to a real
The good news is that last weekend’s Conference
Plenary did make some progress compared to previous meetings, not least
due to some tweaks on the setup and modalities of the Plenary debates.
In many parts, there was direct interaction with the Panel
recommendations, and citizens had the chance to react to policymakers’
interventions during the exchange. There was debate among citizens and
politicians, even though on a very general level – but what more can be
expected of the first exchange of an assembly of nearly 450 members?
The importance of the working groups
the real, deliberative work of the Plenary needs to be carried out in
the working groups – they are a key component to make the process a
success. At the same time, however, they are the most underdeveloped
part of the process. At the current stage, working group meetings are
mainly a collection of thoughts of its members instead of a real
deliberation on how to transform the recommendations into reality.
the working groups do need a clear methodology and structure, clear
guidelines as to what exactly their role is. How can the groups make
sense of the abundance of recommendations from four ECPs, national
panels, and the multilingual platform? How to narrow down the still
broad discussions to concrete deliberation on each recommendation? How
can they help to transform the recommendations into actionable
All this is unclear at this stage – but these issues
need to be urgently addressed so that the groups can effectively start
their work on assessing and translating recommendations into proposals.
For this, however, they will need more time. As it is envisaged now,
meeting for just a few hours right before the start of the Plenary
debates will not be enough for effective preparation of the
recommendations. Working groups need to meet more frequently to make
sense of the abundance of information provided to them and, during the
meetings, deliberate more concretely on the political translation of
recommendations – and to interact sufficiently with citizens to discuss
And EU and national institutions should use the
time between Conference meetings to further develop their positions on
citizens’ recommendations and their plans how to implement them.
Meeting citizens’ expectations
Conference created high expectations among citizens involved in the
process that their voices and recommendations will be taken into
account. And during the Plenary session, it became once again clear that
for citizens, this means more than just an endorsement of their
recommendations. They want to know what institutions and member states
intend to do with them and how exactly their ideas can be implemented.
As one citizen outlined during the Plenary session, “what we need is
tangible results, not just long speeches. You should listen and work
with our proposals to come up with solutions.”
still needs to go a long way to make this reality. It has been mentioned
in the past that the Conference might lead to frustration if
politicians do not implement the Conference conclusions after the
Conference ends. It seems that the danger is even more immediate.
Currently, the Conference risks alienating involved citizens already
during the process if it does not address citizens’ sources of
The participatory exercises of the Conference,
including the ECPs, have been organized very successfully and have
produced thought-through recommendations by citizens. But now, the
political dimension of the Conference must live up to citizens’
expectations. Politicians need to show citizens that they are taken
seriously by working with them on the recommendations and how they can
be translated into policies – in short, the Conference must deliver the
results it promised.
Johannes Greubel is a Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre and an Expert at the Conference Observatory.
This opinion piece was first published by EurActiv on 27 January 2022.
© European Policy Centre EPC
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