02 November 2023

It all began four years ago, in March 2019, when French President Emmanuel Macron launched the ambitious idea to chart a transformative course for the European Union’s future with the establishment of a “Conference for Europe”. The plan was to gather feedback from a wide range of stakeholders, including EU citizens and civil society representatives, on the EU’s way of working and, perhaps, to lay the groundwork for a revision to EU treaties.

Fast forward to 2020, Macron’s proposal was backed by the new European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, who worked to make it a reality. Its launch was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic but, finally, on 9 May 2021, the Conference could officially kick off after the signing of a joint declaration on its functioning by the Presidents of the European Commission and European Parliament, along with Portugal’s Prime Minister, António Costa, representing the rotating Council Presidency. 

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) culminated with the issuing of a final report on 9 May 2022. The report outlined 49 proposals and more than 320 measures based on key recommendations from EU citizens. 

However, the CoFoE’s conclusion isn’t the end of the story. Instead, this first EU-wide experiment of participatory democracy invites us to explore even further how to best leverage technology to bring the EU and its policymaking process closer to citizens. What lessons can we glean from this experiment, and how might it guide the course of democracy’s future in Europe?

The Conference on the Future of Europe: Lessons learned

The conference was organised as a mix of online discussion and in-person events. Its main components included a multilingual digital platform (still accessible as an archived website) for citizens to share ideas and submit their views in any of the 24 EU official languages; decentralised events held online, in-person, and in hybrid formats by a wide range of stakeholders; European and National Citizens’ Panels representing diverse demographics and discussing issues valued by the EU population; as well as a Conference Plenary to debate recommendations coming from all the different components.

The digital platform, based on Decidim, was the central hub for engagement, enabling not only citizens but also civil society organisations, NGOs and other public actors to express their opinions and perspectives on a wide range of topics in their mother tongue. They could do so either by sharing their ideas or by endorsing or commenting on those of others. The platform also granted access to a map of (digital, hybrid or physical) events and the possibility to sign up to participate in them. By the end of the CoFoE, the digital platform counted 53,600 registered participants, 18,850 submitted ideas and 6,661 organised events.

For Ms Gaëtane Ricard-Nihoul, a Member of the Common Secretariat for the CoFoE, the digital platform was also crucial to the conference’s success. “The digital platform marked the first ever open source and civic tech software integrated by the EU in its web environment. It was quite impressive because, for the first time, we allowed citizens not only to contribute ideas but also to discuss with each other and understand each other straightaway, thanks to machine translation. So, it was a big step forward.”

The digital platform also worked well in attracting individuals from various backgrounds, age groups, and nationalities, fostering a wide range of perspectives and insightful debate with no language barrier, according to Ninni Norra, national citizens’ representative of Finland in the CoFoE. “I went there quite regularly. I occasionally scrolled through the proposals when I was trying to find inspiration for my speeches and looked at what ideas were gaining notice and which ones were worthwhile,” she explained. “So, I think it was a successful experiment in the digital sense and that the digital platform was perhaps the most inclusive part of the conference altogether.”

Nevertheless, if we consider that the EU population is roughly 450 million, the total number of ideas (18,850) submitted to the platform isn’t striking. Daniel Freund, MEP and member of the Conference Executive Board, suggested that one of the critical points was that the purpose of the digital platform wasn’t fully clear from the beginning. 

One crucial improvement would have been to outline how proposals submitted to the platform would be handled afterwards. If it had been communicated, for instance, that the top 10 supported proposals would be discussed at the conference plenary, this might have incentivised greater participation and engagement with the tool,” he pointed out. “However, in reality, even the most popular proposals on the platform gained only a few hundred endorsements, offering no motivation for users to review and engage with others’ ideas.”

Ninni Norra also added that “when drafting the final recommendations, the process wasn’t very transparent. So, we don’t actually know how much of the information put into the platform was taken into account in the final report, which part of it was influenced by the plenaries versus which part was influenced by the platform.”

The absence of transparency, coupled with EU citizens’ lack of awareness of the tools at their disposal to influence EU policy-making, poses a significant barrier to fully realising the potential of participatory democracy initiatives like CoFoE.

However, this wasn’t the only problem of the digital platform. Noelle O’Connell, Ireland’s National Citizens’ Representative to the CoFoE, also raised an interesting point on taking the right precautions against hacking. “The only concern I’d have is that you could have spammed it and decided, for example, to submit a  random proposal like ‘electric cars should be banned’ and then get a lot of different entries supporting your fake entry. So, my concerns were regarding possible manipulation, the veracity and the authenticity of all of the submitted proposals across the full platform but it was a good exercise in the round to make the Conference more inclusive,” she said.

Finally, Piero Savaris, an Italian participant in the European Citizens’ panels,  also mentioned that “while the platform was made to be accessible to everyone, this only applied if you were a little bit confident with the internet as if you weren’t really knowledgeable of how to navigate the net, it would have been kind of impossible to use it.” 

This is an important reminder that there is still a portion of the EU population that has difficulty navigating the internet. There also continue to be issues around access to well-functioning and fast connections. According to Eurostat, 7% of the population in the EU had never used the internet in 2022. Therefore, bridging the divide between the EU and its citizens through technology requires prioritising an initial step: ensuring that the vast majority of the EU’s population can effortlessly access the internet from the comfort of their homes.

What’s after the end of the CoFoE?

As previously mentioned, the Conference concluded with a report containing 49 proposals and 326 measures. To follow up on these proposals, on 17 June 2022, the European Commission adopted its Communication “Putting vision into concrete action”, outlining over 500 actions through which “the Commission is delivering, or will deliver, on the proposals and measures resulting from the Conference on the Future of Europe and which fall within the Commission’s competence”. 

Moreover, the Commission’s 2023 work program has also attempted to align with the Conference’s results, with new initiatives directly or indirectly linked with the CoFoE’s proposals. For example, by establishing “a new generation of citizens’ panels”, making them a regular feature to continue placing citizens at the centre of “designing and making policies at the European level.” Between mid-December 2022 and the end of April 2023, three panels, each comprising roughly 150 participants, were organised. They covered the topics of food waste, virtual worlds, and learning mobility and all of them resulted in a set of recommendations (67 in total) that should support the Commission’s work on these subjects. Recruitment for panels involves random phone contacts to achieve representative socio-demographic composition, based on Eurobarometer and Eurostat data, and a quota system ensures gender balance and age representation (youth aged 16-25 should be 1/3). 

The Commission has also organised a follow-up event in November 2023 to provide participants with feedback on their recommendations on food waste. However, a question remains – how will all the other EU citizens learn about these panels and their results? All the aforementioned documents and initiatives fail to explain straightforwardly how the European Commission’s plans will result in the practical implementation of CoFoE’s outcomes for the benefit of citizens. As MEP Helmut Scholz, Observer to the Executive Board of the CoFoE, stated, “This isn’t giving the right understanding for citizens, because it is complicated to recognise how a certain legislative proposal from the Commission is directly linked to what was recommended in the CoFoE.”

The ongoing lack of clear communication between the EU and its citizens continued even after the end of the CoFoE and remains one of the biggest challenges that the EU institutions have to face to make the EU more democratic. “We had one official follow-up event last December in Brussels, but afterwards, I have not received any official reports regarding the Conference,” explained Ninni Norra. Piero Savaris also added, “They occasionally sent us updates in the WhatsApp group of the Citizens panellists, but now it has been a couple of months I haven’t heard anything from them.”

Another follow-up activity of the CoFoE was mentioned by Ms Gaëtane Ricard-Nihoul, who acknowledged that the European Commission is working on “creating a new online ‘one-stop-shop for citizens’ engagement that would use the brand ‘Have Your Say’, which is now the brand of public consultation, but this brand will now include the public consultation, the citizen initiatives and a new citizen platform which will be inspired by the conference one. It will be a more accessible and deliberative platform for citizens to contribute on specific topics.

To conclude we can say that the EU is now at a crossroads – it can either build on CoFoE’s lessons and work toward a more engaged and inclusive European democracy while setting realistic expectations or it can perpetuate the disconnect. Although it is not an easy feat, the choice should be clear.

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