Representatives of the European Parliament, Presidency of the Council (in rotating presidency, Prime Minister of Portugal) and the Commission President have signed (10 March, 2021) the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe. This paves the way to launching a series of debates and discussions that will enable people from all the EU states to share ideas on the European future. As Robert Schuman, one of the European integration’s founding fathers once said: “when it comes to the future of Europe, no effort is too much and no dream too bold”.
The “Joint Declaration” includes a list of possible themes for the future Conference: it mentions health, climate change, social fairness, digital transformation, the EU’s role in the world, and measures to strengthen democratic processes in the EU’s governance. These topics, generally, include major EU priorities and the issues raised by the member states’ citizens in opinion polls (on Eurobarometer’s survey below). The ultimate topics for the conference will be finalised later on.
Besides, the declaration sets out the conference’s scope, its structure, objectives and principles; it sets the scene for citizen-led events to be organised together with the civil society and stakeholders at all levels, with national and regional Parliaments; it is to include the Committee of the Regions, the Economic and Social Committee, other social partners and academia, which participation is to ensure the broadest outreach and engagement.
The Conference will use various fora, including digital as well as physical formats (if possible); an interactive multilingual digital platform will allow citizens and stakeholders to submit ideas online, and help them participate in some organise events. The conference’s platforms in all events are based on principles of inclusiveness, openness and transparency, with respect for privacy and EU data protection rules. European Citizens’ panels organised at European level are to be broadcast, and all online submissions are to be made public.
Conference’s activities could include: a) main conferences/events (kick-off, mid-term and final) in Brussels/Strasbourg and in the countries of the successive Council Presidencies; b) specific thematic conferences/events in the member states and/or regions.
The Conference has set the goals of giving citizens a greater role in shaping EU policies and growth ambitions, improving the Union’s resilience to crises, increasing socio-economic progress and optimising health-related issues. It will create a new public forum for an open, inclusive, transparent and structured debate with Europeans around the issues that matter to them and affect their everyday lives.
The Conference will be under the authority of the three EU institutions: the Parliament, Commission and the Council (represented by their Presidents), acting in joint chairmanship.
Besides, an Executive Board, representing the three institutions will be constituted, with national Parliaments having observer status; the Board will oversee the works of the Conference and prepare the conference’s plenary meetings, including citizens’ input and their follow up.
A joint secretariat of limited size, with personnel from the European Parliament, the General Secretariat of the Council and the European Commission could be envisaged, ensuring equality in numbers, to assist the work of the executive board.
The first formal event could be envisaged to take place on the 9 of May 2021, in Strasbourg.
As the Commission President acknowledged, “we want to hear from European citizens in their full diversity: from young and old, city dwellers and rural residents, from Erasmus students to those who took to the streets in the “Pulse of Europe” demonstrations. As well as from those, who have their doubts – if “creating an ever closer Union” is the right road to take. We want to hear from all!”
Parliament President Sassoli said: “The Conference on the future of Europe marks a new start for the European Union and for all European citizens; it will be a unique opportunity for all European citizens and civil society to shape Europe’s future, representing a common project for a functioning European democracy. We call on all to come forward to participate with your voice in building what will be tomorrow’s Europe…”
Portuguese Prime Minister Costa said: “The convening of the Conference on the Future of Europe is a message of confidence and hope for the future that we send to Europeans: confidence that we will overcome the pandemic and the crisis, hope that together we will build a fair, green and digital future Europe.”
Commission President von der Leyen said: “Today we are inviting all Europeans to speak up. To say what Europe they want to live in, to shape it and join forces to help us build it. Citizens’ expectations are clear: they want to have their say on the future of Europe, on matters which affect their lives. Our promise today is equally clear: we will listen. And then, we will act.”
A special Eurobarometer survey on the Future of Europe was carried out at the end of last year: between 22 October and 20 November 2020 in all EU-27 member states.
The survey, released ahead of the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe, reveals that the vast majority of those participated in the review (92%) in the EU member states demand that citizens’ voices are “taken more into account in decisions relating to the future of Europe”.
One aspect in the survey raises some concern: the survey, which was conducted face-to-face and completed with online interviews (where necessary as a result of the pandemic), have included 27,034 interviews “representing” 450 million Union’s citizens, which is a fraction of 0,001 percent of the total population.
Divided by the 27 member states, the total of over 27 thousand represent about a thousand citizens per country, which is okay with small states but not really sufficient and trustworthy in countries with tens of millions…
Media outlets in the member states are going to serve as a vital source of information for the conference; media in this sense serves both as an socio-economic factor and an important pillar of democracy and the rule of law.
Press freedom and media pluralism are vital to democracy: i.e. independent media play an essential role to help citizens make informed decisions, and combating disinformation. However, the competences of the Commission in “free press and media are very limited; nevertheless, the Commission included media freedom and pluralism as a pillar in its annual “Rule of Law Report” (the first one was published last September). This report assessed in particular the independence of the media regulatory authorities, transparency of media ownership, state advertising, the safety of journalists and access to information. But governments also need to fulfill their obligations to ensure that media freedom is safeguarded and to enable healthy media pluralism.
Commission revealed some examples of the worrying trends: in Hungary, most notably, was an independent radio srtation Klubrádió, which was denied renewal of its license; in Poland, draft legislation on an advertising tax targeting media outlets led to black screens as a sign of protest (the draft is now being reviewed); in Slovenia, continuous attempts to undermine the sustainable funding and the independence of the national press agency and frequent verbal attacks against journalists are also a cause of serious Commission’s concern.
According to the Eurobarometer, the EU’s respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law is ranked as the most important in about half, i.e. in 14 EU states; this opinion is especially prominent in Sweden where 58% see this as a key asset. As to the EU’s economic, industrial and trading competence, it is ranked as the most important asset in nine EU states, led by Finland (45%) and Estonia (44%).
As the Commission notes, «there should be no political pressure, strong leaders are those that gain respect through their actions, accept diversity of opinions and allow citizens to be duly informed, not those that try to silence critical voices. In democracy, independent media should do their work and ask questions without fear or favour. Our job, as politicians, is to answer with facts, not with attacks”.
More information in: – Conference on the Future of Europe; – Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe; – Conference on the Future of Europe – revised Council position (3 February 2021); – Commission communication on the Conference of the Future of Europe (22 January 2020); – European Parliament’s position on the Conference on the Future of Europe (15 January 2020).
EII’s publications on the “European Integration future” series with the following links: