You’d be forgiven if the words ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ mean nothing to you. Before joining the #StandForSomething campaign, I had only heard these words in passing, as part of a political speech or something. And yet, this exercise in participatory democracy could be a turning point for the EU project, an opportunity for European policies to refocus on the current and long-term needs of citizens.
Painted as a consultation of European citizens on a scale never-before-seen, the Conference on the Future of Europe is an effort from policy-makers to listen to the feedback of citizens and put people “at the very centre of all our policies”, according to EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
Officially launched on 9 May 2021 and set to close in Spring 2022, this consultation is meant to involve European citizens in re-thinking the political priorities for the next decades.
But agreeing on the process behind a continental consultation has not been easy, with bickering politicians often making headlines. In fact, the conference was almost called off at the very last minute with European officials at odds over the extent to which the generated feedback should be translated into real-world policy. This has left the Conference on the Future of Europe looking chaotic and stereotypically EU bureaucratic. But there are several means through which citizens can, and should, get involved.
Limited invitations to discuss the future?
The central programme of the Conference is fairly straight-forward, if not slightly rigid. Three main aspects make up the ‘front and centre’ dimension of the Future of Europe Conference: the European Citizens Panels, the Conference Plenaries, and the meetings of the Executive Board.
- First, the European Citizens Panels, composed of citizens selected at random to reflect Europe’s diversity, enable a total of 800 citizens an exclusive invite to discuss a range of topics and suggest their feedback to Conference organisers directly.
- Then this feedback will be discussed, along with input from other sources, during the Conference Plenaries. Comprising EU policy-makers and officials, representatives of national parliaments, citizens and a handful of other actors, these meetings aim to finetune the feedback and match it with the competences and tools at the EU’s disposal.
- And finally, the Conference’s Executive Board is responsible for preparing the Conference Plenaries and will produce a final report setting out the key recommendations to be implemented by European policy makers.
Presented here in a linear fashion, these meetings are actually taking place simultaneously from September 2021 to April 2022. But unless selected to be part of the citizens panels, there are very few invitations sent out to ordinary citizens on this level of the Conference. Thankfully, there are two other ways for citizens to participate if they did not receive an invitation.
When you are not on the guest list…
Getting involved is still possible! For instance, by directly submitting your thoughts through the official digital platform set up by the European Commission and by joining in with different projects and events surrounding the Conference, anyone can express their insights on topics that they hold near and dear.
This is where #StandForSomething, the campaign I am involved with, comes into play. Like several other projects helping to achieve the ambitions of the Conference, it is led by citizens themselves. Driven by young volunteers in 16 different European countries, this campaign aims to gather the many varied views of young Europeans and galvanise their interest in the Conference, all while keeping the interaction very colloquial.
A combination of outreach events across Europe, statistical research on the priorities of young people and online communications aimed at informing and mobilising means that this campaign is one of the leading voices for young people in the Future of Europe process.
Some might say that this informal approach, when you do not have a place at the table, is ineffective to foster societal change. But my view has long been that such casual outreach activities are key to making sure policy-makers and citizens are on the same wavelength.
Achieving the Conference’s participatory ambitions means breaking down heavy topics into issues that can be understood by citizens and are of interest to them. Therefore, allowing citizens to join in with ad-hoc local activities in a familiar environment is a good way to gather their opinions and converse on the political priorities that are needed in their eyes. This would also be an optimal platform to share best practices. Let’s not forget that citizens are also innovators and even social entrepreneurs, and their solutions for societal challenges can also inspire impactful policies.
Pass the microphone back to the people
Making a success of the Conference would of course mean renewing European policies but it should also be a regeneration of citizens’ engagement to have their say in European politics. For this, citizens can act within and outside the boundaries of the Conference.
By far the most impressive aspect of #StandForSomething is the ability of our youth activists to simply chat with their peers about the impact that each citizen can have on shaping society. From setting up local youth centres, rethinking school curricula or simply planting more trees, citizens need to feel more empowered and able to spark change. (See Youth Stand For the Future of Europe Research Report) The Conference on the Future of Europe, through the actions of individual citizens in their local communities, could be the opportunity for a more permanent participatory democracy.
The youth dimension here might also be a winning element. Generally favourable to re-imagining society and enacting change through concrete engagement, young people are great ambassadors for the Conference.
In fact, organisers already recognised the important role young people can play: at least one third of citizens joining the Conference’s important Plenaries will be aged 24 and under; and the European Parliament has set up a dedicated online platform to gather the opinions specifically of young people.
As such, there are several approaches available to citizens to make their voices heard on the Future of Europe, whether it may be reaching out to (local) decision-makers, joining an existing campaign or setting up a new one.
The remaining question, however, is whether more Europeans, not just those who receive the invitation, will be made aware of the opportunities presented by the Conference and how they can potentially engage. Not an easy task when European bureaucracy and politics are involved.