30 April 2022
The European project has been in crisis for at least the last two decades. In their reaction to the migrant crisis, Brexit or Covid-19 pandemics, the European institutions tried each time to extend their competences and arbitrarily take over the national prerogatives, acting beyond the Treaties. The responses given often proofed to be wrong over time. Instead of contributing to the solutions according to the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity, they disappointed the expectations of the citizens. The European institutions has thus lost much of their credibility in the eyes of Europeans. There is no doubt today that we are in an urgent need for a substantial discussion on the future of Europe as our Union has been heading in a wrong direction for years now.
The ECR Group welcomed the launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe a year ago as an opportunity for the European institutions, often too distant from the citizens, to consult Europeans on their views on the current EU policies and the reform of the Union. We decided to participate in the Conference in good faith, with the objective of making the debate a genuinely European and pluralistic one.
We worked hard during the entire Conference because we believed this process would put different visions of the Union in competition with each other and ultimately allow for a real reform for a better future of Europe. Even before the Conference formally started, we had launched our own campaign Europe’s Future - A New Hope, with events organised in a dozen European capital cities.
Our criticisms of towards the whole exercise concern many different aspects and may be resumed as follows:
Biased selection of citizens
The selection of citizens participating in the Conference was itself very flawed. Research shows that citizens who are in favour of a more centralised Union were much more likely to accept an invitation to participate in the citizens’ panels of the Conference than those more sceptical. Euro-enthusiasts have therefore been a dominant category among the participants of the citizens’ panels.
Age-based discrimination of citizens
About 33% of the citizen places were given to young people between the ages of 16-24, who make up just about 11% of the population. This substantial over-representation of the youth obviously distorted the citizens’ panels and made their calls less realistic. Moreover, it contributed to the undemocratic nature of the Conference since it gave a bigger say to one category of citizens than to the others.
Biased selection of experts
Moreover, the selected citizens were supposed to be informed on the EU and its powers by experts, mainly recruited from institutions and NGOs financed by the European Union. While reading the so-called citizens’ recommendations, one might form an impression, however, that their authors had not been sufficiently informed about the limits of the EU competences as enshrined in the Treaties. This could mean that the experts were not vocal enough on this issue, which has potentially incited citizens to formulate more ‘ambitious’ recommendations, i. e. that would require some changes of the Treaties. As it became obvious at the stage of drafting the conclusions of the Conference, the citizens have been misled by the organisers of the Conference to legitimise the false binary choice - traditionally promoted by the proponents of further centralisation and limitation of the national competences - between ‘either more Europe or no Europe at all’. Therefore, the so-called citizens’ recommendations on the future of Europe do not reflect the real plurality of our societies.
No testing of the citizens’ recommendations with the wider public
Once the so-called citizens’ recommendations were published, there was no pan-European opinion polling done to test them against reality by means of objective public surveys. The reason for not doing so seems obvious to us, as such polls would have definitely contradicted the manipulated outcome of the citizens’ panels. As a result, the ‘Brussels bubble’ has simply been enlarged into a ‘Conference bubble’.
Distortion of the citizens’ recommendations thanks to the two-step character of the Conference
The Conference had in fact two stages where participants were allowed to submit proposals: (1) the citizens’ panels and (2) the working groups that were supposed to gather and further develop the so-called recommendations by the former. There were though no indications on how far the working groups could interfere and modify those recommendations. The working groups, mainly under the influence of the European Parliament, seized this opportunity to impose their own language, chose the recommendations that suited them the most and rejected the others, including among the ones submitted on the digital multilingual platform. Much of the citizens’ recommendations were thus distorted from their original form and meaning which calls into question the very citizen-driven nature of the Conference.
Unequal footing between different components in effect
Despite the pretended equal footing between the four components of the Conference and the role given to the citizens, the rushed character of the Conference favoured the component with the established organisation and experienced staff who could then effectively dominate proceedings to its liking: Members of the European Parliament. Therefore, the equal footing was purely a mirage. It became particularly visible on the working group level of the Conference, where the so-called citizens’ recommendations were arbitrarily expanded by the European Parliament to shape their final outcome with accordance to its political agenda.
Undemocratic character of the Conference
The whole format of the Conference, while pretending to broaden the scope of European democracy, is in fact fundamentally undemocratic. The voice of the 800 ‘randomly selected citizens’ and several NGOs with a clear political agenda have been in practice placed on an equal footing with the one of democratically elected members of the European and national parliaments, as well as government representatives. By including the direct participatory component to the democracy on the European level, the organisers of the Conference wished to limit the role of representative democracy and arbitrarily set the political agenda of the EU according to their own priorities. Whilst the Members of the European Parliament had the infrastructure to advance their objectives, the national parliamentarians were put at a serious disadvantage. This approach represents yet another attack on the EU’s national democracies and, as such, undermines the Treaty-based legal and political order of the EU.
Limited time for reflexion
Whereas the Conference lasted barely a year, much of the first few months were taken up with procedural wrangles (mainly attempts by the European Parliament to impose changes to enhance its ability to take control of the proceedings such as the establishment of working groups). This resulted in a rushed process that stifled real debate. The citizens’ panels met merely four times (including twice remotely), each time over a weekend only. The same goes for the working groups of the plenary that gathered a couple of times for two-hour long meetings, which favoured the experienced European parliamentarians over representatives of the other components.
Extremely poor visibility of the Conference
The Conference on the Future of Europe completely failed to capture the public attention, despite the considerable financial resources poured into the project by the European institutions under the publicity slogan Make your voice heard. The multilingual digital platform, supposed to become the main channel of a pan-European public debate, has registered only about 52 000 participants who, in total, posted around 22 000 comments over a year. Very few public events related to the future of Europe were organised in the Member States and polls show less than 5% of the Europeans have ever heard about the Conference. Needless to say that such low interest in the whole process expressed by the Europeans does not increase its conclusions’ legitimacy.
Our sorrow is that, instead of the open and pluralist discussion that had been promised to the participants in the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe signed by the presidents of the Parliament, the Commission and the Council, the Conference turned out to simply be a way to legitimise a pre-determined outcome. Our delegates participated in the work of the Conference and submitted many proposals. Our objections were mainly ignored, however, and they never found any echo in the official documents of the Conference. Such approach by the Conference governing bodies intends to give a false impression to the European public that, throughout the whole process, everybody agreed on the direction the EU should head in the future and no alternative was presented. That was obviously not the case, be it in the Conference plenary, on the digital multilingual platform or in the Conference components internally. And yet, no possibility to submit a votum separatum has ever been given to those who expressed a different vision of the future of Europe, be it through a vote or a minority opinion to the final conclusions of the Conference.
Lack of procedural clarity
From the very beginning, the Conference has been organised in a chaotic way, with a lack of procedural clarity, and this despite the considerable time spent on the negotiations of the Rules of Procedure. The latter did not sufficiently specify the selection process for the citizens participating in the panels, the role of the plenary and its working groups, nor did they set the rules on how different parts of the Conference would come to their conclusions. This lack of clarity sparked protests at different stages of the Conference and was the reason for some delegates’ gradual disinterest or even resignation at during the course of the Conference.
Lack of financial transparency
We have put questions on the financing of the Conference several times in writing to the hosting institutions, but the answers have been vague and evasive, only amplifying our concerns about the lack of transparency as for the overall budget of the Conference and the source of financing.
The Conference disappointed the high hopes for a genuine pan-European debate on various ideas for the future of Europe. Moreover, the procedural manipulations we witnessed throughout the whole process aimed at presenting the proposed changes in the institutional setup of the EU, mainly instigated by the majority of political groups in the European Parliament, as an initiative coming from the citizens. The participating citizens were simply unwittingly instrumentalised by the European parliamentarians to be used as leverage to advance their agenda.
We regret that the Conference has ultimately not served as a platform to express various ideas for the future but rather a cherry-picking exercise manipulated by some political families. Our further participation in the Conference would only be used to legitimise its conclusions as if it had been a genuinely democratic reflection on the future of Europe. In fact, the latter did not happen during this exercise. We will nevertheless continue to engage in discussions with citizens and commit to further represent their views on the EU reform in our daily work in the European Parliament.
The ECR Group Delegation to the Conference on the Future of Europe