A people-powered EU: with or without a Convention?

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On 10 June, the EUI-STG Democracy Forum held its last session of the 2021-22 academic year, addressing the most contentious question in the debate on the follow-up on the Conference on the Future of Europe: to reform or not to reform the EU treaties? What are the merits, risks and democratic conditions of an EU Convention process? With the European Parliament resolution calling for a Convention for the revision of the Treaties – adopted on 9 June with 355 votes in favour, 154 against and 48 abstentions – this question has become all the more pertinent. The European Council is expected to address the European Parliament’s proposal during their summit on 23-24 June. A simple majority is needed in order to kickstart the process. This article aims to capture the main arguments and takeaways from the discussion during the Democracy Forum session.

Learning from the Chilean Constitutional Convention 

Instead of addressing the question of the EU Convention head on, the session began by ‘reversing the gaze’, considering what the EU can learn from experiences of constitutional and democratic innovation from elsewhere in the world, and notably the ongoing Chilean constitution-making process. Based on two impulses provided by Ruth Rubio, leading the work on gender governance at the STG, and Camila Vergara, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the University of Cambridge, members learned and exchanged on the ground-breaking nature of the Chilean constitution-making process.

The Chilean example is the most recent example of what is dubbed ‘new constitutionalism’ in Latin America – constitutional reform processes in which direct forms of participation and inclusion, as opposed to indirect representation mechanisms, lead the way. The Chilean process is unprecedented in having an equal number of men and women involved in drafting a constitution (despite the fact that the gender parity requirement ended up facilitating the inclusion of seven more men in the Convention). What is perhaps even more important, however, is that the numerical representation of women was said to have been converted into substantive representation: women’s rights and gender mainstreaming have been a core issue of debate in the Constitutional Convention, and translated into the constitutional draft text to be presented for approval during the plebiscite on 4 September. While both the European Citizens’ Panels and the Plenary of the Conference on the Future of Europe were equally constituted by a gender parity requirement, it was questioned whether this has really translated into substantive representation.

A related aspect that some argued the EU could learn from is the degree to which the Chilean process enabled ‘reform from below’. The EU is typically viewed as an elite- and expert-driven project. The Conference on the Future of Europe – despite essentially being a political participation project – was hardly an exception, as it was designed in a highly top-down manner, without any structured public consultation. Unlike the Conference, the push for the Constitutional Convention in Chile came first and foremost from civil society and common people, protesting the social injustices that were partially a product of the Pinochet-era constitution of 1980. Subsequently, decision-makers were under pressure to design the constitution-making process in a way that channelled this energy and met the expectations of common people. One of the instruments put into place for this purpose was a right of popular initiative: by collecting 15,000 signatures people could put a proposal for a constitutional article on the agenda of the Constitutional Convention. Despite rushed and somewhat flawed implementation, 77 such initiatives were successful in collecting the necessary signatures, and a significant number of the issues addressed by these initiatives have been translated into the draft constitutional text.

One of the striking differences between the Chilean process and other Latin American examples of participatory democracy, on the one hand, and European initiatives such as the Conference on the Future of Europe, on the other, is the increasingly prominent role of sortition-based forms of participation in the latter, while being (almost) completely absent from the former. In response to this observation, it was mentioned that experts had proposed sortition-based forms of participation to the Chilean Constitutional Convention, but that this idea did not resonate – neither with Convention members nor with the wider public following the Convention – as it was seen as a form of participation limited to the ‘select few’, while excluding the vast majority of the people. Later on in the conversation, it was remarked that the EU should organise sortition-based forms of political participation on a more regular basis in order to address this concern, as Commission President Ursula von der Leyen committed to in her speech at the Conference closing event on 9 May 2022.

An EU Convention: a booster for participation or a return to business as usual?

Returning our ‘gaze’ to the EU, members of the Forum addressed the desirability and democratic conditions of an EU Convention process on the basis of impulses from four people with a strong involvement in the Conference and related follow-up actions: Helmut Scholz, Member of the European Parliament for The Left and co-signatory of the EP resolution calling for a Convention; Asees Ahuja, former Chair of the EU in the World Conference Plenary Working Group on behalf of the Swedish government; Daniela Vancic, Policy and Advocacy Working Group Coordinator of the Citizens Take Over Europe coalition, and Hendrik van de Velde, former Conference Plenary member and Coordinator of the Belgian EU Presidency of 2024.

The impulses from our guest speakers and interventions from other Forum members showed both areas of agreement and disagreement. There was a general consensus on the need for the EU to take the outcomes of the Conference seriously, to follow up on the proposals that it produced, and to find ways of continuing the dialogue started with the Conference, including by organising deliberative panels on a more regular basis. The disagreement centred around the question of whether or not initiating an EU Convention – at this very moment – would be conducive to this endeavour.

Proponents of an EU Convention pointed out that while many of the Conference proposals can be implemented without changing the primary laws of the EU some 10% of citizens’ panel recommendations require treaty change in order to be fully implemented. While there is a great amount of disagreement inside the European Parliament on what aspects of the EU treaties to change, there is a consensus among a large majority of the members to engage in an open debate on the various proposals that are out there in the context of an official Convention process. Some participants have additionally argued that a Convention is needed in order to widen and deepen the conversations started with the Conference, involving a much broader and more diverse segment of the EU population.

Those sceptical about the prospects of an EU Convention expressed fears about it drawing focus and resources away from an in-depth evaluation, feedback and follow-up on the Conference proposals, as well as from finding ways of embedding participatory and deliberative democracy more permanently into EU politics based on the lessons learned from the Conference. By shifting our focus from the Conference to a Convention too swiftly, we may lose sight of some of the novelty of the Conference and ultimately end up disappointing people by ‘falling back’ in a conventional way of doing EU politics due to the straitjacket of the Convention process. If the counter argument to this is to have a more participatory, new-style constitutional reform process a la Chile – as actors like Citizens Take Over Europe have argued for – this is deemed unlikely by some, and a ‘return to square one’ by others, as the whole point of the Conference was already to involve people in a structured conversation on the future of Europe. Finally, it was argued that the EU has over recent years proven to be capable of acting and adapting to various crises without needing constitutional changes.

While our guest speakers and Forum members did not arrive at a consensus on the need for an EU Convention, they expressed a willingness to continue engaging in dialogue on this topic at this critical juncture in EU history. The EUI-STG Democracy Forum will continue to support and contribute to this dialogue when it reconvenes after the summer break.