This Conference can still go either way
The Conference on the Future of Europe is at a crossroads. The decisive question is: will the Conference Plenary be able and willing to take charge of this Conference, develop a parliament-like dynamic and include perspectives previously excluded, or will it remain an exclusionary political talking shop and risk enabling the extreme right? This piece, by Daniela Vancic and Maarten de Groot, was first published at Euractiv.
What could make the Conference significantly different from any previous exercise of EU participatory democracy is its inter-institutional approach. The fact that the three key EU institutions – the European Parliament, the Commission and the Council – have jointly embarked on this journey makes it politically relevant for the EU.
However, until now, this joint commitment to the Conference – and the declared Conference principles of “inclusiveness, openness, and transparency” – has existed chiefly on paper. Some national governments have done everything to stall the Conference and water down its ambitions. If this intra- and inter-institutional tension continue to be managed behind closed doors – instead of being channelled into the public forum of the Conference – the Conference is bound to fail to deliver on the objectives that were set out for it.
In turn, this would further underscore the EU’s existing democratic deficit, raise anti-EU sentiment, and jeopardise the European Union’s future. Only a coalition of actors from both inside and outside the Conference Plenary can prevent this from happening and ultimately push for this Conference to become a success.
The role of the Conference Plenary
So far, the Conference Plenary has primarily functioned as a place for debate on citizens’ recommendations and other Conference inputs. To make sure that the words of the politicians in Plenary are matched by their actions, it is of crucial importance to have this debate followed by a transparent and accountable process leading to the ultimate adoption of Conference outputs.
The Conference Plenary has been tasked to develop these outputs in the form of “proposals to the Executive Board”, but how will the Conference Plenary develop these proposals? There is very little public information about this: the Rules of Procedure indicate that the Conference Plenary must develop proposals “on a consensual basis”, specifying that “consensus has to be found at least between the representatives of the European Parliament, the Council, the European Commission, as well as representatives from national Parliaments, on an equal footing.” (1)
The only way for the Working Groups and Conference Plenary to prepare and ultimately decide on its proposals to the Executive Board in a practical, accountable, and transparent manner, while simultaneously respecting the need for consensus among the four institutional components of the Conference Plenary, is through a well-structured public voting process with a double majority requirement: decisions need simple majority support among all Conference Plenary members, as well as simple majority support among Conference Plenary members of each institutional component of the Conference (i.e. the European Parliament, the Commission, the Council, the national parliaments).
Due to its transparency and accountability, we can call this the ‘European Parliament Method’. This 6-step plan details how this method could work in practice.
Unfortunately, this is not the current direction of travel. While no documents have been published so far, a leaked document indicates that the Co-Chairs agreed on a minimalist position typical for interinstitutional negotiations: each institutional component will be left to decide for itself how they will arrive at their position on specific proposals.
This may be called the ‘Council Method’, as it will allow the various institutional components to decide on their position on proposals behind closed doors, with no transparency on the positions of individual Conference Plenary members, and possibly give veto power to some of the individual, institutional Conference Plenary members – features typically and notoriously associated with Council proceedings.
The risk of enabling the extreme right
Suppose the Conference ultimately adopts the Council method. In that case, the Conference Plenary will remain a talking shop – the critical decisions will not be taken during the official sessions of the Conference Plenary and its Working Groups, but during (closed-door) meetings of the institutional components of the Conference and during informal negotiations between representatives of the different institutional components.
This would also mean that Conference Plenary members who do not belong to one of the institutional components – 176 out of 449 Conference Plenary members – will not have any official decision-making power in the Conference.
The Council Method would not only render the Conference Plenary hollow, but it would also increase the chances of the Conference being hijacked by anti-democratic forces: they would be enabled to leverage their negative attitude towards the Conference and the EU to achieve significant concessions in the negotiations on the Conference outputs.
Even the design and implementation of the European Citizens’ Panels – supposedly the most inclusive element of this Conference – shows how xenophobic forces are being catered for (see this press release).
Shifting the balance of power in the Conference
The only way the Conference can escape the above-mentioned doom scenario and become a success is if a coalition of actors from both inside and outside the Conference Plenary with sufficient political courage and muscle challenges the top-down interinstitutional consensus currently dominating the Conference process.
A coalition of more than 130 civil society organisations and Conference Plenary members are currently demanding the European Parliament Method to be applied to the process leading to Conference outcomes, ensuring that the “transparency” principle of the Conference is respected. However, it should not stop there: the newly invigorated Conference Plenary should ensure that another fundamental Conference principle – that of “inclusiveness” – is finally put into practice correctly.
As civil society organisations have pointed out repeatedly (see this press release, this joint letter to the Executive Board and a follow-up letter to the Conference Plenary), this Conference can only become a success if those most marginalised in society are enabled to take centre stage in the Conference.
However, the Conference has largely excluded marginalised communities, further contributing to their marginalisation. A straightforward first step would be to invite the EU’s very own Antiracism Coordinator to the Conference Plenary to explore how antiracism and diversity mainstreaming can be applied to develop Conference outputs.
(1) The Working Groups Terms of Reference specify a similar consensus decision-making rule for the Working Groups in their task of giving “input to prepare the debates and the proposals of the Conference Plenary”.
Daniela Vancic is European Programme Manager at Democracy International. Maarten de Groot is a member of The European Citizens’ Initiative Campaign. Both are part of the Citizens Take Over Europe coalition.