Conference on the Future of Europe: What’s Next?

Conference on the Future of Europe: What’s Next?

Having come to a close last May, the Conference on the Future of Europe was a hitherto unseen citizen-led series of debates and discussions that enabled Europeans to share their ideas with a view toward shaping Europe’s future. Now that the year-long journey has reached its culmination, and the Co-Chairs of the Executive Board have delivered their final report containing proposals to the Presidents of the European Parliament, the EU Council and Commission, Sarah Muscat Azzopardi touches base with key players on the outcomes of the Conference.

The Conference of the Future of Europe represents the first major pan-European democratic exercise of its kind, providing a platform for citizen-led debates that enabled people from across Europe to contribute their views. Boasting over five million unique visitors to its innovative digital platform, and clocking in over 700,000 event participants, the conference can certainly be said to have created a public forum for debate, focusing on several key priorities.

As Head of Cabinet of European Commissioner Dubravka Šuica, Dr Colin Scicluna was part of the European Commission’s main team driving the process of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Describing the experience of organising a conference on such a massive scale, Dr Scicluna likens it to having two full-time jobs.

Affirming that the conference was a response to a sense that the European institutions need to re-engage with citizens, Dr Scicluna also positions it within the context of a Europe which had just been through a succession of traumatic events: the financial and economic crisis, the refugee crisis and the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU. Then, “just as we started to work on the conference, the pandemic struck, and as we were reaching the climax, Russia invaded Ukraine, bringing war back to European soil. All of this has meant that we have had ample reason to engage, discuss and debate with citizens, who have shown that when the space is provided to them, they are more than willing to dedicate time and effort,” he says.

He explains, “for the first time ever, citizens – who were randomly selected from all member states – sat together with elected representatives from the European, national, regional and local level, with Ministers, European Commissioners, social partners and civil society, fully on equal footing. They presented their recommendations, they defended them and, together with the other members of the Plenary, they enriched these recommendations to produce 49 proposals which contain 326 measures.”

Malta was a very strong contributor to the conference, he continues, pointing out that the island had the third highest volume of contributions in proportion to the population, and 37 events were organised thanks to the cooperation of national and local authorities, as well as civil society. Despite this, he continues, “there is certainly space for improvement. First, such a complex and innovative process would have benefitted from more time, as initially the conference was planned to run for two years. Also, efforts to raise awareness and bring citizens into the debate were not evenly distributed across member states, which resulted in a rather low participation of citizens in some areas of the EU.”

Meanwhile, now that the final report has been presented to the Presidents of the EU institutions, Dr Scicluna affirms that the conference is different from any previous citizens’ participation exercise because of the strong commitment to follow up expressed by the Presidents in the Joint Declaration that launched it.

“The Commission wants to transform the vision put forward by the citizens into concrete actions and give feedback on each of the 49 final proposals of the conference. We already started working on this follow-up phase,” he reveals, pointing to a number of recent decisions and initiatives, including a package on nature restoration and preservation as well as another on trade and sustainable development that are in direct response to conference proposals.

And this is only the beginning, he insists. “In September, President von der Leyen will announce the first entirely new initiatives in response to the Conference on the Future of Europe. Also, the three institutions will jointly organise a feedback event in the autumn with all citizens who participated in the panels.”

Looking back on the conference as an exercise which proved that engaging with citizens strengthens our representative democracy, Dr Scicluna says that this will also inform the way forward. “As one of the main outcomes, we will embed participative democracy into the EU’s policy and law-making. In particular the Commission will organise Citizens’ Panels to deliberate and make recommendations ahead of key proposals. Our online engagement will also be made more efficient. The Commission’s ‘Have Your Say’ portal will become a one-stop-shop, bringing together all information on citizen’ participation mechanisms running in the Commission.”

Meanwhile, as President of the European Economic and Social Committee’s (EESC) Employers Group, Stefano Mallia had a central role in discussions leading to the final report of the conference. On his part, he maintains, “despite all the challenges we faced along the way, and despite the limitations and weak public interest, I believe that the Conference on the Future of Europe was a step in the right direction towards making the EU more participatory, by giving EU citizens the opportunity to give their vision for the future of Europe.”

“Most of the proposals call for a European Union that impacts on the everyday concerns of citizens, such as a better environment, better working conditions, higher income, better education systems, family rights, gender equality and housing,” he says, maintaining that while it is perfectly logical to have received calls from citizens for a better quality of life, in order to meet these demands, “we must also make consistent proposals that will enable us to create a more solid economic base that generates enough economic wealth to actually afford the measures that the citizens so desire.”

It is for this reason that Mr Mallia believes that the conclusions of the conference have been greatly enhanced by the involvement of the EESC’s Employers’ Group. “I say this not to give ourselves a pat on the back, but because I have seen first-hand the added value we have brought to the process, complementing and enriching the citizens’ recommendations and making them more grounded in reality,” he notes.

It is Mr Mallia’s view that there are also things that could have worked better. First off, he notes, “the objective should have been better clarified from the outset and all those involved informed accordingly. This clarification is necessary not only to avoid raising unrealistic expectations among citizens and other stakeholders involved, but also to ensure the buy-in and shared commitment of the EU institutions and Member States, as they should ultimately feed the results of citizen participation into the implementation of policy decisions at European and national level.”

Secondly, rather than a broad list of issues, Mr Mallia argues in favour of identifying a narrower topic or specific issue – ideally one that is already on the EU agenda or in the political process. This, he believes, would allow for a more useful contribution and lead to more concrete proposals. Apart from this, he adds, “in order to promote a broader European debate, it is necessary to intensify debates on EU-related issues in the member states and to link these debates with debates in other EU countries and at the transnational level.” As a final note, he also feels that better work should be done in the future to arouse the interest of the media.

Speaking of his role in the process, Mr Mallia explains that, forming part of a delegation of five members, the Employers’ Group contributed at every stage of the process, both in the form of input and in working with the various components of the Plenary. “We organised a series of events, adopted a manifesto and made a major communication effort to ensure that the views of European businesses are taken into account,” he says, adding that they also took a leading role in coordinating the positions of European business organisations.

“Even if the final conclusions are far from ideal for us and in part add to the already excessive cumulative burden imposed on European businesses by the demand for new EU legislation, I believe we can still work with the balance we have been able to achieve,” he continues, highlighting the proposal for a ‘competitiveness check’ to ensure that future legislative proposals are growth and employment friendly as one he is particularly pleased with.

“We also welcome the proposals for more effective decision-making in foreign policy, the defence of rules-based multilateral trade, a stronger European single market and support for SMEs as the backbone of our economy, which are crucial for a prosperous common future,” he adds.

Meanwhile, treaty change was one of the most contentious discussions. Sharing his views on this, Mr Mallia is unequivocal: “what’s crystal clear to me is that this is not the right time to launch a convention for any treaty revisions.”

Instead, he argues in favour of making full and better use of all the possibilities already offered by the Lisbon Treaty, rather than, he says, “embarking on a process that could put the EU under even more pressure just when we are still grappling with the consequences of the pandemic and facing up to an aggressive Russia which continues to wage war in Ukraine.”

Speaking of the steps following the presentation of the final report, Mr Mallia explains that each institution is now expected to implement the recommendations in its respective area of competence.

“The proposals of citizens and businesses are now in the hands of EU leaders and it will be crucial to move from recommendations to concrete results. I do not know if our Heads of State will live up to our expectations, but to achieve this and ensure transparency, we as the EESC have proposed a follow-up instrument,” Mr Mallia continues, describing this proposal as the creation of a dashboard that would allow everyone to see the responsible body, the state of play and the timetable for the implementation of each measure.

On a local level, the Malta Business Bureau has been one of the most active organisations participating in the process. At its helm, President Alison Mizzi states that, as a business representative organisation, the MBB is naturally in favour of any consultation process that allows interested stakeholders to share their views, concerns and suggestions on given topics.

“Navigating through the EU institutional channels to convey one’s views can be complex for ordinary citizens or organisations with limited resources. However, the Conference on the Future of Europe changed this, as it provided a platform for anyone in Europe to communicate their vision on the direction that the EU should take,” she elucidates.

Still, while the MBB considers the overall process to be positive, Ms Mizzi affirms that, “given the energy and emphasis put on the conference, the overall participation was still a small fraction of the EU population.” Venturing into the reasons for this, she posits that, while it can always be said that one could have done more in terms of promotion and outreach, this can also mean that EU citizens and civil society remain largely alienated from EU policy-making, and do not believe that their activism will lead to any significant change. “Considering the level of populist support registered in several EU member states and the risk of social unrest resulting from the current economic crises, this can be a worrying factor moving into the future,” she warns.

Speaking of the organisation’s participation in the conference, Ms Mizzi explains that the MBB took the lead in organising a consultation session with the Maltese business community and focused the discussion on four key areas: the European Single Market, Environmental Sustainability, Skills and EU Governance.

“The feedback received was then reflected in a high-level political declaration that was launched in a business seminar that also commemorated the MBB’s 25th anniversary. The declaration was also presented to EU officials. The MBB went further by submitting several ideas on the Commission’s multilingual digital platform of the Conference on the Future of Europe, and we were pleased that some of these were selected and formally acknowledged in the interim reports,” she continues.

On the single market, the MBB called for further deepening through simplification and harmonisation, with more support for business digitalisation needed, Ms Mizzi explains, adding that while the MBB fully supports the EU’s long term climate objectives, one must also safeguard business competitiveness.

“We called for a more staggered approach in emission reduction while requiring more ambitious investment in innovation technology, infrastructure, and general support to business to quicken the transition. On addressing skills shortages, the MBB expects simpler procedures to attract talent from third countries when specific skills or labour supply more broadly is not available from within the EU, as well as better cooperation between educational and VET providers, and more tools in the field of education and training,” she maintains, adding that the MBB also requires improvements in the quality of EU legislation, ensuring that it is proportional, and avoids one-size fits all measures. The process should also consider territorial proofing to address specific realities such as those of small and peripheral island states.

“We were pleased to note that our ideas were broadly reflected in the outcomes of the final report. We also welcome other proposals such as the one for the introduction of a competitiveness check aimed at ensuring that future legislative proposals are growth and employment friendly,” the MBB President states, affirming that on the other hand, the MBB are critical of any further broadening of EU competence in social policy in the EU Treaties. “There is already an important coverage of EU social legislation, and we believe that this area should be governed by the principle of subsidiarity due to the need of balancing economic and social considerations that vary substantially between member states.”

Echoing Mr Mallia’s view, Ms Mizzi believes that the EU will not be best served by a treaty change at this point in time. “Rather, energy should be focused on economic recovery, diversification of energy sources, curb inflation, keeping the pandemic in-check, and ensuring that current and upcoming green and social initiatives are consistently sensitive to business competitiveness,” she attests, concluding that, in view of the fact that an absolute majority of measures adopted in the final report of the conference can be implemented within the current legal framework, “calling for a convention to discuss treaty changes may be counterproductive.”