Wednesday

27th Oct 2021

No trolling: EU launches platform to hear citizens' views

  • Portuguese EU affairs state secretary Ana Paula Zacarias (l), EU Commission vice-president Dubravka Šuica, and Belgian liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt (r) unveil the Conference on the Future of Europe online portal (Photo: European Commission)

Within hours of its launch on Monday (19 April), dozens of ideas had already been uploaded to the EU's Conference on the Future of Europe platform, part of the bloc's latest soul-searching exercise.

The conference, which has been thrown off-track by the pandemic and then by an intra-institutional fight over the leadership of the exercise, will officially kick off on 9 May - but EU citizens can already start the debate online.

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The aim is to gather ideas 'bottom-up' from European citizens, have them debated and crystallised into recommendations on where and how participants want the EU to evolve in the next years.

The platform launched on Monday is available in all the bloc's official 24 languages, with the online debates translated automatically by AI.

Citizens can share and debate ideas under nine broad topics - climate, health, economy and social issues, EU in the world, values, migration, democracy, digital transformation, education - but can add more issues as well.

Events can be also organised, publicised, and reported on, via the platform.

Those participating need to sign up to a charter, pledging to respect European values, contribute with "constructive and concrete proposals", and not share "illegal, hateful or deliberately false or misleading" content.

That is part of an effort to avoid the site being taken over by trolls and hijacked by disinformation. There will be a group of moderators overseeing if participants respect the charter, and will remove content if they see it breaking the rules.

EU Commission vice-president Dubravka Šuica, Portuguese EU affairs state secretary Ana Paula Zacarias and Belgian liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who announced the launch, described the exercise as "unique", "historic", and "unprecedented".

However, it is not yet clear how, and when, the so-called "citizens' panels" and the "plenaries" - planned to combine both citizens and legislators - will be organised.

These will be the forums where the ideas that emerge from the platform - monitored, analysed, and put together by the platform and its EU operators.

Verhofstadt said it be clearer in "the next coming weeks" how the panels - acting as autonomous organisations - and plenaries will be organised.

The expectation is that panels and plenaries begin during the summer.

The EU institutions will finance the conference separately, depending on which one organises events. Events put together by citizens will most likely not be subsidised by the EU, to avoid accusations of a pro-EU bias.

EU officials are hoping that the "middle ground" of citizens will participate in the platform, not only diehard EU-enthusiasts and eurosceptics.

Results?

The exercise will end in the spring of next year, and the European Parliament hopes that any legislation stemming from the conference can be introduced before the European elections in 2024. Member states have been less enthusiastic about any concrete results which could emerge from the conference.

Verhofstadt said the ideas could be the "backbone" of EU reforms.

"This conference is not the panacea for all the problems that we have, it is just one element. It is a dialogue element that will bring citizens closer to the union. It is a listening instrument but more than that, we hope to have answers in the form of policies of the EU," Zacarias told reporters on Monday.

While there is no commitment that the exercise would lead to treaty change, Verhofstadt emphased that it has not been ruled out either.

"Things are not impossible, and have not been made impossible," Vehofstadt pointed out.

"We don't preempt any result, we don't want to say what is the outcome, we are listening to citizens," commissioner Šuica added.

"At this moment that we live in, people want to talk more about health, about economic situation, about jobs, about social issues, about everything that has to do with their own life and everyday [existence], rather than treaty changes, but we are listening, and will deal with every matter that citizens bring to us," Zacarias said.

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The debate about the much-delayed Conference on the Future of Europe so far has been locked in endless institutional infighting over who should lead the event - lowering the expectations about what can be achieved in the coming months.

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