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4th Mar 2024

Interview

Commissioner: Debate on Future of EU 'cannot disappoint citizens'

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Those EU citizens randomly-selected to participate in the Conference on the Future of Europe have so far shown an enormous appetite for structural EU reforms - including proposals for treaty change.

But this controversial democratic experiment still risks backfiring if it does not deliver results.

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Two groups of 200 randomly-chosen citizens have already adopted nearly 100 specific recommendations on issues regarding climate change, health, and democracy - with more following shortly after the last two citizens' panels take place in February.

The fate of these proposals, however, is highly uncertain.

Leading politicians have praised the people involved in this year-long exercise, but many fear that the conference follow-up will go nowhere.

Nevertheless, the EU commissioner for democracy, Dubravka Šuica, is convinced that the conference can live up to expectations and deliver feasible results.

"This exercise should be a success and we will do our best to incorporate citizens recommendations into final conclusions," she told EUobserver in an interview.

"We haven't offered this conference to citizens to disappoint them … I am sure we will find a way out," she added

The recommendations will first be agreed upon by citizens, EU officials, national deputies, civil society and other bodies. The approved proposals will then feed into a report which will be made by consensus, between European Parliament, Council and Commission.

And EU institutions will have until mid-2024 to translate words into action.

"This is the benchmark of the conference in comparison to conventions and previous citizens dialogues. There will be feedback and follow up," said the commissioner.

However, a slim majority of Europeans (55 percent) think the conference will have no real impact and it will not change much, a recent Eurobarometer survey revealed.

The report with the conclusions will finally come to light this year on Europe Day (9 May), a symbolic date, and timely for the French presidency.

Citizens want treaty change

In their recommendations, citizens have called for healthcare to be a shared competence between the EU and member states — a move that would trigger a heated debate over treaty changes.

Healthcare lies within national responsibilities, and the EU has only a complementary role. But the pandemic has exposed common vulnerabilities and the need for joint action, such as the coordination in the procurement of vaccines.

A dozen member states have previously opposed the idea, but the commission has since the beginning committed to supporting treaty changes if they are included in citizens recommendations.

"The commission position is clear, but it is up to council and parliament to initiate this procedure. We will always be a broker and a facilitator in this process," Šuica said.

"Let's see which the result will be," she added.

The Croatian politician argued that "democracy is not static" and, therefore, should be able to respond to a constantly changing and evolving world.

"We need to make our democracy fit for this era, fit for the future. This is what we are doing with this conference," she said.

"Some issues need to change. We are not blind".

For her, one of the likely outcomes of the conference could be considering European issues as part of the school curriculum, as citizens have requested this. Education, however, is mostly a competence of EU capitals and regions.

This proposal was raised by MEPs in 2016 - after it was estimated that 44 percent of Europeans do not understand how the EU works.

People taking part in the fourth citizens panel of the conference (Photo: Conference on the Future of Europe platform)

What happens next?

As conclusions begin to emerge, all eyes are on what will happen next.

"There will not be a second part," said the commissioner, while pointing out some "permanent mechanisms" should be implemented to enhance citizens participation after the conference ends.

This could include regular citizens assemblies or digital platforms, such as the multilingual platform that has also fed ideas into this conference.

"We definitely have to strengthen our representative democracy by deliberative democracy," she said.

"EU citizens [must] see and feel that they can influence EU policies This is our final goal".

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