Let’s put aside the choice of the unattractive name of the upcoming EU-wide initiative: “Conference for the Future of Europe”.
Let’s also put aside its many presidents (three honorary presidents and three executive presidents, after abandoning the idea of a single “eminent European personality” to act as the conference’s chair), and the drastic shortening of its duration (from two years to less than one) – which is difficult to explain with any other arguments but serving the pre-election campaign of the French president Emmanuel Macron, so that he can claim his idea to hold such a forum was accomplished.
What I wish to question is its timing – or, rather, why it is not the time to launch it now.
The widely-announced results of the most recent survey, commissioned by the European Parliament and European Commission, sound a bit unreal.
According to this poll, 92 percent of citizens across all member states demand that their voices are “taken more into account in decisions relating to the future of Europe” and three-quarters of Europeans consider that the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe will have a positive impact on democracy within the EU.
It is doubtful that so many Europeans beyond the Brussels’ Bubble, and beyond the media, academic and think-thank circles (especially at this particular pandemic time), are preoccupied with the deficiencies in the EU governance or are eager to “rediscover the soul of the European project”, as parliament president David Sassoli invited them to do in his speech.
During her launch speech, EU Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, stated that the aim is to reach the “silent majority” – and this is exactly what should be done, but not via a high-level conference in locked-down regions, cities and villages.
Unfortunately, citizens, at large, are ignorant about the EU and certainly about the Conference on the Future of Europe for a number of reasons: among the main of which, is their existing knowledge deficit about the EU construction and decision-making processes.
Even in normal times, it would have been challenging to reach and engage with them, let alone now, when so many people from all walks of life have lost a beloved person to Covid, or have lost jobs and incomes, or parents have been left at home with their online-schooled kids, and so many young people’s mental health has deteriorated due to social restrictions, curfews, closed universities, sports clubs, cinemas, etc.
Right now, this “silent majority” the EU institutions are targeting, is struggling to adapt to the “new normal” the pandemic brought about.
“We want to hear about the Europe our citizens are dreaming of,” said von der Leyen, just before signing the joint declaration.
Even Europeans who have previously been ready to devote time and energy to contribute to the debate on EU’s future, now with the Covid-19 pandemic making them struggle to meet basic needs – of a physiological and safety nature. They have no time left to formulate their dreams about the EU polity and policies and/or take part in any form of civil society activism.
What is more, attentive listening to European citizens should be a permanent and continuous process – and not merely limited to one event which starts on 9 May 2021 and is to finish before the presidential elections in France in the spring of 2022.
And in fact this whole endeavour is not unique and without precedent, as many top EU politicians try to present it.
Attempts at intense dialogue with citizens have been made, both top-down and bottom-up, with varying degrees of success, for several decades already, and there is nothing unprecedented and revolutionary.
It should be enough merely to mention the Convention on the Future of Europe, the Debating Europe initiative, the Citizens Dialogues, etc etc.
So this was not the right moment to get started on the Conference on the Future of Europe. It could – and should – have been left for less turbulent times, when everyone was vaccinated, our freedoms restored, and travel bans lifted so that those willing to take part can do it live, and not on Zoom or some other online mechanism.
But for good or bad, this initiative will take place.
If everybody from the pro-EU camp wishes to see it succeed and not turned into another ‘pseudo-event’ with heavy EU propaganda and self-glorification, it is now the time to contribute and make the most of it.
Let’s start, for example, with elaborating a persuasive communication strategy for all its phases – with the aim to stimulate vibrant public interest around EU affairs.