For two days, on October 22-23, Europe set about doing something it may do better than anything or anyone else: talking. For seven decades now, peace, democracy and prosperity in the once “Dark” (viz Mazower) and in any case Old Continent have been founded on the ability to discuss and negotiate differences tirelessly. Let us take a few moments to fully appreciate the value of peaceful pluralistic debate, not only in comparison to the alternative (conflict, war!), but also as the only way to manage cooperation between interdependent and diverse nation-states and societies.
The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) represents a lot more than opening up the pan-European discussion to its citizens. Through the spring of 2022, the citizens of Europe will be able to submit (via a pan-European digital platform) ideas, proposals and criticism which will supplement the role of the representative institutions which power the mechanisms of the EU. Alongside the governments that convene in the European Council, the national societal representatives elected to sit in the European Parliament, and the Commission appointed by the elected governments, the citizens of Europe, as the ultimate principals of them all, will contribute their views (directly and participatively) on how the EU could do better.
The conference is an enormous and historic undertaking, and an initiative of President Emmanuel Macron, who has himself hosted numerous open citizens’ assemblies all across France. A host of national and European citizen groups, chosen to be representative of the EU’s diversity, have already met and presented the initial results of their discussions at the plenary session of the CoFoE.
It is far from easy, and it has its weaknesses. Participation has remained low so far. And the process whereby the proposals will ultimately be evaluated by the EU institutions remains vague. The entire exercise is imperfect, but then so is democracy. It’s what we’ve got, and have to work with.
The subtopics used to structure the discussion include some of the most critical questions and dilemmas relating to the future of Europe. Will the EU be able to undertake bolder fiscal initiatives, building on the precedent of the Recovery and Resilience Fund, to finance its investments and other priorities? Will it be able to do more for its internal cohesion, and its strategic autonomy in its vicinity and around the world, to serve its interests and values better, and to protect its citizens more effectively – as the countries of the European South mostly want? Or will it restrict itself to a loose transnational cooperation, a low-flying single market shorn of geopolitical ambitions – the model supported, in the main, by its Northern member-states? Will the EU succeed in taking on the tax havens and harmful tax competition that deprives it and its member-states of fiscal resources at the expense of productive enterprises and workers? Will the EU, in other words, serve the public interest of Europe, its member-states and citizens? The answer to all the above will depend on the effectiveness, power and legitimacy of the Union. And the outcome of this conference will be decisive for all three.
The last undertaking of a comparable scale was the European Convention in 2002. That resulted in the presentation in 2004 of an ambitious European Constitution, a Constitutional Treaty for the EU which was derailed by negative referendum results in France and the Netherlands the following year, in 2005. This rejection was mainly the work of nationalist politicians determined to keep the EU weak and ineffectual, but also of citizens unready to integrate their national scope into the broader horizon of a more powerful Europe.
The situation is less dramatic now, constraining national conditions putting a cap on European political ambition, but it is equally vital that the project succeed. Democracies today are under threat from misinformation, ignorance, the fanaticism of bigots and the poison of demagogues. But they are also threatened by the withdrawal into the private realm, by complacency, and by the indifference of moderate, thinking citizens. Established democracies are not at risk from tyrants who whittle away at the rights of the many, but from citizens who do not participate in civic affairs.
To wildly paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “Democracy is fine, but it takes far too many afternoons.” It is the many, the citizens of member-states and of the Union, that the Conference on the Future of Europe is striving to mobilize for the benefit of all. Even if it takes a good many afternoons.
George Pagoulatos is a professor at the Athens University of Economics & Business, a visiting professor at the College of Europe, and director general of the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).