The EU has spent months and millions asking people’s opinions. Will he listen to them? – POLITICS
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WARSAW — In the depths of winter, with the pandemic peaking, temperatures plummeting and many people stuck at home, a trip to the Polish capital to discuss Europe at EU expense probably seemed like a a fun school trip for civic-minded adults.
There were classrooms under chandeliers, hotel stays and a swanky restaurant boasting of having served German model Claudia Schiffer – not to mention a €70 per diem.
Also on the program: intense, multilingual and closed-door debates on subjects ranging from biodiversity to public transport.
The multi-day experience was one of four ‘European citizens’ panels’ held over six months as part of the EU’s ‘Future of Europe Conference’, a sprawling forum that Brussels has been touting ever since. years as a means of giving European citizens a say in the future of the bloc.
Now is the time when EU leaders and officials will show if they can actually follow through on promises to take the recommendations seriously. On Monday, the conference leaders will present their final report to French President Emmanuel Macron and several European leaders at a closing ceremony in Strasbourg.
We don’t know what will happen next. There is no binding mechanism forcing politicians to turn any suggestion into law. And while some want the conference to become a permanent EU fixture, others believe it would only underline a disconnect between citizens and the EU.
The European Parliament intervened last week by passing a resolution urging policymakers to prepare EU treaty reforms based on the conference’s work. This decision launches a long process which could lead to a European convention to discuss the modification of the treaty, but does not contain any guarantee.
One certainty: whatever happens next will help shape the narrative of the EU, which has spent years pushing back against claims that it is made up of out-of-touch bureaucrats with little democratic accountability.
The conclusion of the conference is a moment that the nearly 200 European citizens gathered in Warsaw looked on with suspicion during their visit in January, when they were still mostly imbued with goodwill for the company.
“The panels are well organized, and that gives me the impression that we are going to be heard,” said Maxime Joly, a 23-year-old French business school student.
But Joly then shifted to a darker tone: “This is the first time the EU has done this and I hope they follow suit.”
years of preparation
The conference is the brainchild of Frenchman Macron, who started pushing the idea years ago.
The conference officially started its work last May, eventually bringing together around 800 citizens to discuss the future of Europe. Panels focused on the micro — regional languages, inter-EU sports — and the macro, such as European democracy and the EU’s place in the world.
At the same time, policy makers from various countries met on numerous occasions with Members of the European Parliament and EU officials in Strasbourg, where they discussed how to potentially transform citizens’ recommendations into legislative proposals. In total, some 449 people participated in these gatherings, which included nine “working groups” and seven plenary sessions.
Apart from the panels, the conference erected a multilingual digital platform for others to speak – a spokesperson for the European Parliament said more than 50,000 people “actively interacted” on the platform.
The final document includes 49 proposals, divided into nine themes, and more than 300 measures on how to achieve these objectives.
Some proposals are cosmetic, such as changing the name of the European Commission to “Executive Commission of the European Union”, while others are more concrete, such as the creation of “local EU councillors” or the construction of ” affordable kindergartens, both public and private. .” Others would involve a complete overhaul of the way the EU takes decisions – one suggestion is pushing for EU-wide referendums “in exceptional cases on issues of particular importance to all European citizens”.
The European Commission declined to say how much the conference cost, arguing that each EU institution paid from its own budget, leaving the conference without a single budget line.
But the Commission communicated a figure to Members of the European Parliament earlier this year, telling them that it had so far spent 20.9 million euros on the initiative, an amount that covered the selection, travel and accommodation costs of the hundreds of citizens involved, as well as “the interpretation in 24 languages, the technical set-up of the premises and the facilitation.
Rally in Poland
In Poland, where the citizens’ panel was held at the College of Europe campus in Natolin, about 30 minutes from Warsaw, people generally praised the conference for its organization and for making sure they feel included.
On the first morning of the panel, hordes of women and men of all ages, equipped with face masks, computers and headphones, braved Warsaw’s harsh winter to hop on a bus headed for Natolin, where they are gathered in different classrooms, some of which were gilded and feature chandeliers.
There, they diligently formed themselves into small “sub-groups” of seven people and worked on the chosen topics – “better living”, “protecting our biodiversity” – in their own mother tongue and with the help of a moderator. They also exchanged ideas with other subgroups during an “open forum” and “feedback time”. Journalists were not allowed to participate in these breakout sessions.
At one point, attendees all flocked to one of the venues on campus for a buffet lunch featuring a variety of entrees and Polish specialties like borscht.
Maria del Pilar Montenegro Garcia, a 47-year-old Spaniard, stood near the buffet, chatting with other Spaniards she had just met. Montenegro Garcia, who is unemployed, recalled receiving a call a few months earlier from “a company in Madrid” asking her to take part in a “fully organized” deliberation on Europe.
“I was clearly interested,” said Montenegro Garcia – although she admitted to knowing little about the issues involved.
“I was happy to talk about emotional education because I realized the worst impact of COVID was on mental health,” Montenegro Garcia said. “We get paid, we sleep in four-star hotels and the organization is incredible.”
Wiktor Gajos, a 21-year-old Polish student of European politics, shares Montenegro Garcia’s enthusiasm for the exercise. “My idea was to make healthcare systems equal across Europe in terms of services,” Gajos said.
“I think these signs are pretty good,” he added. “It’s well organised…it makes us feel like we matter and it’s very diverse.”
Later that evening, citizens were bussed to AleGloria, a historic restaurant in Warsaw (the one where Claudia Schiffer apparently ate). Another evening, a lavish buffet awaited in a vast room filled with kitschy replicas of the ancient columns adorning Warsaw’s iconic Palace of Culture and Science – a monumental gift from Joseph Stalin to the Poles.
An eye on the future
Over dinner, some attendees wondered if exercise would have long-term benefits.
“It’s a good experience because I meet people,” said Arie de Vries, a Dutch participant who runs an insurance company, sipping wine with several Romanian participants. “I don’t know if it’s useful. It depends on what they do with it. If it’s not made into law, then I would like to know why? Was it even discussed? Hope we get some feedback. »
The final day of the Natolin panel consisted of a live-streamed “plenary session” held with great fanfare at the Palace of Culture and Science with Guy Verhofstadt, the member of the European Parliament who heads the executive board of the conference. Participants all voted on their recommendations.
“It will take tremendous pressure,” Verhofstadt told reporters, “to put the recommendations into practice, let’s be honest about that.”
The former Belgian Prime Minister, a long-time supporter of the conference, emphasized the “singularity of this exercise” centered on citizen participation committed for months.
“The way we do it will create such expectations,” he said, “but also such pressure that it will be very difficult for all the institutions to say, ‘We didn’t know that, we didn’t. were not aware “.”
Verhofstadt insisted he believed the exercise would become a “permanent feature” of the EU to help politicians set their priorities.
Three weeks later, however, the mood was darker when policymakers and officials gathered in Strasbourg to discuss Natolin’s recommendations.
Some MEPs have complained that many of the ideas put forward in Poland, including a suggestion that the EU would offer “organic farming subsidies” to bring down the cost of organic produce, were already in place.
“I think we have above all in this working group a problem of overlapping actions that are already happening here in the European Parliament,” said Herbert Dorfmann, an Italian MEP from the centre-right European People’s Party, during a meeting in Strasbourg of its working group on climate change and the environment.
“We need a bit of scientific basis in this debate,” Dorfmann added, “because otherwise it becomes a pretty Christmas tree, but we haven’t really taken a step forward.”