The continent has been in a transformative crisis, and while leaders have wrangled over a Conference on the Future of Europe, citizens organised and took action. What we need now is vision, agenda and accountability.
Just a short while ago, we watched a dystopian reality unfold as a mob of white supremacists attacked the US Capitol, incited by a person who was supposed to be the so-called leader of the free world. Then we saw the circus of elected representatives voting to acquit the inciter of his very public crime. It’s tempting to think that this is far away, but the attack on democracy by authoritarians is global and ongoing. In Poland, journalists and historians are arrested by police for writing about the Holocaust. In France, far right gangs go into the mountains to hunt down refugees. Headlines of gunboat diplomacy between the UK and the EU sound more like the 1820s than the 2020s, and the Irish border slowly simmers. Europe clearly needs to set a clear path for democracy, sustainability, and a common future, the urgency has never been so great.
And yet, European leaders spent months on end kicking around the Conference on the Future of Europe like a child’s deflated football. At last, these past weeks they have made a move and have made a proposal for the Conference’s leadership, but the proposal for the Conference delivered much less than was promised. What national governments propose to do is far too narrow, top down and far removed. Yes, there is lip-service to democracy and citizens’ voices, but no real action in that direction.
While national leaders prevaricate, momentum has picked up elsewhere. It is high time for Europe to set a vision for a common future in the wake of crisis, and there are those pushing for that historic milestone.
In December and January, the initiative Citizens Take Over Europe launched an independent citizen-driven Conference on the Future of Europe. Then, in February, the large civil society networks and associations got together to launch a Convention demanding representation and a seat at the table with government leaders. For this historic moment to be truly significant, there has to be public awareness, citizen participation, and clear civil society demands. In the Netherlands, in a historic first, the pan-European and pro-European progressive party Volt was elected into the national parliament. The move puts Europe and its future on a national agenda in a new way .
In the meantime, around the Zoom-corridors of power in locked-down Brussels, there has been much debate about what the Conference will be, what it should be, what it can be. Proposed originally as a landmark formative constitutional event, over a year of rolling around have taken the air out, and spread an atmosphere of stalemate. Despite open claims to the contrary, citizens participants and civil society have so far been left out of the process, as the politicians juggle for position.
The giant contradiction hanging over the initiative as that when all is said and done, national vetoes will determine the outcome. The process will be driven once again by national governments first, institutional second, with civil society and citizens at large left with spectator seats at best. This is as unacceptable as it is inevitable.
On the one hand, Europe is indeed on the precipice, facing urgent, existential, life-or-death questions: the Covid recovery, accelerating climate change, and geo-political threats. Then add to that the ever-present need for democratic reforms, and the Eurozone’s intrinsic instability which was never fundamentally and responsibly resolved. A lost generation of young people affected by the financial crisis are joined a decade later by generations shaken by lockdowns. All this compounds an the rise of authoritarian nationalism that threatens disintegration.
Europe urgently, presently, needs a new vision, a new direction, and a new ambitious and effective way of doing things. Here, however, national vetoes water down any compromises to make them either meaningless or insufficient.
So there is an overwhelming present need that could not be overstated on the one hand, and a near-certainty of piecemeal disappointment is too painful to contemplate. The question is, what to do?
The answer is to set the public agenda. Remember those people in the spectator seats? Civil society movements, organisations and the general public? They are the ones who can set clear demands and then also demand delivery.
What we need is a loud voice and a clear message. A call that permeates a European public sphere across member states, activates an overwhelmingly large public with a clear agenda, and then holds leaders accountable to follow through on that agenda.
As long as the EU works the way it does now, there is only one way to gain a seat at the table. Europe‘s citizens must build a coalition that is large enough to hold national leaders accountable, and a voice coherent enough to define shared objectives.
Whatever happens with the Conference, Europeans themselves must make this a historic milestone, and make a demand for Europe to move forward. This means that 3 things need to happen:
First, the public at large, who usually do not follow what’s happening in Brussels, need to be aware and active. We need a large-scale campaign so that everyone, from all walks of life across the Continent, knows that this is a historic moment for Europe.
Second, we need citizen participation. With civic technologies that are available, people at large can take part in a large-scale debate, online and offline, about the future of Europe. Citizens Take Over Europe brings together more than 50 organisations doing just that, but it must be able to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people.
Then, civil society organisations themselves must take part in the Conference, and channel the priorities, demands and the outputs of citizen participation. The Civil Society Convention that has been launched needs to achieve exactly that.
If European democracy is to be defended, and if the Conference is to be a historic leap forward for Europe in these times of crisis, citizens must make it so, and the politicians will follow.
Piece written by Omri Preiss, Managing Director at Alliance4Europe