Comment

Civil society’s visions must be included in the Conference on the Future of Europe

Roch Dunin-Wasowicz / Jun 2021

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The ongoing Conference on the Future of Europe is a one-of-a-kind exercise. This is because its aim is to consult almost half a billion people about the direction in which the unique confederation of states that is the EU should evolve. While the digital consultative tools put together by the Conference are fairly comprehensive, the platform offers limited opportunities for more localised civil society actors that represent the real concerns of ordinary people, who already don’t seem to be heard in Brussels. The visions of Europe put forward by often niche and local civil society actors are the subject of a recent LSE IDEAS report entitled The Rise of Insurgent Europeanism. In it, we find that civil society in Europe and its attitudes towards the European project have changed dramatically in the past decade of multiple crises and claim that the Conference on the Future of Europe must take them on board and ensure proper legislation follows.

Visions of Europe

Our research has identified an emerging European public sphere with competing visions of Europe. Instead of pro- and anti-Europe, the debate is about the kind of Europe that should be constructed and it includes both traditional Europeanists and insurgent Europeanists composed of grassroots activists. While right-wing movements now tend to favour a Europe of the nations, the organisations and movements we studied favour what we describe as Normative, Popular, and Responsive visions of Europe.

The Normative vision of Europe contrasts progressive, democratic, and universal values with the narrow nationalist logics of competition and bargaining in the EU. This approach to the EU is process driven and non-instrumentalist, i.e. it emphasises the importance of democratic participation and engagement over and above any short-term economic gains.

Another vision of Europe that came through in our research is what we call Popular Europe. This vision emphasises notions of decentralisation and participation, as well as subsidiarity – all seen as contributing to the democratisation of the EU. On the one hand, civil society demands a Europe where citizens, cities, and regions, are empowered and able to challenge the hegemony of nation-states in the workings of the European construction. On the other, civil society emphasises subsidiarity, arguing that Europe should only step in when necessary and that Europe-wide solutions should be adjusted to local conditions and realities. Our respondents believe that the combination of the two can go a long way in addressing current democratic shortcomings of the EU, and pave the way for a more democratic Europe.

Finally, Europe has been exposed to a series of global threats in the twenty-first century: the financial, migration, and climate crises, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. Civil society want Europe to step up its response to such emergencies and to pursue adequate continent-wide solutions. They want a Responsive Europe.

Those emerging visions of Europe in civil society are a sign of its growing politicisation. Traditionally the grassroots have often been suspicious of the political class. What has changed is the European focus of grassroots civil society and the readiness to engage with formal politics. And while issues of climate change, social justice and countering inequality, as well as racial justice and migrant rights are all hugely salient, the foremost demand that emerges from the LSE IDEAS study is for increased citizen inclusion and participation in the governance of the European Union. Importantly, those changes have come about primarily because of the crises of the last decade – the financial/Euro-crisis, the migration crisis, Brexit and the pandemic.

Recommendations for the Future of Europe

The visions of Europe put forward by civil society could be described as a set of proposals for a twenty-first century version of democracy. Twentieth century democracy was focussed on the national level and based on traditional vertical forms of representation. Today, democratic procedures, rules and institutions need to reflect the complex, transnational character of contemporary European and global society. The following recommendations for the Future of Europe are aimed to ensure increased citizen inclusion and participation in the governance of the European Union.

  • Create a permanent European Citizens Assembly

Recent experiences with citizens assemblies across the EU prove that citizen participation can create social consensus for change, can build social trust, and can reinvigorate politics. A European Citizens Assembly would be a pioneering transnational experiment which should be led by independent civil society. The European Economic and Social Committee could potentially host this assembly and the Strasburg seat of the European Parliament, unused for 3 weeks a month, could be put at the disposal of a European Citizens Assembly.

  • Empower cities, regions, and localities

The emergence of a civil society engaged with European affairs at a highly local level is one of the main research results of the LSE IDEAS study. The European Union is becomig ever more relevant to local issues as global systemic changes and risks have differentiated impacts in local contexts. The Committee of the Regions could become only an institution responsible for scrutinising the impact of European policies on localities and regions and a space for projects fostering the collaboration of civil society and local government.

  • Inclusive European Citizenship

European Citizenship should provide a consolidated set of political, social and civil rights to everyone in the European Union, regardless of primary nationality. It should be available not only to the citizens of Member States, but migrants, refugees, and third country nationals resident in the EU, such as post-Brexit Brits.

  • Social Europe

Civil society across Europe has been responsive to the multiple crises affecting the continent: the financial/euro crisis, migration emergency, Brexit, and COVID-19. They all have exacerbated existing social fractures and little has been done to address them until the unveiling of the Next Generation EU project. In this vein, civil society calls for the strengthening of Social Europe by introducing minimum wages and guaranteed income, establishing rights to decent housing and utilities, unrolling a labour-focused green transition, and ensuring democratic accountability of global finance, in order to secure civic participation in European affairs.

 

The European Union is a unique form of supra-national governance which urgently needs to take account of the changes in civil society that have developed across borders and that increasingly engages with the European project. The Conference on the Future of Europe offers an opportunity for bringing the European Union closer to the visions of civil society. While these are civic consultations, there needs to be political pressure to translate the outcomes of these consultations into meaningful reform of the European Union. This is what civil society wants of the EU today more than anything.

 

Roch Dunin-Wasowicz

Roch Dunin-Wasowicz

June 2021

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