How does the European Union plan to relaunch the “European Project” while facing rising populism?
As the UK exits and the 2019 European Parliament elections near, some 24 EU countries have accepted the idea of launching a public consultation to get Europeans’ views on the matter.
The consultation is as risky as it is unpredictable.
Listening to citizens: a novelty?
This is not the first time Europe has "interviewed" citizens. On a regular basis, the European Commission opens public consultations to get stakeholders’ views.
The results of these consultations remain highly confidential.
At the European level, there is also another tool, the European Citizens' Initiative, which is designed to bring up the requests of Europeans to modify or introduce new legislation.
Civil society representatives involved with the European Citizens’ Initiative told Euronews the regulation has failed since 2014 because of restrictions on such requests.
Member states also regularly launch debates on the EU without much success, such as Ireland, which has found little success in getting its citizens to participate in the EU debate beyond Brexit.
The new consultation backed by French President Emmanuel Macron remains risky, as resentment towards the EU has never been stronger.
The choice of words
While Macron had called for "democratic conventions," it was the idea of a "citizen consultation" that was finally adopted.
While a convention is generally supposed to lead to a legal amendment, the consequences of a consultation are uncertain.
"The word convention has not been accepted because it was an inconvenience for some countries that did not want to talk about the re-founding of Europe," said Valérie Gomez-Bessac, a French Member of Parliament who initiated a preparatory report on the consultation.
How many countries?
Apart from the United Kingdom, most EU countries will engage in the consultation "in one way or another," said Gomez-Bessac to Euronews.
Poland and Hungary, whose governments are Eurosceptic, are not expected to take part in the consultation, but Gomez-Bessac said civil society in both countries would be welcome to participate.
The Netherlands has not yet responded, indicating a reluctance to take part.
How will this happen?
Neither a framework nor timetable for the consultation has been publicly set, let alone how it will be funded.
However, time is limited, as in order to avoid overlapping with the European elections, all preparations will have to be completed by mid-November this year at the latest.
At this stage, there are two opposing sides on when the consultation should be launched. The French government hopes that it will happen in April, while others are pushing for it to begin on “Europe Day” on May 9.
Other issues to be decided include whether the debate should first be launched at major public meetings attended by heads of state and government, and what role will civil society representatives should play.
Who will prepare the questionnaire?
There is a lot of uncertainty about who will prepare the questions for the consultation, with speculation that part of the questionnaire could be set by national and European steering committees.
The type of questions that will be asked is also yet to be seen.
Are any questions excluded?
A source, an interlocutor with direct knowledge of the planned consultation who asked to remain anonymous, told Euronews the aim was not to make a poll for or against membership of the EU or the Euro.
The idea, instead, is to reinvigorate the “European Project” and find common answers to common problems, such as mass unemployment or migration, according to Aurélien Condamines, the French representative of pro-European association Pulse of Europe.
However, critics say this principle of “reasoned criticism” will enrage Eurosceptics, who will mobilise against the consultation.
To avoid online trolling during the consultation, officials are already reviewing safeguards with the hope of developing algorithms capable of re-balancing points of view, such as sidelining trolls online.
What will happen to the contributions of Internet users?
Nine people closely involved in the consultation told Euronews that dealing with the contributions of internet users would be the hardest part of the exercise.
“The main danger is that we will not be able to control the issues that some governments will want to impose in their national questionnaires," said Condamines of Pulse Of Europe.
What happens after the consultation?
Michael Malherbe, a specialist in European political communication, said the challenge is to “exploit the results of these consultations”.
To make these results credible and to make politicians act, he said, voters in the European elections would need to submit the adopted proposals to each of the candidates for the presidency of the European Commission.
If voters don’t submit proposals to candidates in June 2019, the consultation would be fruitless.