The European Union has launched a multilingual platform to help citizens participate directly in the Conference on the Future of Europe, a year-long series of debates and discussions that aims to reshape the bloc.
"We are inviting Europeans to speak up, to address their concerns and tell us what Europe they want to live in," said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in a statement.
The digital platform will allow participants to exchange ideas and engage in discussions with their fellow EU citizens. The conversations will be centred on 10 key topics, such as climate change, health and digital transformation, although users will be able to put forward any subject they consider relevant.
The platform will be available in the 24 official languages of the European Union. Messages will be automatically translated to enable smoother communication.
The Conference on the Future of Europe is a joint effort by the main EU institutions: the European, Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council. While the conference will be officially inaugurated on Europe Day (May 9), the platform serves as the actual starting point and will act as the central hub where all contributions and documents will be gathered.
The institutions are eager to burst the so-called 'EU bubble' of Brussels and disseminate the conference across the continent, encouraging citizens, particularly young people, to drive this pan-European democratic exercise and make their voices heard. National parliaments, regional authorities, civic society, social organisations and academia are also being asked to participate.
The conference will be developed based on three Ps: platform, panels and plenaries. The interactive platform will stimulate discussion. Regular panels will be regularly organised between citizens, experts, elected representatives and other stakeholders to analyse and reflect on the ideas and recommendations. The main proposals will be then brought to the conference's high body, the plenary, for final consideration.
For the time being, all events related to the conference will take place in a hybrid format due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The citizens' platform was presented on Monday afternoon by Dubravka Šuica, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Democracy and Demography; Guy Verhofstadt, a prominent liberal MEP, and Ana Paula Zacarias, Portugal's Secretary of State for EU Affairs. Portugal currently chairs the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.
Calling the moment "rather historic", Vice-President Šuica explained that the platform will bring citizens "into the heart of the EU's policy-making" and that "all topics and ideas" will be welcomed.
"The future is yours and the future is in your hands," she said, adding the platform represents a "truly bottom-up" approach where citizens can take the lead and set up their own events, both physical and digital.
Verhofstadt said the platform was an "unprecedented" tool in the EU's history and the outcome from the debates will help to develop a new vision for the bloc. "The conclusions will be more than a document," he promised.
The Belgian MEP pointed out the symbolic significance of the launch: a day after the 70th anniversary of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the supranational organisation created after World War II that is now considered the embryo of the European Union.
"The EU needs the power of its citizens to make it stronger," said Zacarias. "We have to prepare now, we have to be ready to build the future Union."
Zacarias hopes that the discussions on the platform will be "policy-oriented" and help design the direction that the bloc will take in the next years to tackle future challenges.
Platform users will have to abide by a charter (code of behaviour) to ensure a respectful and inclusive exchange of ideas. Discussions will be monitored by a team of moderators.
The last time the EU tried a similar exercise was in the early 2000s when former French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing chaired the European Convention, an initiative by the European Council that resulted in a draft treaty of a Constitution for Europe.
The constitutional project was derailed after France and the Netherlands voted down the text, although many of its provisions were later incorporated in the Treaty of Lisbon, which is currently the main legal basis of the European Union.
The 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent rise in populist and Eurosceptic parties across the continent led to a crisis of democratic legitimacy, with a growing number of citizens expressing a critical view against the bloc's technocratic leadership and its intricate decision-making process.
In a bid to bridge the gap between the government and the governed, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested the idea of "a founding convention for Europe" after the 2019 European elections.
The proposal was picked by von der Leyen when she was a candidate to lead the European Commission. "I want citizens to have their say at a Conference on the Future of Europe, to start in 2020 and run for two years," she wrote in her political guidelines.
But the sudden outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic put the plans on hold.
When the initiative was later resumed, an inter-institutional battle ensued: the European Parliament forcefully pushed for Verhofstadt, an avowed federalist, to chair the Conference, but several national governments adamantly opposed his ambition. A compromise between the three institutions led to a three-headed presidency.
It wasn't until March 2021 when a joint declaration was signed by European Parliament President David Sassoli, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa (on behalf of the Council) and von der Leyen, and the whole project was set in motion.
An executive board, also made up from the representatives of the three institutions (as of today: Šuica, Verhofstadt and Zacarias), will be in charge of the conference's daily work and the preparation of meetings. National parliaments have been given observer status.
The conference is set to conclude in spring 2022, right in the middle of the French presidency of the Council of the EU. The closure will also coincide with the French presidential elections.
Initially, the conference's main goal was supposed to be a reform of the Lisbon Treaty, but such an objective has been removed from the official communication after several member states voiced their reservations. However, according to the executive board, the March declaration neither imposes nor prevents treaty change.
"We don't want to pre-empt any result," said Šuica, who emphasised the Conference will follow the demands from citizens. "Democracy is not static."