With agreement lacking on the future of Europe—even about the conference on that theme—it’s time to look to a European Citizens’ Assembly.
The Covid-19 pandemic shaking the world, with Europe as its centre, interrupted our daily life in a way not seen in recent decades. After years of unrestrained neoliberalism, in the face of this pandemic, we realised that our security, wellbeing and prosperity depend more on strong and well-funded public services than multinational corporations. We also realised, however, that our European democracy failed to organise solidarity and once again gave space structurally for nation-first politics.
As in any moment of crisis, though, the pandemic has at least created an opportunity for change—indeed, the way Europe responds to it will define our future. This opportunity is also out there for Europe’s citizens to take, and take advantage of, if we truly want a democracy taking care of all and not only a few.
On May 9th, this opportunity was seized by hundreds of citizens across the continent. On Europe Day this year, a real first step was taken towards the opening of a transnational public space, with the launch of a civil-society initiative to take the lead so citizens can have a say about their future. This initiative is the Citizens Take Over Europe alliance.
Another top-down meeting?
It stemmed from a feeling of frustration. The official Conference on the Future of Europe, supposed to be launched in Dubrovnik, also on May 9th, was postponed to a date still unknown. There was no institutional agreement among the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council about the scope, methodology and objectives of the conference. In fact, it seemed that it was going to be, once again, another top-down meeting without any intention genuinely to involve citizens and civil society.
Many citizens and organisations in Europe had proliferated petitions, open letters and projects, throughout the financial, migration and health crises. But the ambition this time was bigger. The desire on May 9th was to demonstrate that European citizens are ready to take the lead. And not only that: it is crucial to organise now, across borders, to push for the Europe we want.
This alliance has brought together European civil-society organisations in an unprecedented way, to challenge European institutions with its own plan for renewing democracy. The alliance demands its own transnational assembly, able to summon the vision and ambition European leaders are dramatically failing to show.
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The millions of European citizens and residents affected by the pandemic see the direct impact of the lack of solidarity among European Union member states. Organised civil society has the responsibility to open up political space to address the direct concerns of people in Europe. And now is the right time to demand the appropriate channel to the institutions, to ensure people are always at the centre of decision-making processes.
European Citizens’ Assembly
The concrete proposal is to organise a Citizens’ Conference on the Future of Europe, in the form of a European Citizens’ Assembly, as a civic instrument to organise and deliberate together about the democratic and socio-ecological transition we need to improve our lives. Such a process would amplify the often unheard voices—of care workers who have been working day and night to save us or young people demonstrating for climate justice—which institutions and governments cannot any longer ignore. These citizens can introduce a fundamental and bottom-up energy to reimagine our relationships to Europe, at a moment when top-down governance is threatening the idea of European solidarity and risks dividing our societies even further.
In the crises of past decades, European politics has failed to organise solidarity with the most marginalised. This crisis instead offers the opportunity to ensure that citizens and civil-society participation are at the heart of all new initiatives on the future of Europe.
Too often, civil-society actors hear the argument that this failure is due to the lack of competency of the European institutions in areas such as migration, social care or health. But alternative substantive solutions exist and could be promoted, instead of buck-passing between national governments—vis-à-vis migration, for instance, supporting municipalities which welcome refugees with EU funding.
Procedurally, the experience of citizens’ assemblies, from the Irish Citizens’ Assembly to the Convention Citoyenne sur le Climat in France—both officially convened to tackle challenging issues—has proved that alternatives are being implemented and in the Irish case have already initiated real change. As citizens, we can emerge at the end of this crisis with the capacity to propose a different model for our societies. We have demonstrated that it is possible to drastically transform our system—so why not implement this shift of model beyond the present emergency?
The important first step is to continue laying the ground and getting ready for a Citizens’ Assembly. The next appointment will be on July 1st, where the aim is to open up again the space for discussion and deliberation with citizens from across the continent. This day will offer a place of reflection on how to continue expanding the process in the next years and how to articulate the key citizens’ demands which need to be taken into account and lead to real EU treaty change—the only path towards a European democracy better suited to meet the needs of its citizens. Leaving the initiative to the institutions to work on their own is no longer an option.
Marta Cillero Manzano is responsible for communications at European Alternatives, one of the organisations behind the Citizens Take Over Europe alliance. She is also a member of the executive team at Chayn Italia.