The Conference on the Future of Europe needs to engage to the full the diversity and dynamism of European civil society.
‘Europe has no demos’. Criticisms of the project of European integration have long been premised on this canard. If the demos refers to the existence of common bonds that create a sense of shared identity and purpose, its absence at the level of the European Union was held to represent a fundamental problem for a project based on the ‘pooling’ of sovereignty.
Without such a European populace, it was argued, there could never be a European ‘state’, even ‘quasi-state’, at all. This critique was not without merit, but it begged a question: did the sought-for European demos have to look like what we have become accustomed to in our national democracies?
For example, should we expect the European demos to be centred on a capital city? If so, then actually an embryonic European public sphere has arguably long existed in Brussels, in what is caustically called the ‘Brussels bubble’, with institutionalised civil-society organisations representing national chapters and networks and seeking change in the European institutions and influence among political elites and media. Over decades the European institutions themselves have promoted this public sphere, by funding civil-society partners and entering dialogue with them.
The past decade of multiple crises, starting from the 2008 financial crash, has however shown the limits and disconnectedness of this Brussels-centric vision. At the same time a very different geography of civil society has emerged, perhaps revealing a richer and more dynamic European public sphere.
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‘Europeanisation’ of civil society
In a report for LSE IDEAS, The Rise of Insurgent Europeanism, we present the findings of a mapping project we conducted between 2018 and 2020. It explores the priorities and initiatives of civil-society movements and how they are interacting with politics. Our findings reveal a ‘Europeanisation’ of civil society. This is giving rise to a European demos, which is rooted in local grassroots movements but sees change at an EU scale as a priority.
As with the conventional, Brussels-based public sphere, the incentives and impetus for this Europeanisation reflect the institutional and political dynamics of integration. Changes at the supranational level are now seen as essential to the success of reform initiatives at the national and local and regional levels.
Crises have played an important role in bringing this shift about. The need for reform of the eurozone, for a humanitarian solution to the ‘refugee crisis’ and collaboration on climate change have all spurred movements to seek reform at the European level as an integral part of policy action in a multi-level governance.
Analysing the organisations and movements in our mapping study, we distinguished three different ways of thinking about the EU: ‘traditional’, ‘instrumental’ and ‘insurgent’ Europeanists. Traditional Europeanists tend to be closely related to the Brussels-centred public sphere. They see their role as communicating the benefits of European integration to the public while seeking proactive democratic and constitutional reforms to advance the project.
The two latter groups are more novel and reflect the changes of the past decade. Instrumental Europeanists see changes at EU level as necessary to achieve their goals at the national level. They do not see an EU exit—especially in light of the ‘Brexit’ experience—as desirable or necessary to these goals. But neither are they evangelists for the current model of integration. Theirs is a pragmatic Europeanism. Refugee-rescue operations or environmental movements, which are networking at the European level, are an example of this trend.
Insurgent Europeanism, by contrast, seeks to create pressure and momentum for the re-forging and transformation of the European project itself. It comprises civil-society actors and ‘pop-up’ social-movement parties which have emerged from this public sphere. The mentality is typified by the creation and recent electoral success of the pan-European party, Volt. In practice, groups and individuals may often combine elements of these different mindsets—seeing their efforts as insurgent yet also pragmatic, for example.
Civil society should, in principle, be enjoying a rare moment at the centre-stage of European politics. The Conference on the Future of Europe initiated by the European institutions has been heralded as an ‘an unprecedented, open and inclusive exercise in deliberative democracy’.
The last time the EU engaged in such an initiative was at the turn of the millennium. The then Convention on the Future of Europe influenced the aborted European constitution and its successor, the Lisbon treaty.
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This history casts a long shadow over the conference just beginning. It sets high expectations for substantive outcomes, which a number of member states are reluctant to see, and brings back painful memories of the French and Dutch referenda in 2005, in which the proposed new constitution was narrowly rejected. ‘Don’t mention the T word’—forget treaty change—has become a maxim of many in Brussels.
As a result, the conference could become a tokenistic exercise—a talking-shop at best. Moreover, it could easily become a narrow, Brussels-based conversation which does not reflect Europe’s new civic energies.
Our findings provide a basis on which to evaluate the conference: has it successfully drawn Europe’s new civil-society movements into dialogue with the EU institutions? Does the conference interact with the most urgent debates across the continent? Does it engage a wide and diverse range of people affected by these social, political and environmental issues—or only those already close to the Brussels bubble?
Early signs from the platform of the conference and the criteria for randomly selecting participants for the ‘citizens’ panels’, feeding ideas to the plenary, are not encouraging. The criteria under discussion are age, country, gender, education and socioeconomic status. While this may bring some diversity to the discussions, it will not ensure the participation of members of racialised groups or LGBT+ communities or people with disabilities or ensure a diversity of attitudes to the EU—especially given those with critical attitudes are most likely to decline invitations.
Beyond the citizens’ panels, which are no panacea no matter how they are designed, the plans for meaningful involvement of civil society in the conference are weak. Indicative is that the executive board which takes the political decisions concerning the conference includes representatives of BusinessEurope and the European Trade Union Congress, but no civil-society representative—despite repeated calls for this from civil society and the European Parliament.
After a year of negotiations over the personalities to run the conference and great nervousness about allowing citizens any effective involvement in the conversation, there is a strong sense that inertia and institutional blockages risk combining into failure and a missed opportunity. Meanwhile, the real conversation and debate would be going on elsewhere.
If this is the case, any initiative for renewing the EU will likely come from the margins. It might include civil society mobilising on the edges of the conference, academics reflecting on its proceedings and journalists pointing to its shortcomings. The most dynamic parts of European civil society are likely to exercise realism and not focus their efforts exclusively on the conference—but, rather, seek to engage strategically with those ‘inside’ who may be most open to transforming European democracy, while constantly seeking to open up the conversation to a diversity of citizens and residents.
Luke Cooper is a consultant researcher in the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit at the London School of Economics. Roch Dunin-Wąsowicz lectures in sociology at University College London's Social Research Institute and researches European civil society at the foreign-policy think tank LSE IDEAS. Niccolò Milanese is director of European Alternatives.