Conference on the Future of Europe: Voice of the people?

13 May 2022

Over the course of recent years, climate actions have become increasingly important to Europeans when consulted on what they believe to be the political priorities of our time, whether it is via the Eurobarometer, or as part of the recently concluded Conference on the Future of Europe – the year long listening exercise of the European Union.

The Conference was designed to be a space for a free exchange of opinions that empowers the voice of citizens, by putting them at the core of the process. To enable this, a multilingual digital platform, based on the Decidim platform trialled by cities such as Barcelona and Helsinki, became the online space for citizens to share ideas.

In parallel, a series of so-called Citizens’ Panels offered randomly selected EU citizens, reflecting EU diversity, the chance to come together throughout the course of the Conference to develop recommendations on specific topics.

These were then discussed in the Conference plenaries and working groups – composed of citizens, MEPs, representatives of local and regional authorities, and other relevant stakeholders – who returned 49 proposals on nine themes, including more than 300 measures on how to achieve them, collected in a final report that was presented earlier this week.

According to French President Emmanuel Macron, the conference has been “a unique exercise and unprecedented in its scope, a breath of fresh air for our continent.” Macron, who has been one of the driving forces behind the conference, also mentioned that it had been a successful example of cooperation between various EU Presidencies, and it would now be the task of the upcoming Czech and Swedish Presidencies to determine how to follow up on the conclusions.

Cities role in the Conference

Cities across Europe have been engaging with the Conference, by organising many events and exchanges with citizens on the Future of Europe.

Munich and Bordeaux took this engagement to the next level, and despite the challenges of Covid-19, organised a digital citizens’ dialogue, which returned recommendations to establish more e-governance in the local administration services, better connect students and senior citizens to digital options, and make using alternative modes of transport more appealing to all citizens.

For the Deputy Mayor of Munich, Katrin Habenschaden, this exercise is essential because “cities will only remain a successful model for the future, if we can find a sustainable way to listen to our citizens.”

Arnaud Ngatcha, Deputy Mayor of Paris, who represented Eurocities in both the Conference Plenary and in the Working Group ‘European Democracy’ highlighted the role cities can play in promoting participatory democracy locally as part of a European approach to participation. Some of the recommendations from this group included creating a system of local EU Councillors, as a way to reduce the distance between the EU institutions and European citizens; and providing enhanced structural support, financial and otherwise, for civil society, especially for youth, and supporting local authorities to set up local youth councils.

Following his participation to the final event in Strasbourg he said, “the work carried out during this conference shows that European citizens want a more autonomous, united and ecological Europe. An ambitious Europe that listens to them.” (Il ressort des travaux menés au cours de cette conference que les citoyens européens veulent une Europe plus autonome, solidaire et ecologique. Une Europe ambitieuse, qui les écoute).

Meanwhile, the Citizens Panel on “Climate change, environment / Health” returned many ideas. Of particular note for urban planners and leaders, however, were proposals for:
(i) sustainable and safe road transport;
(ii) placing nature at the heart of urban development; and
(iii) expanding, restoring and protecting natural ecosystems in cities.

What’s next?

The European Parliament, Commission and Council will now decide how to follow up on the recommendations, according to their competences and in accordance with the EU treaties.

What it is clear, is that many proposals address specifically urban areas and greening cities, which will largely depend on cities ability to promote and implement them.

At the same time, cities will continue to play the role of ambassadors to and for citizens in Europe, playing a crucial role in shaping the future of Europe.

According to Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence and President of Eurocities, who met recently with European Commission Vice President Dubravka Šuica, the Commissioner responsible for the Conference, we must listen to “the concerns of our citizens and to treasure their proposals. We cannot waste an opportunity like this: it would be frustrating and counterproductive.”

Read Eurocities brief on cities paving the way to participatory democracy.