Alessandra Silveira, Joana Covelo de Abreu, Pedro Madeira Froufe (Editors) and Tiago Sérgio Cabral (Managing Editor)
Conference on the future of Europe and the defence of European values
On March 10th, 2021, following a long negotiation, the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission signed the “Joint Declaration” on the “Conference on the Future of Europe”, holding its joint presidency. The Conference will be officially launched on May 9th, 2021 in an inaugural session in Strasburg and it will be extended until the Spring of 2022. It aims at creating a new public forum for an open, inclusive, transparent and structured debate with Europeans around the issues that matter to them and affect their everyday lives. A new Special Eurobarometer, published one day before the signing of the Joint Declaration, focuses on the Conference and measures attitudes towards it and some of the key themes to be covered.
Three-quarters of Europeans consider that the Conference will have a positive impact on democracy within the EU: 76% agree that it represents significant progress for democracy within the EU, with a clear majority supporting this view in every EU Member State. The very vast majority of Europeans (92%) across all Member States demand that citizens’ voices are “taken more into account in decisions relating to the future of Europe”. While voting in EU elections is clearly regarded (by 55% of respondents) as the most effective way of ensuring voices are heard by decision-makers at EU level, there is very strong support for EU citizens having a greater say in decisions relating to the future of Europe. 45% of Europeans declare themselves “rather in favour of the EU but not in the way it has been realised so far”. Six in ten Europeans agree that the Coronavirus crisis had made them reflect on the future of the EU while 39% disagree with this.
In order to promote the Conference’s work programme, it was launched, on April 19th, 2021, a multilingual interactive digital platform – designed in the 24 official languages of the EU and with assured translation – that will be the central point of this democratic exercise. The main idea is to allow citizens to say what they expect from the EU, that present concrete propositions and that help to define which direction must be taken. The platform allows three main interaction’s types: i) citizens can express their point of view and the changes they perceive as needed, as well as approving and commenting on others’ opinions; ii) they can also locate events in which they can take part in presence or online, which are publicized in the mentioned platform; and iii) they can promote their own events, contributing for the Conference’s results, as the events’ promoters are bound to share the results of the debates they organize. There are some topics designed as priorities – which aim at tackling themes as climate changes and environment; health; economics; social justice and employment; EU in the world; values and rights; rule of law; security; digital transition; European democracy; migrations; education/culture/youth/sports –, but nothing can prevent citizens from exploiting different themes in the item “other ideas”. The joint presidency of the Conference assures that everything will be taken into account in the strategic planning for the EU – to achieve this objective, digital tools will be used to analyse how often certain questions are addressed, their popularity and importance.
Maybe the pandemic situation has brought the decisive timing to tackle the theme of European integration from the individuals’ standpoint, in the light of their daily lives’ experiences, from the horizontal integration perspective – even if in a digital environment because of the sanitary crisis – and not as much (or not only) from a vertical integration’s perspective. When we talk about republican citizenship or about European democracy there are immediately some proposals of institutional reforms in the EU, always determined by a vertical integration’s angle. However, maybe this is the time to tackle the problem from a horizontal integration’s standpoint – or from a shared horizon of living, in which can be created, communicatively, a collective will. As explained by Ulrich Beck, only when individuals understand the EU as a project of their own, only when they are in conditions to assume the perspective of other Member-States’ citizens, will be the time to talk, properly, in a European democracy.
Jürgen Habermas, on the matter, states that there would not be any reason to suppose that the formation of a political feeling “of belonging” has to be circumscribed to the limits of a national state. Before the critical objection that would not be there a “European people”, Habermas underlines that the own idea of the spirit of the people was an important constructive element of history that, before the elaboration of proud national narratives, was at the service of the edification of a new collective identity during the XIX century. However, the genuine natural character nowadays attributed to the national conscience – designed by historians and spread by modern media channels – makes us ignore how artificial is the creation of such a state of conscience.
In this sense, in order to form a European identity of this nature, as fragile as originally it might seem, it would be relevant to foster the appearance of a European public political space – i.e., a communication context that transcends national borders. All this depends on the discursive exchange of reasonings and opinions that goes beyond national limits. And, for that matter, linguistic diversity is not an impediment as long as new technologies and new actors enter into the scene – interest groups, non-governmental organizations and political parties that are organized on the European level, accompanied by intellectuals and opinion makers also acknowledged in the EU.
Therefore, the Conference can convert itself in a reflexion and dialogue forum around multiple questions associated to the development of a European political community. It is important to understand how European and national authorities can develop an emotional communication with the European citizens – which communicates with people’s worries, that can create empathy and that deepens the European identity – as long as it also unravels in which measure civil society can pursue that goal. That is to say, to openly discuss: What is lacking on official and social communication about European questions? How to create an emotional communication between European authorities and the citizens? How civil society can decisively contribute to the reciprocal opening of national public opinions? How can media intermediate political positions/controversies that the European themes provoke in other Member-States? How to optimize digital technologies’ potential in a way to secure democratic legitimacy based on the value of the rule of law? (and the digital platform adopted under the Conference can be a good start in this path).
The pandemic moment we still live in is particularly propitious to the conscience all Europeans share the same political destiny – and, in this sense, the great question of the Conference could be: How to guarantee that a larger number of individuals can have the opportunity of learning to see himself through the eyes of others (i.e., from the eyes of other Member-States’ citizens)? This question could be decomposed in several others: How to open privileged channels of communication among individuals? And which channels must be opened? And who would be the translators, i.e., the intermediation responsible bodies, the agents that communicate interests and realities of all the interested parties? (in a broader sense of the term, relating concerning “driving towards us”, revelling mentalities and different world views, as we are only interested by what we know).
It is time to scrutinize the European political community, revealing the nowadays’ Europe of European citizens, and doing it departing from the civil society, of what it can do in this sense, besides the public power. It is important to equate in what extent the trust in the European solutions on solving the sanitary crisis can create a political space that reconciliates the Europeans, promoting commitments between different visions to Europe. It is important to find solutions of vertical integration and (most of all) of horizontal integration that allow choosing between different political alternatives to the Union, in detriment of the “lazy” choice of being for or against remaining in the EU.
It is not an easy enterprise – but it is not impossible as well. It all becomes complicated because European citizens of the north and of the south, the east and the west, of more or less robust economies etc. aim different things and, sometimes, contradictory between them. However, looking to the things more closely, the divergences between European citizens also are reproduced inside some Member States – and it has been possible to manage and to accommodate them democratically.
It is here that citizens’ solidarity between citizens appears, so they become liable among them. The idea of costs’ equivalent sharing can be disseminated through learning processes, can be stimulated by the perception of political and economic needs. And this is the way loyalties are built and traditions are changed. As many citizens are able to understand the influence of EU decisions in the lives – and how much more it is revealed by media channels –, wider will be their interest for the exercise of their democratic rights as European citizens.
The solution is widely studied and demands a different approach not only from i) national governments (that tend to “nationalize” the successes and to “europeanize” the failures to gain elections), but also from ii) national media (that can decisively contribute to the reciprocal opening of public opinions in the Member States) and from iii) national political parties (that widespread separation trends between national and European policy and are now dealing with populism rising). In a particularly difficult moment of the European integration, permanently provoked by populism and its manifestations of “collective bestiality”, this is perhaps the major challenge the EU is dealing today (and, in a wider perspective, the occidental legal and political culture): the defence of its most acknowledgeable and precious patrimony – rule of law, democracy and human rights
 See https://www.europarl.europa.eu/at-your-service/en/be-heard/eurobarometer/future-of-europe [access: 5.5.2021].
 See Ulrich Beck, A Europa alemã – de Maquiavel a «Merkievel»: estratégias de poder na crise do euro, Edições 70, Lisbon, 2013.
 See Jürgen Habermas, Ay, Europa!, Editorial Trotta, Madrid, 2009, p. 89.
 See Jürgen Habermas, Ay, Europa!, cit., pp. 89-91.
 See Eduardo Prado Coelho, Unidos na diversidade?, Paula Moura Pinheiro (ed.), Portugal no futuro da Europa, Gabinete em Portugal do Parlamento Europeu/Representação da Comissão Europeia em Portugal, Lisbon, 2006, p. 75.
 See Ulrich Beck, A Europa alemã – de Maquiavel a «Merkievel»: estratégias de poder na crise do euro, cit., p. 101.
 See Stefan Zweig, O mundo de ontem: recordações de um europeu, Assírio & Alvim, Porto, 2014, p. 22.
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