The penultimate post, from Demsoc’s series laying out our thoughts on the Conference on the Future of Europe, is about how we think a timeline and structure for the process could work to include citizens from the start, including as many people as possible without rendering the result unusable, and letting citizens shape the agenda throughout the Conference.

Let’s start with an ambitious vision: that Europe builds on the example of the French and Irish processes, running a Conference that had citizen voices at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end. It would start and end with two big Conference plenaries, one in mid-2020 and one in mid-2022. These would involve representatives from the institutions, sitting alongside a majority of citizens, drawn at random from across the EU. This could have the same dynamic as the Irish Citizens’ Convention on the Constitution, in which 33 political representatives attended alongside 66 citizens (with one chairperson making up the hundred).

In this model, to allow for proper time to discuss the wide range of issues proposed, the first Conference plenary would set a number of themes, and the last would reflect across different themes and prioritise between different recommendations, recognizing their trade-offs.

In between, thematic citizen assemblies supported by a wider engagement process along the lines of that used in the Grand Débat could select and refine recommendations for the final Conference plenary to consider. Each thematic discussion would generate a set of clear and achievable recommendations to be actioned.

This thematic approach is a good way of allowing the process to go deeper on issues without giving citizen participants an unrealistic workload. It was the approach proposed for the UK Citizen Convention on the constitution, which had a similar though smaller-scale challenge in representing four unevenly-sized nations in a single multinational and multilingual deliberative process.

A supporting engagement process such as used in the Grand Débat could feed into the citizen assembly discussions and add richness to the final result.

Is this a realistic vision for the Conference on the Future of Europe? It’s certainly practically possible, but on the evidence of the current proposals, it is politically too far removed from existing institutional positions. In particular, unlike the proposals on the table, this idea would give citizens equal footing with MEPs and other institutional actors, which seems to be a step too far for Commission, Parliament and Council.

Running such a process at European scale would also present some practical problems, it is true. If the citizen participants were 50% of the hemicycle, 376 participants, the process would be to our knowledge the largest single-room deliberation process ever undertaken. The information phase, also essential for good deliberation, would be difficult to manage at such scale. But we believe it would be possible.

Starting from where we are, though, what’s a realistic second-best, more in line with the different institutional positions already expressed?

We start from the assumption that the involvement of citizens directly in the Conference plenary sessions will not be acceptable to the institutions – it would be our preference, but we’re realists.

With that constraint, the task is to ensure that the citizen voice shapes discussions, is broad and representative, and can create a clear link between the issues raised by European citizens and the final outcome, while not being responsible for that final outcome.

We assume the key deciding body for the Conference is a Conference plenary that is made up only of institutional and organisational actors, or with only a few citizens. However, we suggest that the discussions in that body are focused around citizen issues and concerns, alongside the issues raised by the institutions. Here’s how:

From the start date, currently agreed to be 9th May 2020, to the day of the first Convention plenary in Autumn, there would be a digital and distributed-offline idea generation phase, similar to the proposed UK Conversation in the UK Citizens’ Convention. This could use citizen dialogue approaches (proposed by the Commission) and would allow the conversation to start from the ground up, with side events that could be organised by individuals, local networks, and civil society. This offline process would be accompanied by a wide ranging online process, proposed by Commission and Parliament – possibly in the form of a dedicated digital tool more flexible than EU Survey. Existing options include Iceland’s Your Priorities, Barcelona’s Decidim, and Madrid’s CONSUL, among many others. This platform would allow all interested citizens to contribute, and from this the themes of the discussion could be drawn. 

The first Convention plenary could then cover some specific questions, around for example the Spitzenkandidat process and transnational lists, as the Commission has asked. Also as part of that first plenary, the results of the conversation can be refined into a set of recommendations and a list of themes to be taken forward. 2018’s European Citizen Panel provides a small-scale example of what could be done to select topics.

After the first conference plenary, for a year, online discussions would continue, but grouped around the themes selected. These themes would also structure the citizen Agoras that the Parliament has proposed. Rather than just one or two 300-person meetings per theme, we believe more and smaller meetings could still be representative, without creating unwieldy processes – or large travel budgets. They would also be able to dive deeper into issues over several weekends: one or two weekends are unlikely to be enough for issues at this scale.

At local level, transnational and national citizens dialogues could continue. They should be seen as a complement to the Agoras, however, rather than as a replacement. If they were the only approach (as the Commission suggest) they would be hard to join up into a clear process that produces recommendations. At the same time the preferred 300-person approach in the Parliamentary resolution is too large and lacks a clear path from participants to decisions. In our vision, each of six or seven different themes has six to eight Agora meetings, taking place every four to six weeks, and with the start dates of each process staggered across the year to ensure that they can be covered by a reasonably-sized design and delivery team.

The detailed and thoughtful recommendations from these Agoras would shape and feed into a final Agora, being held in late 2021 or early 2022. Here, the results from the thematic Agoras, and the second wave of the dialogues and open conversations would be processed and fed into a meeting of citizens, perhaps with institutional representatives, formal civil society bodies and MEPs. This body could then prioritise and comment on the different recommendations from each of the thematic Agoras and add additional issues (though it would be restricted to deprioritising, not deleting, recommendations that had come from thematic agoras).

These recommendations and priorities would structure the discussions in the final Conference plenary, in which some citizens could be involved as advocates for the recommendations they had put forward during the process.

We see this as being the best route for involving citizens, if the politics rules out a final citizen voice.It allows for the voice of citizens to be heard at every point in the process, even if they are not the final deciders, and their contributions clearly shape each aspect of the process. The process has enough variety and reach, and a multi-layered approach that will be the best way to engage as many citizens as possible, and hear as many different experiences and opinions. It also has the clearest path to creating recommendations that can be taken forward and used in a meaningful way.

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