Citizens and their associations deserve more than a folding seat in building Europe’s future!
The Conference on the Future of Europe has been launched in May last year as an attempt to reconnect politics and policy with citizens. It comes at a critical juncture in Europe, when we are facing, beyond the health crisis, major social and environmental challenges, deeply affecting the sustainability of life on the planet.
Alexandrina Najmowicz, Secretary general of the European Civic Forum, Co-chair of the CSOs Convention for the Conference on the future of Europe (COFOE), Member of COFOE plenary
Picture: olrat/ Shutterstock.com
Europe has been built around an ideal of peace, freedom, well-being and democracy, in the aftermath of the wars that devastated the continent. After the Great Depression, the European democracies of the time derived their legitimacy and stability from the advent of the welfare state, aiming towards equality of living conditions through massive public investments.
Today, the foundation of our common values such as the rule of law, democracy, equality and solidarity is crumbling, as are the hopes for a better life for many people living in Europe. Economic and financial globalisation has had dramatic consequences in terms of inequality, precarity of work, invisibilisation of certain groups of people and their needs. This has fuelled a sense of competition between vulnerable groups for access to rights and services.
At the same time, with the deepening of European integration, democratic control of policies is challenged by the multi-level governing in the EU. The democratic gap has widened despite the checks and balances introduced with the Lisbon Treaty, such as the increased role of European and national parliaments or the promise of civil dialogue as a principle of governance.
Moreover, the deregulation of markets and the imperative of competitiveness combined with structural reforms that shrink social and labour protection, have progressively stripped most of the States of their power to enact social policies and ensure services for common good.
According to Eurostat, in 2019, 21% of the EU population was at risk of poverty or social exclusion, with significant variations by country, such as 32.8% in Bulgaria, or 30.0% in Romania and Greece.
All this has contributed to delegitimise democracy, both in its functioning through the shrinking of popular influence on decisions, and in its results in terms of public policies and models of society.
The pandemic shows us that unequal societies go hand in hand with human suffering, fragile economies and democracies. Decades of insufficient public investment and privatisation of the health sector and social protection infrastructure have weakened Europe's capacity to respond effectively to the health crisis.
More than a public health crisis, this is a systemic crisis. To build a post-crisis future that offers prospects of decent living conditions for all, we must address the limits of an economic system that is at the root cause of environmental destruction and climate change, social insecurity and erosion of trust in democracy. Unifying markets without redistributive policies guaranteeing effective access to rights is a fundamental fault which has given rise to a return to nationalism, xenophobia and politics of exclusion.
The short-term Conference on the Future of Europe will not be able to reverse this trend, but it could allow the institutions to hear the realities experienced by citizens in order to better define the priorities for our common future.
Unfortunately, as the process has started and is unfolding so far, it remains unknown to the general public. We face a major risk in this exercise, a reality that civil society organisations on the ground are confronted with every day: those who struggle to access their rights, or whose rights are denied, are mostly on the periphery of these processes.
To counter this dynamic, 82 European civil society networks have come together in the Convention for the Conference on the Future of Europe and are working towards a shared vision and proposal based on a socially just, feminist, sustainable, democratic and inclusive society. As citizens’ associations, our role is to help aggregate and empower those voices to make them heard in the democratic and political arenas. With the limited role and space that we have in this Conference, we strive our best to do so.
Clear messages from citizens’ panels call for future policies to be people-centred and people-powered! Putting people in the driving seat requires institutions creating the conditions and the infrastructure to exercise their citizenship, not only individually, every once in a while, but also collectively, at all levels of policy making and on a permanent basis.
We deplore that citizens’ associations and trade unions play only a marginal role in this process, through the weak representation in the plenary, without any proper mechanism for civil and social dialogue which should be at the heart of the reflection on the future of our societies and of Europe. This illustrates a growing and worrying trend across Europe.
We don’t need treaty change for civil dialogue to happen, we have a legal base in the EU Treaty, article 11 that poses an obligation for institutions to maintain “an open, transparent and regular dialogue with civil society and representative associations”. We have some good and bad institutional practices. What we need now is a structured framework for civil dialogue – a charter, an inter-institutional agreement to guide the institutions to interact in an efficient manner with civil society all along the policy cycle. We would like this to be part of the final proposals of this Conference.
DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.