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  • Guy Verhofstadt and Pascal Durand

Reforming Europe means getting out of the Brussels bubble

Responding to the democratic crisis is just as important as tackling the climate emergency. This is why we fought for the Conference on the Future of Europe, despite the reluctance of those who fear consulting citizens on the European issue, write Guy Verhofstadt and Pascal Durand.

Guy Verhofstadt and Pascal Durand are members of the European Parliament for the Renew Europe group.

Here we go! Our political group Renew Europe in the European Parliament has just launched over 60 Discussion Tables as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe. The first phase took place just before the winter holidays, the second phase is scheduled for mid-February.

In all the member states where Renew Europe is present, we are meeting with citizens to listen to their wishes, their proposals and their vision for the Europe of tomorrow.

This will be a demanding exercise and the first of its kind for a political group. Since the 2019 European elections, our ambition has been to reform the EU, to make it more democratic and more accessible to all its citizens.

We know that responding to the democratic crisis is just as important as tackling the climate emergency: this is why we fought for, and succeeded in launching, the Conference on the Future of Europe, despite the reluctance of those who fear consulting citizens on the European issue.

For months, debates, discussions and exchanges have been organised across Europe, and thousands of citizens have contributed and made their voices heard.

We intend to contribute fully to this historic European journey. Alongside the institutions, associations, elected representatives and civil society, political parties have their place in this process. They are essential actors in political life and have a key role to play in influencing the future of our Europe.

Many of our fellow citizens feel that their voices are not heard, that they are excluded from more active participation in the European democratic process, or that they only get their say in the European elections. They recognise that complex issues such as the future of the Union cannot be limited to a binary yes-or-no vote.

This is why we are holding our Discussion Tables with hundreds of European citizens, to give them the opportunity to discuss all topics in an open and tolerant environment. Their contributions and ideas must be given the chance to shape our parliamentary work.

For us, this dialogue process is an experiment; it is only the first step in a long-term process. Our ambition is to open the doors and windows, to give a voice to those who make up what is sometimes called the “silent majority”.

Why not picture a future in which consultations like these could take place regularly on specific subjects, outside any electoral calendar?

Critics argue that this form of citizen participation in political debate could weaken representative democracy.

On the contrary, we, as European elected representatives, are convinced that deliberative democracy must reinforce representative democracy, which is why we are conducting this experiment aimed at exploring this political space where representation and participation are mixed in an engaging way to put citizens back at the heart of the democratic exercise.

The OECD has identified several hundred experiments with deliberative processes in nearly thirty EU member states and third countries. Its conclusions are very encouraging and should inspire us.

It has indeed been shown that a deliberative process gives legislators more legitimacy when they have to make a difficult decision. It is also a tool to make governance more inclusive and to counteract the polarisation of the political debate: a growing phenomenon that we are unfortunately witnessing in many of our parliamentary democracies.

We have confidence in the political intelligence of our citizens and we will not hesitate to work to formalize their ideas in our legislative activities.

This discussion process comes at a particularly important time in European politics.

In Germany, the new coalition government, of which our ally the FDP is a partner, has shown its willingness to become fully involved in the Conference on the Future of Europe through highly ambitious objectives: in particular, entertaining the prospect of a revision of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

Meanwhile, France has taken over the six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union. It is up to us to seize these opportunities to make our ambition to change Europe together with our citizens loud and clear.

Already, we can be pleased that strong ideas have emerged and are being put forward for debate.

Setting up transnational lists for the European elections; putting an end to the unanimity rule at the Council, giving the European Parliament a real power of initiative in order to strengthen its competences and legitimacy; and creating a minimum level of social security within the European Union, to name just a few.

These and many other issues are on the table. All over Europe, citizens are telling us that they want to speak out and participate in the construction of their future as Europeans. At Renew Europe, we are ready for this. The journey has only just begun!

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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