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WARSAW — In the dead of winter, with the pandemic cresting, temperatures crashing and many people stuck at home, a trip to the Polish capital to discuss Europe on the EU’s dime probably seemed like a fun adult school trip for the civic-minded.
There were classrooms under chandeliers, hotel stays and a posh restaurant boasting of having served German model Claudia Schiffer — not to mention a €70 per diem.
Also featured: intense, multilingual, closed-door debates on issues ranging from biodiversity to public transport.
The multi-day experience was one of four “European citizens’ panels” held over six months as part of the EU’s “Conference on the Future of Europe,” a sprawling forum Brussels has been touting for years as a way to give European citizens a say over the bloc’s future.
Now, the moment has arrived when EU leaders and officials will show whether they can actually follow through on pledges to take the recommendations seriously. On Monday, the conference’s leaders will present their final report to French President Emmanuel Macron and several EU leaders at a closing ceremony in Strasbourg.
It’s unclear what will happen next. There is no binding mechanism requiring politicians to turn any suggestions into law. And while some want the conference to become a permanent EU fixture, others think that would only highlight a disconnect between citizens and the EU.
The European Parliament moved first last week, passing a resolution urging policymakers to prepare EU treaty reforms based on the conference’s work. The move kickstarts a long process that could result in a European Convention to debate treaty change but contains no guarantees.
One certainty: Whatever does happen next will help shape the narrative of the EU, which has spent years fending off allegations that it is composed of out-of-touch bureaucrats with little democratic accountability.
The conference’s conclusion is a moment the roughly 200 EU citizens gathered in Warsaw were eyeing warily during their visit in January when they were still mostly infused with goodwill for the undertaking.
“The panels are well-organized, and it gives me the impression that we are going to be heard,” said Maxime Joly, a 23-year-old French business school student.
But Joly then switched to a more somber tone: “It’s the first time the EU does that and I hope they will follow up.”
Years in the making
The conference is the brainchild of France’s Macron, who started pushing the idea years ago.
The conference formally started its work last May, ultimately bringing together roughly 800 citizens to discuss Europe’s future. The panels focused on the micro — regional languages, inter-EU sports — and the macro, such as European democracy and the EU’s place in the world.
In parallel, policymakers from various countries have met with European Parliament members and EU officials numerous times in Strasbourg, where they discussed how to potentially turn citizen recommendations into legislative proposals. In total, some 449 people participated in these gatherings, which included nine “working groups” and seven plenary sessions.
Outside of the panels, the conference erected a digital multilingual platform for others to chime in — a spokesperson for the European Parliament said over 50,000 people “actively interacted” on the platform.
The final document includes 49 proposals, divided into nine themes, and more than 300 measures on how to achieve these goals.
Some proposals are cosmetic, like changing the name of the European Commission to “the Executive Commission of the European Union,” while others are more concrete, like creating “local EU Councillors,” or erecting “affordable kindergartens both public and in the private sector.” Others would involve a complete rethink of how the EU makes decisions — one suggestion pushes for EU-wide referendums “in exceptional cases on matters particularly important to all European citizens.”
The European Commission has declined to say how much the conference cost, arguing each EU institution paid out of its own budget, leaving the conference without a single budget line.
But the Commission did disclose a figure to European Parliament members earlier this year, telling them that it had spent €20.9 million on the initiative so far, a figure that covered the selection, travel and accommodation costs for the hundreds of citizens involved, as well as “interpretation in 24 languages, the technical set-up of the venues and facilitation.”
Gathering in Poland
In Poland, where the citizens’ panel took place at the College of Europe campus in Natolin, about 30 minutes outside Warsaw, people generally praised the conference for its organization and for making them feel included.
On the first morning of the panel, hordes of women and men of all ages, equipped with masks, computers and headphones, braved Warsaw’s bitter winter to hop on a bus out to Natolin, where they gathered in various classrooms, some of which were gilded and featured chandeliers.
There, they diligently formed into small “subgroups” of seven people and dwelled over the chosen subjects — “better ways of living,” “protecting our biodiversity” — in their own native language and with the help of a moderator. They also exchanged ideas with other subgroups during “open forum” and “feedback time.” Journalists weren’t allowed inside these breakout sessions.
At one point, the participants all flocked to one of the campus halls for a buffet lunch featuring a spread of starters and Polish delicacies like borscht.
Maria del Pilar Montenegro Garcia, a 47-year-old from Spain, stood near the buffet spread, chatting with other Spaniards she had just met. Montenegro Garcia, who is unemployed, recalled getting a call a few months earlier from “a company in Madrid” asking her to participate in a “fully organized” deliberation on Europe.
“I was clearly interested,” said Montenegro Garcia — though she confessed knowing little about the issues at stake.
“I was happy to talk about emotional education because I realized that the worst impact of COVID was on mental health,” Montenegro Garcia said. “We get paid, we sleep in four-star hotels and the organization is amazing.”
Wiktor Gajos, a 21-year-old Polish student in European politics, shared Montenegro Garcia’s enthusiasm for the exercise. “My idea was to make health systems equal in all of Europe at the level of service,” Gajos said.
“I think those panels are quite good,” he added. “It’s well-organized … it makes us feel that we are important and it’s very diverse.”
Later in the evening, the citizens were bused to AleGloria, a historic Warsaw restaurant (the one where Claudia Schiffer apparently ate). On another night, a lavish buffet awaited in an expansive room filled with kitschy replicas of the ancient columns gracing Warsaw’s iconic Palace of Culture and Science — a monumental gift from Joseph Stalin to the Poles.
One eye on the future
Over dinner, some participants mused over whether the exercise would have long-term benefits.
“It’s a good experience because I meet people,” said Arie de Vries, a Dutch participant who manages an insurance company, as he sipped wine with several Romanian participants. “I don’t know if it’s useful. It depends on what they do with it. If it’s not turned into law, then I would want to know why? Was it even discussed? I hope we get feedback.”
The Natolin panel’s final day consisted of a live-streamed “plenary session” held with great fanfare at the Palace of Culture and Science with Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament member who heads the conference’s executive board. The participants all voted on their recommendations.
“There will be a need for a huge pressure,” Verhofstadt told journalists, “to put the recommendations in practice, let’s be honest about it.”
The former Belgian prime minister, a long-time booster of the conference, argued the “uniqueness of this exercise” centered on citizens’ engaged participation over months.
“The way we do it will create such expectations,” he said, “but also pressure so that it will be very difficult for all the institutions to say, ‘We didn’t know it, we were not aware of it.’”
Verhofstadt insisted he believed the exercise would become a “permanent feature” of the EU to help politicians define their priorities.
Three weeks later, however, the mood was dimmer when policymakers and officials gathered in Strasbourg to discuss the Natolin recommendations.
Some MEPs complained that many of the ideas provided in Poland, including a suggestion that the EU offer “subsidies for organic farming” to bring down the cost of organic goods, were already in place.
“I think we have especially in this working group quite a problem of overlapping of actions which are already happening here in the European Parliament,” said Herbert Dorfmann, an Italian MEP from the center-right European People’s Party, during a meeting in Strasbourg of his working group on climate change and the environment.
“A little bit of scientific basis we need in this debate,” Dorfmann added, “because otherwise, it becomes a nice Christmas tree, but we have not really achieved a step forward.”