The Conference on the Future of Europe is an opportunity to listen to citizens

Listen To Europe Analysis

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) has been put forward as an opportunity to address some of the main challenges of our time and to take stock of the state of the European Union. So far, though, the three main institutions are consuming themselves with efforts to reach an agreement on the leadership and structure of the two-year conference.

What we actually need is an open, democratic exercise which aims to provide citizens with a venue to make their priorities known and to strengthen parliamentarianism and representative democracy in Europe.

Leaving institutional positioning aside, it is time to put the spotlight on European citizens, not least when over 200 million European citizens cast their votes in the 2019 European elections, representing the most significant expression of democratic participation and proof of a strong interest in the bloc. These voters expect to be heard by the institutions that represent them.

To gage European citizens’ opinions, ambitions and frustrations, we carried out opinion polls in 13 EU Member States to survey drivers of behaviours towards democracy and authoritarianism. The findings regarding the challenges and threats our democracy faces are very telling.

Strikingly, the data from our research shows that disempowerment and alienation are a common denominator for most of the countries surveyed. At 16%, France features the highest percentage of people who feel that they can make a difference in how their government works. That percentage drops to 4% in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. In Hungary, 55% of citizens agree that “Hungary’s Constitutional Court is no longer an independent institution dedicated to promoting the rule of law”, while 67% of them agree that public media is too closely controlled by the Hungarian government.

Moreover, only four countries — Austria, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands — rate the economic conditions of their country as excellent or good, whereas the remaining nine countries surveyed rate themselves as fair or poor.

Europeans feel left behind, and they are losing faith in their governments. Among French citizens, 81% agree that “too many people in France have been forgotten by the government”, while 84% of Greeks agree that “Greek politicians do not listen to the people they are supposed to represent”. In Poland, the situation seems even worse: 68% of Polish citizens feel that “the rights of citizens in Poland to freely assemble and question the government is at risk”, while 59% agree that “Polish civil life and society has deteriorated in Poland”.

Our poll also reveals that the European Union has been experiencing some trouble in effectively communicating its work and achievements. For instance, Italians blame the bloc for worsening the economic conditions of their country. Dutch, French, Italian, and Greek citizens perceive negative EU attributes, such as “remote” and “intrusive”, as more relevant than the positive ones, such as “democratic” and “effective”. Denmark is the only country which concurs that the main reason to stay in the EU is that “Denmark is stronger when we stand together with other nations in the European Union”. Meanwhile, 81% of Bulgarians state that the European Union must be changed so that it works better for Bulgaria, while 69% of Belgians agree that “the European Union must change” — only 2% of the Belgian citizens in the poll strongly disagree with this sentence.

We clearly need to engage with European citizens, and the conference on the Future of Europe can be a good vehicle to do so. Bringing the conference outside of Brussels would send a strong and positive signal to countries where citizens feel left behind.

Among policy priorities suggested by the European Parliament as main themes for the conference on the Future of Europe, our findings show that migration and European values should be high on the agenda.

Migration is an opportunity for a continent experiencing both a rapid demographic decline and a need for skilled workers in the labour markets. The conference should try to better inform citizens of the challenges stemming from this issue. To do so, we have a steep mountain to climb. Our poll found that 69% of Hungarians feel that “refugees increase the risk of terrorism” and 49% of Belgians disagree with the sentence “migrants are not a threat to our way of life in Belgium”. In that vein, 64% of Danes agree that political hate speech is rising in Denmark.

Furthermore, the conference should focus on fundamental European values, such as human rights and the principle of solidarity. It is worrying for example that 62% of Austrians feel that “social welfare benefits in Austria for migrants should be cut and capped”. There is a clear need to discuss these issues, in an open and honest manner, beyond our echo chambers.

At a time when great threats jeopardise the very foundations of democracy, the conference on the Future Europe is an opportunity for EU institutions to take stock of citizens’ views and work together in a joint effort with civil society to achieve a more efficient and democratic European Union.

It is time to listen and deliver.

By Petros Fassoulas – Secretary General, European Movement International, and

Federico Terreni – Policy & Advocacy Manager, European Movement International

*This Listen To Europe Analysis was also published in New Europe