Comparing the word democracy to the European Union and, in general, to the forms of supranational integration always creates some problems. Some, in fact, see Bruxelles and the work done by the institutions as a way to take away more and more decision power to the citizens of national States. Others, on the contrary, support a strong European integration as the only way to preserve democracy from the expansion of authoritarianism that occurred in the last few years around the world. Where does the truth lie? It's hard to answer when the conversation is simplified in slogans. The juxtaposition of pro-EU and Euroskeptics might be useful for electoral purposes, but it surely doesn't help in the analysis of a complex problem that questions our way of understanding politics.
The new Commission, which took office in 2019, must face the delicate mission of revamping the image of a European Union that has seen its opponents growing exponentially in recent years. Last July in her speech in front of the European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen has surely included in her team's goals some important measures: the Green New Deal, the possibility of a European fund against unemployment and the reform of the Dublin Regulation in regards to immigration. All these openings are surely indicative of a Commission that wants to be more present in the lives and well-being of its citizens. However, since November, not only technical issues were discussed, but also more "theoretical" aspects. A rumour started going around about a possible Conference on the future of the European Union to be held during the term of this Commission. Confirmation arrived recently. In a communication addressed to Parliament and Council, von der Leyen has started her line of reasoning from the statement that, at the last European elections, a greater number of citizens went to the polls. As a matter of fact, in 2014 42% voted of those eligible, while in 2019 the turnout was at 50%. Not an excellent data, but that in the reasoning of von der Leyen has to be read as a request, from the citizens, of greater participation. That is why the Commission wants to launch the Conference on the future of the European Union for a period of two years. The idea would be that of creating a forum for dialogue in which different participants can partake in: citizens, representatives of the civil society, intermediate bodies etc. This event must be organised along two main lines:
- Policy: the focus is on the goals that the European Union must achieve. Citizens should express what they consider most important amongst environmental challenges, social economy, digital economy and other priorities.
- Institutions: in this case the discussion should focus on the democratic process and institutional issues.
In the Commission's mind, this Conference has to be a way to promote new forms of participation to the European political life. There are even talks of citizens turning into policy-making. Where does this need for proximity come from? A survey published by Eurobarometer and held before the elections of May 26, investigated the citizens' feeling of identity to the EU. 55% of those who were interviewed declared feeling "positive emotions" towards the Institutions of Bruxelles. These results had the pro-EU take a breath of relief, given the possible shove by Eurosceptics and Sovereignists at the elections. A shove that was not there afterwards. What appears from the survey is also, though, a great deal of distrust. Only a few over half feel close to the European dream. Sign of a disappointment that still lurks strongly in its citizens. To that data can be added from electoral turnout in some countries: in France, for example, at the 2019 European elections 50% of those eligible voted against the 77% that voted at the 2017 general elections. There is therefore a need from the citizens to approach closer to Bruxelles. In von der Leyen's communication it is mentioned that this Conference must not be a way to overcome representative democracy. This is an important passage. In the Commission's mind there is not a possibility to open a path of direct democracy. Associations, intermediate bodies and MEPs must remain central in the European political architecture. The beginning of the Conference is set for May 9 2020, a symbolic date. On that day the 70 years from the Schuman Declaration are celebrated, which effectively launched the process of European integration.
A brief evaluation of this initiative promoted by the Commission can be done, postponing till the end of the Conference any final considerations on its effectiveness and the consequences it may produce. Creating a forum of discussion is always a good thing. Freeing the debate on the European Union from the sad juxtaposition that dominated electoral campaigns would be certainly useful. The fact that, citizens with different ideas can come up with proposals on specific issues would also help to get to the heart of the matter. It would be nice that out of this forum would come out a changed Europe, with more self-awareness and especially and a greater sense of belonging from the citizens. However, there could be some negative aspects. Not everyone has the means or time to dedicate themselves to a constructive discussion and, in this case, an important role should be played by political parties and associations. If they have lost their legitimacy over the years, the Conference might not be necessarily a success. Moreover, a healthy bit of realism is required: when it comes to important changes, like those affecting the architectural institution, the Council and, consequently, national governments, play a fundamental role. If we want to achieve greater integration and, therefore, make the European decision process more "democratic" we cannot ignore a need for harmony between the various national leaders. The founding fathers had a precise idea about the future, but now?