As Tocqueville used to say, our identity is first a democracy respectful of the individual, of minorities, and fundamental rights. Over the weekend of 5-6 May, we witnessed a beautiful exercise of democracy, which can only strengthen our European identity.
At the initiative of French President Emmanuel Macron, 99 citizens took part in the first European Citizens' panel. Organized by the Commission in the premises of the European Economic and Social Committee, citizens discussed the state of our European Union and formulated questions, which we expect will provide a base for the national consultations on the future of Europe, to be launched by all EU member states this year.
Tatjana from Vienna (Austria), Inge from Essen (Germany), Eva from Prague (Czech Republic), Michel from Evry (France), Mirko from Sesvete (Hungary), Fabio from Naples (Italy), Mateusz from Krakow (Poland) were just seven of the 99 citizens, who willingly accepted to spend the entire weekend to help set key orientations for the Europe of tomorrow.
I was pleased to hear their concerns, but also their proposals for solving the problems they face. Our citizens are critical thinkers and they should be given platforms to express their views. They want responses from their leaders and they are not shy to offer their creative advice. We should listen as they provide recommendations full of common sense and on-the-ground insights.
Many expressed their desire to progress, even harmonise education, health and employment systems. Others questioned the EU policy on migration. What I heard is that they are asking for more, not less Europe. The 12 questions they came up with at the end of the weekend testify of their eagerness to be involved and have a say in a Europe more in tune with their needs. They want the power to shape their new Europe.
It is crucial that their voice doesn't get lost. Our democratic institutions today, our European political system of representative democracies are currently facing a crisis of legitimacy, driven by a certain complacency and disinterest on the one hand and populist, anti-elite simplistic rhetoric on the other.
This leads us to a situation in which citizens feel they are not heard by their own democratically elected decision-makers. Openness to different cultures, solidarity towards those newly arrived, freedom of expression are viewed by some with suspicion. Many citizens lack a sense of ownership and involvement.
This weekend, we actively experienced what involvement and a sense of ownership can do to revive democracy.
At the Committee, we know the value of consultation and participation. Throughout 2017, we also have successfully organised, in the framework of the White Paper, 27 national consultations and 1800 civil society representatives took part in the debates, delivering a number of recommendations.
We should never forget that participation is a civic right. The 99 citizens who came to Brussels last weekend exercised this invaluable civic right. They contributed to fundamental exercise in the aggregation of crucial priorities for the future of the European project.
This should not remain an isolated event to feed into a one-off online consultation, to be launched on 9 May using the 12 questions identified by the 99 Europeans.
Even if the initial ambition of running citizens' conventions was reduced to holding citizens' consultations and the format selected is a flexible format, with each member states choosing its own design, we should salute the initiative.
I am convinced that the European civic space must be filled with constructive debates about the future of Europe to prevent fearmongers to take the stage. Criticism is welcome but it needs to be constructive criticism.
Our members stand ready to work with their government. Similarly, the EESC will work with the European Commission and the Council to make sure that these consultations provide a strong input for the roadmap in view of the Sibiu summit next year.
This is just the beginning of a long journey, which in the end will have the advantage of strengthening dialogue among Europeans, empowering them to build a more inclusive and cohesive Europe. But also to build a genuine European identity.
As one of the participant said: "We know that we come from different countries but we leave feeling all Europeans". It is this feeling of belonging to a true community, united by common values and solidarity, sharing the common challenges of the future, which is nowadays, in the general opinion, the main weakness of the Union.
This is why we need more of these European citizens' panel - not less. We will discover a clearer path as we move forward. Of that, I am sure.