Looking back to their past experiences as organisers of European Citizens' Initiatives (ECIs), activists attending the ECI Day 2020 on 25 February warned against asking people what Europe they want and then ignoring their input.
The disappointments incurred by the first generation of ECI organisers, who went through the intricate process of initiating an ECI, collecting and validating one million signatures, then to be told that no action would follow, have taken a heavy toll, activists said.
The new, simplified rules in place since 1 January, coupled with better support for organisers such as the overhauled ECI Forum, have helped alleviate "petition fatigue", sparking an impressive 16 new ECIs, several of which were actively collecting signatures at the event.
However, it is imperative to avoid making the same mistake again with the Conference on the Future of Europe.
The ever more insistent demand by people to have a say not only in setting the EU's agenda, but in decision-making itself, can no longer be ignored.
A poll conducted at the event showed that a large majority of participants thought it was vital for citizens' input to have a real impact on EU decisions beyond elections.
67% believed citizen participation at European level must always have a clear link to the formal decision-making process.
69% agreed that rather than being one-off exercises, conferences such as the one on the future of Europe should take place regularly and have proper follow-up.
71% said that in addition to the Conference, a citizen-initiated convention should explore the future of citizen participation and democratic reform. It should start and end with an EU-wide people's vote.
In addition, 85% thought ongoing ECIs should be given prominence in the online multilingual platform that the European Commission is going to set up as the go-to resource for people wishing to know more about the Conference.
The role of digital technologies in the future of democracy, and specifically in the Conference on the future of Europe, spurred a passionate debate.
EESC President Luca Jahier reasserted the lasting value of representative democracy and of intermediary bodies while emphasising the EESC's unswerving commitment, over the years, to the success of the ECI, seen as a valuable complement to representative democracy.
Dubravka Šuica, EC Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, responsible for the Conference on the Future of Europe, stressed the Commission's resolve to "be on the side of open, yet well-regulated technology", embracing its democratic potential (openness, responsiveness, transparency, availability) while warding off the dangers (manipulation and data security).
The results of the survey, which do not reflect the EESC's views but those of the participants in the ECI Day, are available here along with detailed information about the event. (dm)