Merely consulting organised civil society on the Conference on the Future of Europe will not be enough. Its participation must be meaningful and its input must shape the Conference's decisions, said speakers at the opening of the 2021 EESC Civil Society Days.
The 2021 EESC Civil Society Days, entitled "A Sustainable Recovery for the Future of Europe's Citizens", opened today with Brikena Xhomaqi, co-chair of the EESC Liaison Group, paying tribute to the myriad civil society organisations that had been in the frontline in the fight against the pandemic.
Speaking in the opening panel, which focused on the challenges of building a sustainable recovery, EESC President Christa Schweng stressed the lessons learned by the EESC from a recent investigation looking at the National Recovery and Resilience Plans, which require Member States to consult organised civil society.
"Our conclusion was that the level of actual participation of civil society organisations in the national plans is still largely insufficient", said Ms Schweng. "The National Recovery and Resilience Plans would be more efficient and effective if organised civil society were involved more quickly and more extensively."
Dubravka Šuica, European Commission Vice-President responsible for Democracy and Demography, acknowledged that the magnitude of the stimulus package put together to put EU Member States' economies back on their feet would not be enough: "Yes, citizens will be at the heart of the recovery in an economic sense, "she said. "But the pandemic has heightened the need for solidarity between Member States and for including citizens in discussions on the Union's future".
Hence the need to find, through the Conference on the Future of Europe, innovative ways to ensure that no one would be left behind.
Ms Šuica said that there were three things about the conference that everyone should be aware of:
- Europeans would be free to raise and discuss any topic that they believed to be important for the future of Europe;
- they would be able to contribute their input both digitally, through a special multilingual platform, and in person, when progress in vaccination made real-life debates and events possible again;
- the success of the conference would be measured against the breadth of participation; local, national and transnational debates would be organised and promoted to ensure maximum engagement.
MEP Daniel Freund drew a parallel between vaccination and Europe, saying that as much as vaccines were the way out of the pandemic, Europe was the answer to the challenges we are facing: climate change, digitalisation and digital giants not paying their fair share of taxes in Europe, etc.
Like previous crises, he said, the pandemic was showing how Europe ran into trouble when integration was stuck halfway. He insisted that if it wanted to stay relevant, it needed to be able to act quickly in crises and reform accordingly.
Above all, he said there was a need for a truly European debate: "It's nice if we have local debates across the EU and that will be important as well, but ultimately we need to bring these discussions together. Because only by having these European debates can we really bring European solutions to the table."
Nathan Méténier, a member of the UN Secretary-General's Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, said that young people's primary request was for the recovery plans to be green and fair, and for the transition to be driven by young people and by marginalised communities. "We have been asking very loudly, for instance, that those recovery plans do not bail out fossil fuel companies, to make sure that there is always conditionality," he said.
He stressed that while it was acknowledged that young people had been the main drivers for climate goals and action, there was also a tremendous lack of support for the youth movement. "When you call your plan NextGenerationEU, using our name, at least involve us in the discussion and conversation", he said, calling for an EU youth advisory group to be set up "to make us part of your policies".
The EESC Civil Society Days will continue until Thursday with interactive panels taking place online. A closing session on Friday morning will present the event's conclusions.
To learn more about the EESC Civil Society Days, click here.