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Is citizen-led democracy here to stay?

Tourists are flying into space and life on Mars seems a less distant possibility. Meanwhile Europeans are busy trying to create a buzz about our future here on earth.

With the first Europe-wide transnational panels taking place in Strasbourg (17-19 September), the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) has moved up a gear in terms of energy and ambitions.

200 European citizens from all walks of life and chosen by lot have been sitting down in the European Parliament to help shape Europe’s response to the challenges of our times.

The focus for the first of four transnational citizens’ panel was “a stronger economy, social justice, jobs/education, youth, culture and sport/digital transformation.”

The other three panels will follow in the upcoming weekends. They will cover European democracy/values and rights, rule of law, security (first meeting: 24-26 September), Climate change, environment/health (first meeting: 1-3 October), and EU in the world/migration (first meeting: 15-17 October).

It is a good time to take stock, not just from the perspective of the EU institutions but also from that of civil society.

Ulrike Liebert, an expert on citizen participation in EU decision-making and co-author of the book “Democratising the EU from Below?” has called the CoFoE an “unprecedented development in European democracy – an experiment in bringing citizens directly into EU policy-making”.

We should welcome this ambitious transnational exercise in citizen engagement. At the same time, we need to carefully calibrate our expectations about the possible outcomes. Many if not most of the EU’s 450 million citizens have never heard the phrase “Conference on the Future of Europe”. They would be unlikely to know what it means even if they had.

But just as with NASA’s mission to Mars, the way to excite people about the conference is to frame it in a longer perspective. We as citizens, as well as our political leaders, need to show that we are prepared to do what it takes for European democracy to enter a new era. Historians might well then look back in years to come and see the CoFoE as a watershed moment.

It is early days, but an interim report has already showcased much of the Conference’s potential as well as drawn attention to some of its current limitations.