Thank you very much Jean-Louis,
Dear esteemed speakers, ladies and gentlemen,
It is an honour for me to be with you today, to exchange views on the innovative Conference on the Future of Europe. Particularly in the Belgian context. And in the context of Belgian foreign policy. I welcome Minister Wilmès' support and that of the Belgian federal government for the Conference. Belgium is after all one of the most inspiring countries in the European Union, and indeed the world, when it comes to innovation in deliberative democracy. By organising events under the umbrella of the Conference at the federal and regional level, Belgium ensures the Conference reaches to every corner, every community, every region. I also welcome Belgium’s focus on our young people.
The world is a village. As European Commission Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, I am very much aware that demographic change has an impact on Europe’s geopolitical outlook and position in the world. Population trends and economic size play an important role in the world’s power structures. The European Union’s share of the world population is diminishing. In 1960 the EU-27 population stood at 12%. Today it is around 6% and projected to fall to about 4% by 2070. Africa’s share in the world’s population is projected to rise from 9% to 32%, while Asia’s share will likely decrease. Demographic information is valuable when reflecting on how to forge our way forward in a changing world, and especially while we endeavour to strengthen our democracy.
The Conference is an unprecedented opportunity for a transnational, multilingual exercise in deliberative democracy. I recently addressed one of the European Citizen Panels on the topics of the European Union in the World and Migration. We need to ask what role the European Union will have in a more contested world; this is a key question for our future. A world in which forging strong and reliable partnerships will continue to be as important as defending our values and our way of life. This is not a luxury. It is essential for our future stability, security and prosperity.
To come back to the theme of this panel. “European Democracy at a Crossroads”. Honestly, I think we may have not just reached a crossroads but have, in fact, turned a corner in European democracy. In my own reflections on the future of our democracy, I would hope that historians may look at European democracy from a pre- and post- Conference perspective. The Conference is innovative and unequalled in terms of scale. The Conference brings citizens into the heart of policy-making in the European Union. Thanks to the Conference, today every citizen has the possibility to engage in a truly European public space. Including those citizens who would not usually talk about the EU. With anyone! Citizens share ideas with others, are exposed to different points of view and most importantly, they have a real possibility to make their voice heard and to stimulate change. Citizens have the right to participate and also the responsibility to produce ideas. I am pleased to say that citizens have taken on their role in owning and contributing fully to this process. It is truly inspiring.
As a former member of the European Parliament, I never thought that one day I would be in the hemicycle, surrounded not just by elected representatives, but by citizens actively contributing to the future European Union they want to live and work in. The 800 citizens of the European Panels are a diverse group, aged from 16 to 85 years, from across 27 Member States. They all came fully prepared to the European panels. Even those who were sceptical at the beginning, started feeling the responsibility of being selected to participate. They are seizing this unique opportunity for their voice to be heard.
The European Citizens Panels, which are one of the pillars of the Conference, are running smoothly. The second and online sessions of the European Citizens Panels have started. Last weekend, they were busy formulating recommendations on the topics of democracy, values, rights, rule of law and security. This afternoon, the next Panel on climate and health will continue its deliberations. Their work is based on an agenda they determined for themselves.
The plenary sessions are particularly innovative. In the second plenary session, citizens from all over the Union came together with their elected representatives, from the European Parliament, from the National Parliaments, the Council, the European Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee and Social Partners. The Plenary sessions offer an unprecedented opportunity to discuss the issues that citizens are putting forward in the European Citizen Panel discussions, as well as from national Panels and events, including that organised by the Belgian federal authorities. Let us also remember that there is a pedagogical and learning characteristic to the Conference; many citizens are taking the opportunity to ask for more information as they are exposed to more facts about the workings of the European Union.
The Conference does not belong to any one politician or institution. There can be no finger pointing when it comes to learning lessons from this exercise. We must all take responsibility for its success. I am often asked: What will happen after Spring 2022? Will the citizens’ panels continue? Will the Digital Platform remain available for citizens after the Conference? It may be too early in the process to answer those questions. But it is clear that it would be useful to structurally embed citizens’ deliberations and input in our policymaking. This is key to making our democracy fit for the future.
What I do know: we have jointly committed to follow-up on the outcome of the Conference. This is essential for the credibility and legitimacy of the Conference. While the citizens may have fulfilled their responsibilities by next Spring, from then onwards it will be incumbent upon the institutions to respond. That is why we need the second part of our mandate to develop initiatives. I thank the Egmont Institute and the Belgian Ministry for Foreign Affairs for rising to the challenge of empowering citizens to engage in their democracy. As one of the three co-chairs in the Conference, I certainly do not want to pre-empt the deliberations, but I will say this. There is no going back. Through the Conference we are deepening European democratic and political culture, from the roots up. We are transforming the way we engage with citizens.