Skip to main content

By Giovanni Allegretti

In the last year, the three main institutions of the European Union committed to organise a new model of participatory space for citizens to debate on Europe’s challenges and priorities. The unique experiment entitled “The Conference on the Future of Europe” (COFE), consisted of a hybrid arena, whose “core” was a deliberative space opened to 800 citizens randomly selected in the 27 member-countries. The process was articulated in four main thematic streams and had two main phases: (1) the first consisted of general meetings among the randomly selected citizens, assisted by experts and facilitators to deliberate on the different thematic lines and topics about the future of the EU; (2) the second were “Conference Plenaries” which included representatives from the European Citizens’ Panels, the European Parliament, the Council, the European Commission, national Parliaments, the Committee of the Regions, regional and local authorities and different social partners and organised civil society.
During the “plenaries”, despite the positive creation of alliances among diverse actors, visible opposition to the COFE also took shape: it was led mainly by populist parties such as AFD (Germany), Vox (Spain), Fratelli d’Italia (Italy). The populists raised criticism about the methodology, claiming that the criteria to diversify the public were based on demographic variables (such as age, gender, country of residence or the belonging to urban/rural areas) and ignored political belongings and attitudes towards the EU (supportive or “Eurosceptic”). Many of these parties withdrew from the final stages of COFE and refused to undersign the Final Resolution.
A large literature shows that emotions and cognition are inseparable in deliberation, and emotions were considered along with reason during the whole COFE. One of the participants’ feedback testifies that “one of the main characteristics was the fact of facing emotions through approaches that tried to elaborate on them from different standpoints, mediating with brain, and building brotherhood relations among participants of different places so that we finally realised that – beyond the Institutions we do not trust – a Europe of peoples exists”. Another citizen added “such a process was an import space of social intermediation and of interaction between lay and expert knowledge [… and] was a space for valuing argumentative rationality and communicative action, inviting the participant to reduce polarization”.
As an observer, I could testify that the entire process encompassed a general effort to value emotion within the deliberation, in order to strengthen rational argumentation. Even if incomplete, this effort has proven worthy of being feasible and creative. Some facilitators used gamified techniques to favour the capacity of citizens to analyse their own bias and seriously adopt the standpoints of others, while coping with the impact of emotions in this process.
At the root of the populist aversion there may be the good care taken of emotions during the conference. The COFE deliberative methodology focuses on “informed judgement” of participants as a common good that must be emotionally protected and enhanced to favour the capacity of argumentation and rational motivation of proposals and choices. As Antonio Floridia underlines, these procedures are pivotal antibodies against populism. This methodology outlines also the difference between comprehensive and democratic deliberative procedures compared with the oversimplification of commonplace direct democratic institutions, including a simplistic reference to referenda or plebiscites.
The 80 speakers who represented the 800 random-selected citizens of COFE considered having an “imperative mandate” during the negotiations with organised representatives (politicians, administrators, civil society representatives), and did not feel at ease in modifying their proposals. Thus, organised representatives had more freedom in formulating the final Resolution. Some experts questioned the quality of deliberation during the negotiations to the point of defining it as a “technopopulist experiment”. Thematic facilitators were not present in this stage of the process and they could have balanced the forces during negotiations. A moderation effect was played by the Joint Presidency and the Executive Board who were in charge of organising and monitoring the process. They protected the centrality of citizens in the process, and their conclusions were negotiated for over 5 months in a large series of offline and online citizens’ meetings.
Monitoring participants and independent observers pointed out several mistakes that possibly further reduced the quality of deliberation of the COFE. For instance, the selection of the supporting experts and their (in)capacity to coordinate citizens in valuing alternative options and scenarios when facing divergences. However, there was methodological convergence concerning the shared responsibility to foster dialogue and help citizens to adopt emotional control while facing adversarial positions or arguments. This is testified by the feedback provided by a citizen participant: “we were thought to initially value our emotions, but not to maintain them as the centre of the debate all time, and try to unpack them through detailed questions and elaborate on them”, in a way that “could generate new relations and alliances based on mutual respect of differences. I learned – for example – that there are emotions which paralyse action and dialogue, and others (such as anger) that can be channelled to “motivate” people to adopt a problem-solving approach, and foster readiness to change our own behaviours”.

The different citizens’ proposal versions highlight that conservative statements tended to shrink over time, insofar opportunities for dialogue and comparison with people of the different member-states evolved. Solidarity and the desire to reduce regional imbalances emerged. Moreover, citizens’ evaluation outline also the emergence of strategic alliances of mutual support – between the participants and EU institutions’ representatives, during the COFE process. This explains why some “Eurosceptic” participants came to moderate their positions declaring that they had discovered new affinities with other fellow citizens and referred to a “Europe of peoples” while y attenuating their distrust in the common institutions. Conflicts mainly marked the relations among citizens and some institutions, as – for example – the European Council and the National Parliaments. In fact, these were identified as the guarantor of the prevalence of national-based egoisms that fragment the European project and its unitary international agency.
The fact that the COFE process generated a positive impact in limiting Euroscepticism (at least among the direct participants) could explain populist aversion. In fact, the COFE process can also be viewed as an opportunity to create a pedagogic space that – while projecting new emotions related to the possibility of a solid European project – contributes to the weakening of demagogic and polarised discourses of anti-European, sovereigntist populists.
It is challenging to think how this positive impact on randomly selected citizens can translate into a more general, solid and durable pathway of transformation within the EU. The failure to implement the outcome of the COFE can have a negative emotional impact reproducing frustration and mistrust in the EU institutions. The risk of mistrust is especially likely due to the cherry-picking that EU institutions are operating in the present phase on the 49 proposals and the 300 measures covered in the Final Resolution, before a formal feedback will be given to participants about which of their proposals will be ignored or taken into account (and in which timing this will happen).
Such failure might be used to strengthen Eurosceptic arguments and continue to fight against proposals that better engender a progressive and pro-European spirit, and exclude them from the list of accepted suggestions to be presented by the Joint Presidency of COFE on December 2nd, 2022 at the first follow-up event. This will be the first occasion when the official decision to implement or reject each proposal will be communicated by the EU institutions.
The populists claim that the COFE is “a toy for the make-up of the EU bureaucracies” and, if their vision will triumph due to a substantially weak result, the failure of COFE will be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and future repetition of the process will be hard to implement (although Ursula von der Leyen has already announced a new round in her last State of the Union’s speech).
Instead, for those who believe in the “transformative capacity” of such an experiment – and its future improved follow-ups – important challenges are opened. The main challenge to improve the process in the future is related to extending the benefits to a larger public, as opposed to impacting primarily on directly-involved participants. The second will be to diversify the criteria for recruitment, in order for the sample to be more representative. A third challenge will be reducing the number of topics at stake, to discuss them more in-depth: in fact, the first edition of COFE showed that citizens can profitably be involved in the deliberation on complex issues – as migration policies, the change of economic models and socio-environmental transitions – which have often been hostage of a small group of powerful actors, favouring their treatment by populist forces. But proper spaces and adequate time slots are needed for citizens to substantially contribute to elaborate new imaginaries and devise healthy alliances to discuss and implement them, and this implies reducing the number of topics and policies discussed simultaneously while increasing the quality of deliberation and interaction with experts and political forces on them.

*Photo Credits: Giovanni Allegretti

Giovanni Allegreti Graduated in Architecture and PhD in Urban, Territorial and Environmental Planning for the University of Florence (Italy), he is a senior researcher at the Centre for Social Studies at the University of Coimbra, being part of the Working Group on Democracy, Citizenship and Law. Qualified in 2014 as an associate professor in Italy, he has been teaching Urban Management and Analysis of Territories and Settlements at the University of Florence. Currently, he is co-coordinator of the PhD “Democracy in the 21st century” at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra (FEUC). His main areas of research include citizen participation in the management of budgeting and territorial management, topics on which he has numerous publications in several languages. He also works on themes such as informal city and self-production of habitat, the right to the city, practices of ‘insurgent citizenship’ and cities’ networks on the international stage. Representative of Portugal at the COST Action “Constitution-making and deliberative democracy” (CA17135), is an active member of the Standing Group on “Democratic Innovations” at the European Consortium of Political Research (ECPR), as well as of the Commission for Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy and Human Rights of UCLG and of the International Observatory of Participatory Democracy (OIDP). Coordinator of several research projects that resulted in the organization and publication of books and scientific articles, he was also a trainer, consultant and evaluator of participatory processes in more than 50 countries in 5 continents, with contracts signed both with civic organizations and public administrations, and with international institutions such as the World Bank, UCLG, the European Commission and the Council of Europe. For the 2014-2019 mandate, he has been co-president of the Independent Authority for the Guarantee and the Promotion of Participation in the Tuscany Region (Italy).