Young people holding a giant European flag in Ukraine in 2014

Is this the right moment for a Conference on the Future of Europe?

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In recent years, the European Union has faced unprecedented threats, from the economic and financial crisis to Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. The Conference on the Future of Europe will start on May 9th, aiming to foster a solid European public discourse and build policy recommendations for a more cohesive, effective and democratic Union.

The many difficulties that characterised the last twelve months (and caused the postponement of the Conference, initially scheduled to start in 2020), have further highlighted the growing importance of a common approach in addressing challenges such as updated regulations for the digital market, the response to the pandemic and the consequent social and economic crisis, the battle against climate change and for the protection of the environment. Cooperation between the Member States allows tackling all these challenges through common strategies, taking advantage of synergies and greater bargaining power. For the very same reason, the European Union’s future mainly depends on its capacity to preserve its civil society’s vibrant diversity while maintaining the required social cohesion within its borders.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and crises are ideal moments to take sizeable leaps ahead. Today is undoubtedly the right time for fresh ideas to come to light and be tested in a public debate. According to the OECD’s most recent reports, economic inequality is on the rise in virtually every country in the world, including the EU’s member states. While COVID19 is undoubtedly exacerbating the trend, it did not start because of the pandemic and will not disappear once we defeat it. Europe has always been at the forefront of inclusion and social equity, which are part of its citizens’ core values.

The fact that the EU doesn’t shy away, taking the opportunity to learn from what its citizens actually want their world to be and benefiting from their perspectives, should be considered essential. Non-European countries should take this unprecedented effort to reimagine our shared future as an example of the EU’s proficiency to realign resources and skills for a common purpose when it is most needed. That’s what has always been the great strength of us Europeans: the contribution that civil society has constantly guaranteed at all levels, from the individual citizen to the most prestigious institutions.

Returning to the question that serves as the title of this article, is it legitimate to ask whether it is the right time to convene such a conference? Quite a few voices have raised to criticise the decision to hold it in a situation characterised by multiple emergencies, which catalyse people and institutions’ attention. Nonetheless, the choices that will be made in the next few months in terms of policies and common strategies will significantly influence all Member Countries’ future for many years. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity since it could indeed be the last possibility to give young people the chance to live in the values of freedom, equality, and solidarity that past generations of Europeans took for granted.

Critics and criticisms are hence welcome if they work to improve the effectiveness of this exercise of democracy. How can anyone disagree that it would have been nice to hold the Conference on the Future of Europe in a different context, as it was initially conceived? Unfortunately, emergencies and problems usually do not arise when we are ready to solve them. Precisely because of the current difficulties, the effort to build a platform capable of bringing together all the different voices engaging in a debate on the challenges ahead is crucial. It shows the European institutions’ commitment to ensuring civil society’s relevance in all decisions on reforms.

That said, it would be hypocritical to think that commitment is enough to guarantee a fair outcome for European citizens. The European Union’s problems will not miraculously disappear overnight, but the criticisms, as long as they are constructive and stimulate innovative proposals, are the first step to solve them. European citizens must make their voices heard regardless of social conditions and the different life paths they may have undertaken. The Conference on the Future of Europe will achieve its objectives only if its organisers can make it truly inclusive, focusing on those segments of the population which suffer the most damage in the current circumstances: youth, women, disabled.

The effort of associations and non-profit organisations such as Re-Imagine Europa should start precisely from the vision of a system based on the contribution of all, leaving no one behind while balancing rights and obligations, according to traditional values of democracy and equality of which Europe is the founder and custodian.

The European Union is unique in its diversity of languages, cultures and territories. Its founding fathers based its essence on different common grounds: human dignity, freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and the desire for peace. After many decades, it still stands as the brightest example of the fantastic goals that human cooperation allows us to reach. In this world marred by big tech corporations’ surveillance economy and falling back into authoritarian temptations, we share an essential responsibility to defend and preserve it for future generations.