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EPA/Stephanie Lecocq

Can Emmanuel Macron’s big gamble to save the EU really pay off?

French president Emmanuel Macron has promised to launch a series of “democratic conventions” to allow citizens across Europe a say on the EU’s future. His idea is an important element of plans to revive the EU’s fortunes at a difficult time.

Macron has suggested that national governments organise conventions in the form of national debates to discuss the EU’s future priorities and suggest ways to “relaunch” the union. He envisages the conventions running for between six and ten months, beginning towards the end of 2017. Governments will report back to the EU from their respective national conventions and member states will then work their conclusions into a five-year EU reform plan.

It remains to be seen how many member states will sign up to Macron’s initiative and what precise form the “conventions” will take, but for now the idea seems to be gaining momentum. Amongst others, German chancellor Angela Markel has indicated her broad support.

Macron’s idea is interesting and potentially very important. It resonates with recent heated debates about democratising Brussels. Many believe a more participative process could help the EU grapple with multiple problems, not least its legitimacy crisis.

The conventions are the practical proposal that, to date, has most seriously taken on board these calls. However, promising to hold public consultations is a high-risk strategy. It will raise expectations among EU citizens. The worst outcome would be for governments to hold the conventions and then not to take on board the suggestions and concerns that emerge from the deliberations.

Lessons from the past

The key matter is whether governments will be willing to follow through on the public preferences that the conventions reveal. To do this, EU and member state authorities may need to accept ideas that fall well outside their standard templates for EU reform. Citizens in some countries may, for example, want powers to be clawed back from EU institutions, more border controls, softer austerity measures, stronger commitments to reducing social inequality or a very different approach to so-called “flexible integration”.

If they fail to respond to citizen feedback in tangible ways, popular frustration with the EU may simply intensify.

Previous experiences point to a clear risk of the consultations being manipulated or stage-managed to simply legitimise a government’s pre-existing priorities. If governments essentially preempt their outcomes, the conventions could end up causing more harm than good.

This is what happened in the early 2000s, when public consultations were held on the drafting of an EU constitution. While Dutch and French voters rejected the constitution in national referendums, major changes were still pushed through in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty that seemed to fly in the face of Europeans’ concerns. This elite stonewalling set the stage for the long years of crisis that have plagued the EU since 2008. Today’s European leaders will need to take care not to create the conditions for a repeat cycle of dashed expectations.

And while Macron has called the democratic conventions ostensibly for elites to learn and understand more about what the public wants from the future EU, his own vision seems fairly fixed. He wants deeper, centralised economic union, and deeper security integration. It’s far from certain that these aims chime with wider public opinion so there could be tension ahead.

Deeper EU integration has long been a difficult sell outside Brussels, but in the past few months, the EU has been feeling more confident. Many European governments and EU institutions have again begun to push for deeper, supranational integration.

Keen to harness the current positive momentum, EU governments and institutions may now be reluctant to hold off on new plans while the democratic conventions run their course. They may be even less willing to reverse course if that is what the conventions reveal people want.

The Commission consults, but in its own way., CC BY

There is a widespread view that the EU requires a more genuinely open and widely-cast model of participation. The conventions may provide a laboratory to test these ideas out. Many thinkers advocate EU decision-making processes that include citizens from all walks of life, at least in part through methods of random selection.

They criticise the European Commission’s tendency to hand-pick favoured civil society organisations to take part in its many consultations, knowing they will defend the status quo when asked for feedback. The fact that groups critical of the integration status quo feel so excluded from these processes at present is one factor that drives citizens into the arms of populist parties.

Proceed with caution

Governments may give in to the temptation to shape the democratic conventions for largely PR purposes. As currently formulated, it’s not clear whether Macron’s proposal will offer a radically new, more open-ended and freer process of participation or simply replicate the rather controlled consultation initiatives that the EU has overseen in the past.

If democratic accountability is to be meaningful, governments and EU institutions will need to spell out how they will implement the conventions’ results. It may not be enough simply to promise a standard five-year reform plan as output from the conventions. The EU’s history is littered with many such plans that gather dust.

Finally, governments will need to consider what comes after the conventions. They will not, in themselves, democratise the EU. The public needs far more permanent means to better influence EU decision-making. Little will have been gained if the conventions run for a few months and then the EU returns to its current pattern of opaque bargaining and deal-making.

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