It does not come as a surprise that the timing of the event was carefully chosen to coincide with the end of the Austrian Presidency of the European Council. This way the conference approach in discussing European affairs and a direct link between the distant elitist politicians with an equally distant pro-European organisation could continue.
The two days in which, according to the objectives of the organisers, the European Citizens would have a chance to meet in the framework of a European Citizens Convention and discuss key issues of the European project, take account of any progress made in the last months and recommend future action in regard to the constitutional process, as well as the proclaimed number of having 300 participants from all over Europe (including members of the European Parliament and of national Parliaments, representatives of Civil Society and the general public) were mildly speaking far from reality.
Actually, the Convention lasted not more than a day, since it started in late afternoon on Thursday and ended at 5 pm on Friday. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. The problematic part is the nature of the whole Citizens Convention, which in principle was supposed to be an innovative way of including various actors concerned with European issues, especially the future of Europe and its constitutional process, ranging from high ranked politicians to grass rout level organisations and activists, whether old or young.
Even though the First European Citizens Convention in Genoa back in December can be evaluated as a success and a good start this time round it all seemed to resemble too much a typical Viennese conference of high ranked politicians of different levels mixing only with members of UEF and JEF. In other words, preaching to the already convinced. No promised representatives of civil society others than the usual suspects of UEF, EMI and JEF, almost no general public attendance and little media coverage with even less output. At least the Genoa Convention came up with a manifesto.
However, if we evaluate the event as a conference then it was definitely a huge success. Good, some even very prominent, speakers (e.g. Pat Cox), very good preparation and organisation mainly by members of JEF-Austria and the UEF international, a nice reception with buffet at the marvellous Vienna City Hall and typical conference like panel discussions. A treat for every convinced European used to doing the same all over Europe.
So what was the actual theme of this Convention/conference? The organisers entitled it along Victor Hugo’s term United States of Europe, giving also homage to the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and his latest book on European affairs, which carries the same title. This topic was touched upon mainly in the opening panel discussion by the speakers Didier Donfut, a Belgian State Secretary for European Affairs and Reinhard Rack, an Austrian Member of the European Parliament.
On the second day of the conference the participants were supposed to be equally divided into four working groups dealing with key issues of the European project. The four chosen topics were: European economic governance, European social model, young generation as Europe’s human potential and Europe as a power for peace. Sadly some of the WGs had very poor attendance and there was no real output, since the discussions were not streamlined or intended to have a coherent outcome but simply offered an open space for debate; which is a legitimate and worthy approach. It is just that one would expect a bit more from a so called European Citizens Convention.
Ideas for the future
Even though the Genoa Citizens’ Convention had plenty of NGO representatives involved and even had a street action, still more could be done to increase the visibility and accessibility of such events. Some practical measures on how to improve the whole concept of Citizens Convention might be taking these politicians that participated in the conference to the streets, let them talk to individuals, ask them directly what puzzles them about Europe, what they want and need; sometimes simply listening can mean more than a thousand words or slogans.
In the end it seems as if the pro-European organisations still have not learned their lesson from their last year’s failure in communicating the positive aspects of the EU to the broader public and ordinary citizens. Taking part in this event made me realise that we have a lot of work to do and that it is high time for us to stop preaching to the convinced but rather reach out to those who do not necessarily agree with us, but do nonetheless share our vision of a democratic, well regulated, citizens’ friendly and transparent federal Europe.
Let us not talk about the citizens but with them!