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Future of Europe

03 Dec 2021 / EU Print

Eurovision

Many EU citizens may be unaware that the Conference on the Future of Europe is taking place – and that they are entitled to fully take part in it. Thomas Byrne TD is encouraging lawyers to have their say on the future direction of the EU.

Should we increase the EU competence in health? Should the EU be more assertive in its foreign policy? Should the EU have a common taxation policy?

These are the types of questions being posed and considered by EU citizens in the Conference on the Future of Europe. It is now some six months since the conference was launched in Strasbourg on Europe Day, 9 May 2021.

I am concerned that many EU citizens may be unaware that the conference is taking place – still less of their entitlement to fully participate in it.

In one way, this is not that surprising. Over the last six months, we have all been consumed with dealing with the global pandemic. However, the challenges facing the EU prior to the pandemic remain and, in some respects, have come even more sharply into focus.

The pandemic has caused citizens and governments alike to think deeply about matters we have taken for granted for so long. As we emerge from the pandemic, the time is ripe for a considered reflection on the type of society we aspire to live in, and how we wish that society to be governed.

Citizen-directed conversation

The conference is a citizen-centred exercise, where citizens direct the conversation. It is for them – the people affected by the decisions of the EU – to outline what type of union they want.

At its core, the basic idea behind the conference is to start a conversation with our citizens, particularly our younger people, about how we see the EU progressing over the next five, ten and 20 years.

We in Ireland can take some credit for the basic premise underlying and inspiring the conference. Ireland has led the way in prioritising the issue of citizen engagement and trying to forge a more participative democracy. Various European and international states have noted and admired how our Citizens’ Assemblies have been a vehicle for social change in our country.

As the minister with lead responsibility for this issue, I have been engaging in an extensive series of virtual consultations with groups and communities around the country. If this conference is to be a success, we need as many diverse voices and opinions as possible.

As a former solicitor, I am well aware of the valuable contribution lawyers can bring to these discussions. Lawyers can contribute not only through ideas and ideologies, but can also bring a deep understanding of how those ideas and ideologies can be practically implemented.

Europhile or Eurosceptic?

Whether you consider yourself to be a Europhile or Eurosceptic, we would like to know how you see the future of Europe. We want to know what issues you would like the EU to prioritise, how you would like the EU to spend taxpayers’ money, and so on.

There is no limit or strictures on the type of issues to be considered. The purpose of the convention is to discuss issues that matter to and affect ordinary citizens of the EU – for example, a student I was talking to recently suggested that there should be a pan-European central applications system for university entry.

I expect there are a myriad of issues that confront solicitors every day that engage issues surrounding the future of Europe. You may have an interest in the role of the European Court of Justice; you may be interested in working as a lawyer in another member state; you may be deeply concerned about the migrant crisis; or about climate change.

These are just examples of the types of issues that are currently being debated all across Europe.

Citizen panels

To reflect the fact that citizens – not politicians – are at the very core of this conference, four Citizens’ Panels, each consisting of 200 randomly selected but demographically representative EU citizens, are now in session across Europe.

I am delighted that one of these panels will have its final, decisive session in Dublin in early December 2021.

The proposals and recommendations emerging from these panels will be a critical element in determining the final output from this conference.

The purpose of this article is to encourage as many people as possible, including members of the legal profession, to get involved and organise their own discussions on the future of Europe.

These discussions can take any form you wish – whether they be over your lunchbreak at work, or in a more formal setting, such as a discussion group. The simple purpose is to get people talking and thinking about the future of Europe.

Any ideas or proposals emerging from these conversations can be officially recorded for consideration on the conference’s digital platform (www.futureu.europa.eu), which is available in all 24 EU languages. The digital platform also has plenty of practical information and guidance on how to organise an event in connection with the conference.

The conference is designed to be as flexible and non-prescriptive as possible. The only assurance, to which all member states have committed, is that whatever recommendations eventually emerge from the conference, these must be taken seriously and acted upon by the European institutions.

New departure

The conference is a really exciting and new departure for the European Union. One of the frequent criticisms levelled at the EU is the perception that decisions affecting citizens are made by faceless institutions in faraway cities, which leads to a disconnect between those institutions and the citizens they serve.

The EU is aware of, and alive to, these criticisms. It is committed to a more participative democracy, where the voice of ordinary citizens can be loudly heard.

The entire purpose of the conference is to afford citizens a platform for their voices to be heard and to enable the EU to hear those voices loud and clear. Members of the legal profession have a unique and valuable contribution to make to this discussion.

I would urge you all to fully engage in this exciting project, and to seize the chance to have a say in the future of Europe. It is an opportunity not to be missed.

Read and print a PDF of this article here.

Thomas Byrne TD
Thomas Byrne is Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs with responsibility for EU Affairs, and is a former solicitor