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European democracy at the crossroads: local and regional leaders see moral obligation to progress on place-based citizens' participation  

​​The future of Europe's democratic development, the impact of the war in Ukraine, and threats to media freedoms dominated the agenda when members of the CIVEX commission of the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) met on 17 November.

The discussions at CIVEX – the Commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs – were framed by a report looking at the CoR's response to the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe. The Conference, a one-year exercise in participatory democracy organised by the European Union, established an agenda for EU institutions – the CoR included – based on appeals by citizens' representatives. The Conference worked across nine areas – ranging from climate action, the digital transformation and health to the rule of law, migration and European democracy – and the CoR's responses have varied correspondingly.

The report highlighted the new CoR toolbox for better regulation, its Green Deal Going Local working group to accelerate climate action, and actions such as the co-chairing of the Zero Pollution Stakeholder Platform, the Broadband Platform, the Mayor Paweł Adamowicz Award for courage and excellence in the promotion of freedom, and its network of Young Elected Politicians (YEPs) as examples of initiatives that echoed the recommendations made during the Conference, which wrapped up in May 2022. As for the next steps, members discussed with European Commission Vice-President Dubravka Šuica's Head of Cabinet, Colin Scicluna, actions planned as follow-up to the Conference on the Future of Europe process. These will include a feedback event, on 2 December, organised for the 800 citizens who took part in the debates during which EU institutions, including the CoR, will present what follow-up actions to the Conference for the year to come. Mr Scicluna also said that citizens panels will be integrated into the EU legislative process on a number of issues, starting with food waste, mobility and learning, and artificial intelligence and the metaverse.

Enzo Bianco , Member of the Catania City Council and Chair of the CoR CIVEX commission, said: "As locally and regionally elected representatives, we have a moral and democratic obligation to follow up on the citizens' recommendations in the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe. We expect the EU institutions to deliver without delay on citizens' demands for a more democratic, more inclusive and more transparent Union and to give teeth to the European citizens’ panels, which should be place-based and paving the way to major pieces of European legislation."

The CoR is also prioritising work on issues brought to the fore by the Conference, including the need for media plurality – an element in an opinion discussed at the meeting, on the European Media Freedom Act. The CoR's rapporteur is Mark Speich (DE/EPP), North Rhine-Westphalia's Secretary of State for Federal, European and International Affairs.

A shaping influence on the debate in the final months of the Conference was the impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine this February, with representatives at the Conference – drawn from the general public, civil society, and all levels of government – urging EU bodies and institutions to act as a sort of "ambassadors of our democratic model" abroad. The central element of the CoR's response to the war in Ukraine is now the European Alliance of Cities and Regions for the Reconstruction of Ukraine, which the CoR launched in June and which the report describes as "a good example of LRAs potential enhanced role in relations with third countries".

Challenges created by the war were evident in the CIVEX meeting in a debate with the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and in an exchange of views on the future of the Eastern Partnership.

A report by FRA – entitled "Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: fundamental rights implications within the EU" – identifies the key fundamental rights issues and outlines challenges and good practices in the implementation of the EU's Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), which has enabled more than 7 million Ukrainians to gain access to accommodation, work, health care, education and social assistance. Julia Behrens of the FRA, who described the war as "one of the gravest threats to fundamental rights in Europe in decades", focused on problems of access to housing, employment and education, and highlighted examples of good practice from across the EU, including Belgium, Czechia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Portugal. Yuliya Chervona, a refugee in Belgium and member of the NGO Promote Ukraine, emphasised the challenge of moving from temporary housing solutions – such as staying with private hosts – onto the private housing market or into social housing, as well as the need to recognise the qualifications of Ukrainian mental-health professionals so that they can provide services to the refugee community.

The FRA report also draws attention to other areas where rights are at risk, saying that "human trafficking, sexual and gender-based violence, hate crime and hate-fuelled disinformation are grave risks as some people try to exploit the misfortune of others or foment dissent within Europe".

The transformation in EU external policy that the war is causing was evident in an early exchange on planned opinion on "The Future of the Eastern Partnership from a Local and Regional Perspective", the principal framework through which the EU works with countries in its eastern neighbourhood. The rapporteur Alin-Adrian Nica (RO/EPP), president of Timis County Council – said that "bringing the EaP back on track in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine will r equire a redefinition of its policy objectives, its multilateral architecture, its 'raison d'être' and very probably also of its membership". In addition to Ukraine, the members of the Eastern Partnership are currently Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Ukraine and Moldova were this year granted the status of candidates for EU membership. Mr Nica's opinion is scheduled for adoption​ by the CoR in March 2023.

Finally, Sarah Meyer from the Danube-University Krems and Johannes Greubel of the European Policy Centre presented the European Regional Democracy Map, an online tool that maps the structures and political dynamics of regional democracy in Europe, using data on regional elections, regional political systems, executive regional government, and regions' involvement in EU policy formation.

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