Members of the CoR commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs – CIVEX – discussed with representatives of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani and Helmut Scholz, how to involve the million local and regional politicians in projects and initiatives that can bring Europe closer to people and make the Conference on the Future of Europe a success. They called in particular for the involvement of CoR Members in the pilot project "Building Europe with Local Entities"(BELE) launched by the Committee on Constitutional Affairs at the European Parliament (AFCO).
According to a Special Eurobarometer on the Future of Europe published ahead of the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe by the Presidents of the three EU-institutions Ursula von der Leyen, David Sassoli and Charles Michel on 10 March 2021, 76% of the respondents agree that the Conference on the Future of Europe represents a significant progress for democracy within the EU. 92% of Europeans demand that citizens' voices are taken more into account in decisions relating to the future of Europe. Hence effective consultations of citizens and a feedback about what was the outcome of the consultations are key for the success of the Conference that will be launched on 9 May. Members of the CoR commission for Citizenship, Governance, Institutional and External Affairs – CIVEX – discussed with representatives of the European Parliament, of the European Commission and of the Bertelsmann Foundation how to make the exercise of the Conference a success.
Mark Speich (DE/EPP), Secretary of State for Federal, European and International Affairs of North Rhine-Westphalia and Chair of the CoR CIVEX commission said: “Regional and local politicians have a pivotal role in the relationship between the European Union and its citizens. With the Conference on the Future of Europe, we have the opportunity to convey the concrete ideas of the citizens of a European Union of the future towards Brussels".
During the first thematic debate, the way how local and regional authorities can support citizens' participation in the Conference on the Future of Europe and beyond was explored. Helmut Scholz, Member of the European Parliament (DE/GUE-NGL) and rapporteur of the draft report "Citizens' dialogues and citizens' participation in the EU decision-making" presented to CIVEX members the main findings of his report, which takes into account the work already done by EU institutions and by the CoR on citizens' participation. He calls for the development of permanent participatory mechanisms to allow for citizens' participation in EU decision-making. Already back in October 2018, this idea of a permanent dialogue with citizens that goes beyond election periods was one of the key messages of the CoR opinion Reflecting on Europe: the voice of local and regional authorities to rebuild trust in the European Union (co- rapporteurs Karl-Heinz Lambertz and Markku Markkula).
Helmut Scholz said: “The Conference on the Future of Europe is a unique opportunity to engage with citizens in a debate about their visions and concerns regarding the EU. But already now and generally it must be clear: Everyone should be able to participate in EU decision-making, also beyond the Conference. Therefore, we need the support of local and regional authorities as well as civil society organisations and social partners. Only in this way, we will be able to develop a European public sphere and reinforce the democratic legitimacy of the EU.”
Dominik Hierlemann, Senior expert and Anna Renkamp, Senior project manager at the Bertelsmann Foundation presented to the CIVEX members past experiences in running local, regional and transnational digital citizens' dialogues. They also described what the Bertelsmann Foundation could offer in the joint initiative with the CoR that is planned to be launched soon. New tools to help elected local and regional politicians to better interact with citizens and improve democratic practices and their functioning would be implemented. Cross-border local citizens' dialogues and panels would be organised between September 2021 and January 2022. Based also on the proposals of the CoR opinion on Local and regional authorities in the permanent dialogue with citizens, such dialogues would be designed to provide input into the Conference.
The second debate was on local and regional EU Councillors' initiatives. While in December 2020, the CoR Bureau endorsed the proposal for a Network of Local and Regional EU Councillors dealing with EU Affairs in their constituencies who would inform the CoR about their activities in the framework of the Conference on the Future of Europe, the Committee on Constitutional Affairs the European Parliament (AFCO) launched a pilot project "Building Europe with Local Entities" (BELE) that will make it possible to identify in the participating local governments a councillor responsible for communication to citizens on programmes and projects financed by the European Union in that municipality and on other EU-related topics and initiative in order to also contribute to the Conference. The two projects have similar goals and means and the aim of the debate was to explore possible synergies between the CoR and EP projects involving EU Councillors from across the European Union. The CoR could facilitate the effective implementation of the BELE project if the CoR's Network of Local and Regional EU Councillors is seen as an implementation action for the BELE project. The rollout of the Local and Regional EU Councillors Network should therefore be eligible for funding under the BELE pilot project.
The AFCO Chair Antonio Tajani (IT/EPP) said: "Regional and local elected politicians are the expression of European wealth and diversity. Last year, the European Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Commission presented the BELE (Building Europe with Local Entities) pilot project which aims putting local administrators in the center of EU policies while they communicate to citizens about the activities carried out by the European Union. Communicating about the EU is a challenge to combat populism and disinformation and in this, the CoR and its members play a key role. The Conference on the Future of Europe must become an opportunity for a clear debate and I invite CoR members to be actively taking part in the BELE project. If the Conference really wants to be the megaphone of citizens’ wishes, it must give local decision-makers democratically elected by citizens the role and weight they deserve."
The BELE project was then presented in its details by Alessandro Giordani, Head of Unit in charge of ‘Networks in the Member States’ in the Directorate‑General for Communication of the European Commission.
Besides the thematic debates, the opinion of Jean-Luc Vanraes (BE/RE), member of the Municipal Council of Uccle, on the Strategy to Strengthen the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights in the EU was adopted during the CIVEX meeting. For rapporteur Jean-Luc Vanraes, "the Regions are the ultimate Guardians and Promoters of the fundamental rights”. Local governments play an important role in the promotion, protection and respect of fundamental rights, including putting them into practice, making the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights a reality. The opinion highlights that the involvement of the CoR in the inter-institutional dialogue concerning the Charter is essential and suggests to set up contact points to facilitate the flow of information on the Charter between the different levels of government. These contact points could also provide guidance for LRAs on how to shape their policies in full compliance with the Charter with concrete examples. Another proposal is that since the local authorities are the closest level of governance to citizens and they are well place to raise people’s awareness on their rights and where to turn to if their rights are breached, CoR members could take the opportunity of Europe Day on 9 May and of the Conference on the Future of Europe to promote local activities, explaining and stressing the paramount importance of the Fundamental Rights and the European Charter in our democracies. The opinion was welcomed by Ms Barbara Nolan, Head of Unit at the European Commission Directorate-General for Justice and Consumers, Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law.
Moreover, there was an exchange of views on the working document which will serve as basis for the opinion of Aleksandra Dulkiewicz (PL/EPP), Mayor of Gdansk, on the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP) proposed by the European Commission, in the presence of William Sleath, Director for Citizens, Health, Migration & Security Union at the Secretariat-General of the European Commission. The EDAP aims at empowering citizens and building more resilient democracies across the EU by promoting free and fair elections, strengthening media freedom and countering disinformation. During the discussion, it was regretted that while to a large extent the success of the EDAP will be linked to actions by local and regional authorities, they are unfortunately not mentioned in the European Commission's communication. Ms Dulkiewicz said "The EDAP should lead to the identification of concrete actions, which should be put in place in strong cooperation with local and regional authorities. The state of democracy will not be repaired overnight, but the faster we take action, the greater the chance to fight the problem". The opinion will be adopted in the CIVEX commission on 11 May 2021.
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