In May 2021, the European Committee of the Regions appointed a group of "wise men and women" to spur on discussion on innovative ways to reinforce the democratic legitimacy of the common "European House of Democracy", and bring an independent and experienced perspective to considering how to bolster the impact and influence of local and regional authorities and the CoR in the European process.
Herman Van Rompuy, former Belgian prime minister and first President of the European Council, is chair of this High-Level Group on European Democracy. He gives us his views on the Conference on the Future of Europe.
President Van Rompuy, what are your initial findings regarding European democracy?
When I was appointed for this work, I was told that there were about one million local and regional politicians in the European Union. I was impressed: I had not expected the number to be so large.
I also see that support for the value of democracy is fading in the Western world, among all age groups. Therefore in the High-Level Group, we decided that our work and the final report will focus on European democracy, both at European level and at all levels in the Member States: federal, national, regional and local.
Why are people turning away from democracy?
I see three reasons why people are turning away from democracy.
First, I think that people do not feel sufficiently protected by their political representatives against all sorts of threats, perceived or real: unemployment, unstable jobs, massive irregular migration, climate change, terrorism, rising inequalities… They feel that politicians are not delivering.
Second, inequalities are rising. This was particularly clear during the pandemic. We are all in the same storm, but not everyone is in the same boat. One example of this is that while some people lost their jobs and sources of income, others got richer.
The third reason for the decline of democracy is the rise of populism. When campaigning, populist parties decry the lack of democracy - but when in power, they grind down democratic values such as the freedom of media and the rule of law.
What is your vision for this conference?
This conference is a complicated process. It is a mix of a listening and a leading exercise. The organisers of the conference, that is to say the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, will have to listen to the voice of the people and translate it into policy.
What is the most important challenge for the conference?
It is important to remember that there is no such thing as an archetypal citizen; there is a collection of unique and diverse opinions, a collection of diverse priorities. The challenge is to see the trees and the forest at the same time.
It means that the institutions will have to make choices on the topics on which they will concentrate and deliver.
Without this focus, there is a risk of dispersion. There is a saying in French "Qui trop embrasse, malétreint", meaning that if they try to be a Jack of all trades, they could end up being master of none.
I personally would advise them to focus on the functioning of democracy at all levels, in order to renew people's support for the value of democracy.
Why focus on democracy? Because lively democracy allows for good quality policy making, where citizens are on board and actively participate in the implementation of the policy.
And what role do you see for local and regional politicians?
I know several local politicians. My wife is still elected in our province, my son is a local councillor, until recently my brother was deputy mayor. They are all frustrated: they feel that their voices are not heard by their colleagues at other levels of power.
When they are consulted, they know that things will not change overnight, but they had the opportunity to contribute to better decision making and this helps counter the disenchantment and frustrations that they experience. But this consultation process has to be ongoing.
Local and regional politicians are the most trusted by the public. If they manage to build a lively democratic life at local level, mixing participatory and representative democracy, they will increase people's trust in democracy at all levels. The elected representatives have the final say.
Getting people to trust the EU level directly is the most difficult task. When people have good experiences of democracy at local level, they will regain trust at higher level.
And the CoR?
I think the CoR has a key role to play in this. It is currently helping its members to organise local dialogues to feed into the debate on the Future of Europe. And I applaud this initiative.
But I would advise the CoR that this process should not stop at the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe, as I said earlier. This listening process has to be permanent.
If the CoR succeeds in conveying local representatives' worries and priorities in terms of policies, then it can step up its importance in the European institutional framework.
The CoR cannot change its role as an institution, but it can reinvent it in order to be closer to local and regional politicians on a permanent basis. Then when the CoR speaks, European leaders will know that they speak not only on behalf of appointed CoR members, but also on behalf of the 1 million local and regional representatives.
To go further
Would you like to know more about the contribution of local and regional authorities to the Conference on the Future of Europe? Visit our dedicated page.
Find out about the platform for sending your contribution to the Conference on the Future of Europe.