Slovenia: Future of Europe debate should focus on resilience

This article is part of our special report Participatory budgeting: hype or democratic panacea?.

After the successive crises over two decades, a core issue for the Conference on the Future of Europe should be how to ensure the resilience of the EU and put policies in favour of European citizens first, Slovenia’s State Secretary Gašper Dovžan told EURACTIV.

“We have not developed the instruments to prepare ourselves for a future crisis, this is something that needs to be part of the discussion,” Dovžan said.

“It’s not only about health, not only about how the internal market has been struck by the pandemic, it’s also more complex issues such as we have seen now with the crisis in Afghanistan,” he added.

According to him, this would include exploring how current shortcomings could be improved by establishing cooperation mechanisms or discussing what passerelles could be used, like abandoning qualified majority voting for quicker and faster decisions.

“In the end it comes down to strike the sensitive balance between preparing the EU to be more robust, stronger externally and internally cohesive while not competing with the member states’ national competence and responsibility,” Dovžan said.

However, according to him, it would not be necessary to primarily talk about treaty change as “there is more or less unanimity among member states to ensure that we debate policies and that we see how we could improve the functioning of the EU”.

“But if in turns out at the COFEU that the policies cannot be improved on the basis of the existing treaties, it will be up to the member states and EU institutions to decide of the next steps,” the Slovenian minister added.

Citizen’s participation

“Our main goal is to be inclusive and to have full transparency when it comes to member states wishes and that we are adequately representing the aggregate of views present in the Council and there is the need to put policies in favour of citizens first,” he said.

Dovžan’s comments come as the first European citizen’s panel sessions are due to start next weekend.

In the consultation process, there are four panels, each one including 200 randomly selected EU citizens that will discuss issues related to four topical baskets: economy-jobs-culture, European democracy/values and rights, climate change-environment/health, and the EU in the world/migration.

By the end of the year, the panels will formulate recommendations, which will be discussed at a plenary that brings together citizens, representatives of EU institutions and national parliaments as well as other stakeholders.

The recommendations will feed into a final report, which will be prepared in spring 2022 by the executive board of the Conference, comprised of the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission.

Speaking about what he expects to happen to the final results of the consultation phase, Dovžan pointed towards the agreement achieved between member states that it will be up to the political leadership of all the three institutions to draw the conclusions from the input given.

“This is the fairest and reasonable approach, since from the outset it was agreed that the whole process is not aimed at treaty change,” he said.

Asked whether he is concerned that the process could lead into a dead end, like the French consultations once conducted by President Emmanuel Macron, Dovžan said he “doesn’t believe the project will fail, because it’s also about the process itself, and the process will be definitely a success”.

“We should not only be focused on the substance – of course, it is important – but we should take into account the process of citizen’s inclusion, which is something new and a unique opportunity to close the gap between the political elites and citizens,” Dovžan said.

Exits and add-ons

Asked whether the potential disintegration of the bloc, after the UK decided to leave the EU, should be part of talks about the future of the EU, Dovžan said Brexit had been “a big loss”.

“The EU ensures to every member state great added value, and I see no danger and am not afraid of further exits,” he said, adding:

“But the reasons that such views exist have to be taken into account, studied and responded to show the clear benefits of the integration process.”

As the EU is going through many crises, Dovžan said “the story about the EU and its successes needs to be retold for every generation, and we have to invest more in education, in studying the history of the member states and of the continent as such, to learn from this experience”.

At the same time, earlier this year, Slovenia had advocated for including the voice of citizens from countries of the Western Balkans into the future of Europe debate.

Enlargement is a key strategic issue for the EU and the big tragedy of that policy area is that it somehow slipped off the agenda during the last decade and a half of various crisis, instead of seeing it one key answer to all those challenges,” Dovžan said.

That the last two presidencies did not achieve any progress would be “deplorable” and “open a lot of questions”.

According to the Slovene minister, the gap between the question of credibility for the EU to move forward on enlargement, despite geopolitical, economic political concerns, and the pace of reforms in the region on the other, is closing too slow.

“We are definitely among those that saw the opportunity for the conference to debate this question to persuade others that we really have to put this geopolitical question as our key priority,” Dovžan said.