Did the Conference on the Future of Europe go local? Evidence from Poland

Paweł Bącal |

This article is based on research presented at the UACES Graduate Forum 2023 (8-9 June, at IBEI, Barcelona). The conference was supported by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

 

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) was “a citizens-focused, bottom-up exercise for Europeans to have their say on what they expect from the European Union”. Although organised by the European Commission, European Parliament and the Council, other actors were invited to participate in the CoFoE to  “reach every corner of the EU” and “bring Europe closer to the citizens”.  Notably, local and regional authorities (LRAs) were involved.  

The latter, as the participatory democracy research shows, are in a better position to involve citizens in the decision-making process than their European counterparts, which could contribute to the success of the CoFoE.  Yet, this depends on whether the LRAs decided to get involved in the Conference. In this article, I will evaluate the involvement of LRAs in the conference, based on research conducted among Polish local and regional authorities. 

 

Local and Regional Authorities: The Polish Picture

The study aimed to determine if LRAs: (1) informed the citizens about the CoFoE; (2) organised events within CoFoE’s framework and (3) took part in the events organised by other entities. Consisting of 179 selected LRAs, the study population was divided into three categories: (1) LRAs “institutionally involved at the EU level” (through the Committee of the Regions, Regional Office in Brussels or CoFoE’s plenary); (2) LRAs from the chosen Region (Pomorskie Region) and (3) LRAs of the capital cities of the regions. Regarding levels of involvement in the CoFoE conference, I expected  the LRAs gathered in the first category to be most active as they have direct ties with the EU institutions. 

The results demonstrate a lack of involvement by most LRAs with the CoFoE. Of 179 LRAs, only 26 have undertaken at least one activity (of mentioned above) regarding the CoFoE. This means that 85% of the study population did not get involved. For LRAs “institutionally involved at the EU level”, 19 out of 35 can be classified as active. Furthermore, only 8% of LRAs from the Pomorskie Region, and only 4 of 18 capital cities participated in any CoFoE activities.  

 

EU Institutional Involvement and CoFoE: a Reality?

At first sight it is evident that LRAs involved with “institutional involvement at the EU level” determined a higher rate of engagement within the CoFoE. Yet, this engagement is based significantly on the actions of the 15 regional authorities as participants. If excluded from the “institutional involvement” category, only 5 active authorities would be left. In Poland, it seems that regional authorities have adopted the role of the LRAs “involved” at the EU level, but this is incorrect. A CoR, Regional Office or CoFoE plenary does not mark an involvement with the EU at an institutional level. 

Another conclusion that we can draw from the results is that the CoFoE failed to “reach every corner of the EU” – at least in Poland. For instance, out of 80 rural municipalities in the study population, only 1 can be classified as active. None of the 19 urban-rural municipalities got involved. And in the case of the urban municipalities, 7 out of 43 took at least one action. As highlighted earlier, the CoFoE did not even manage to engage the vast part of the “institutionally involved” LRAs. Therefore, more than one initiative (even as big as the CoFoE) is required to break institutional habits. 

 

Changing Outlooks: Europe through the Regions?

I would like to conclude this article by pointing to another reason to engage with this topic:  the CoFoE’s new logic  in favour of LRAs’ involvement at the EU level. Up to the Conference, the CoFoE’s approach was based on the “Europe with the Regions” model which focused on the authorities alone, and implicitly assumed that it would lead to the involvement of the citizens (which proved not to be the case). On the contrary, the CoFoE’s model explicitly demanded from the LRAs to engage the people. This approach follows the European Commission’s  2022 initiative called “Building Europe with Local Councillors”. Could we be heading for “Europe through the Regions”? That is for the future research to determine.