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Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès addresses the participants at the opening ceremony of the Conference on the Future of Europe (8 October 2021). © SPF AE/FOD BZ
Rafik Kiouah © SPF AE/FOD BZ
Rafik Kiouah has always had a keen interest in politics, including the European Union. As a geography teacher in Schaerbeek, he therefore has a great task ahead of him: to explain to his students what the EU stands for.
‘Most of them don't know anything about it,’ Kiouah says. ‘They didn't live through WWII, they don't know the time before the euro or when there were real borders with customs. They need to learn that history. Because if you explain it to them properly, they suddenly show a lot of interest in the EU. They understand what the EU brings to them all: peace, easy travel, paying in euros almost everywhere...’
Kiouah is a member of the web panel from IVOX, a company that regularly conducts surveys. One such survey gauged interest in the EU. One day, after completing it, he was invited to participate in a citizens' panel as part of the Conference on the Future of Europe(link is external) (see box).
For this conference, citizens selected by lot from across the EU are invited to reflect together on a number of themes, such as climate change and the environment, health, the EU in the world, migration and so on. Each EU member state organises workshops per theme, where a range of recommendations are collected. These are then discussed at a plenary session, with representatives from all Member States. The end result is a final set of recommendations that will be handed over to the European Commission.
A well-deserved coffee break. Rafik Kiouah stands next to Minister Wilmès. © SPF AE/FOD BZ
How to improve democracy?
Kiouah was invited to a citizens' panel on the topic of how to improve democracy in Europe and how to make people more interested in the EU. Kiouah: ‘A total of 50 Belgians participated in the discussions: of all ages, Dutch-speakers as well as French-speakers, both people who had studied and people who hadn't. We met for 3 weekends, both the Saturday and the Sunday, each time from 10am to 4pm. In October 2021, we were in the Chamber, in November in the Egmont Palace, in December it took place virtually because of COVID-19.’
The participants held discussions both in small groups and in plenary sessions. And those discussions were sometimes quite robust. Kiouah: ‘There were lots of ideas. But everyone wanted to make the best of it and aim for a decent compromise. There was a very good atmosphere and the whole way it was organised was first-class.’
In the end, the participants distilled 50 recommendations. ‘Among other things, making young people better informed about the EU, a separate news broadcaster about the EU, holding an open day, preventing disinformation through better communication, etc.’ One of the participants – Dorien Nijs – took them all to a plenary session in Strasbourg in January 2022.
Kiouah is highly satisfied with his experience. ‘I was already very positive about the EU beforehand, but now I'm even more positive. I saw that there are many other people who are interested in the EU,’ he concludes.
A new boost for European democracy
The European Commission (EC) wants Europeans to have a greater role in the decision-making process and more actively determine what the EU's priorities are. Because while democracy is alive and well in Europe – the record turnout for the 2019 European elections points to this – there are a number of challenges: rising extremism, disinformation, the mutual alienation of voters and elected representatives, etc.
With the Conference on the Future of Europe, the EC is aiming to deepen democracy. Citizen-led debates allow people from all over Europe to share their ideas and help shape the EU's common future. This takes place through a multilingual digital platform, where any European can exchange ideas, as well as through both national and European citizens' panels. These contributions are taken into account in the conference's plenary sessions.