Tackling climate change is one of the major challenges facing our societies. In the light of the countless international studies (Stern report, UNFCCC and IPCC reports, etc.), the European institutions, together with all leading international players, now agree that the environmental, social, economic and cultural effects predicted could be immense.
Following the outcome of the recent World Climate Conference (Bali 2007), and pending the next global summits on the topic (Poznan in late 2008 and Copenhagen in late 2009), the European Union intends to use the whole of this year to look closely at all its policies in this field: energy, transport, agriculture, trade, the environment, development, social policy, research, education, industry etc.
The European Parliament is inviting European civil society, represented by 500 of its most important organisations, to express its views freely and frankly on this crucial matter and to put forward its analyses and draw up proposals, while also defining its own role in what is to be done.
Taking place in Parliament’s Chamber in the presence of representatives of various European institutions, the Citizens’ Agora promises to be a key moment for European democracy.
Following the success of the previous Agora, work will be organised around cross-sector workshops with the aim of attracting a socially and culturally diverse range of contributors and initiating a dialogue which will transcend the traditional sector-specific topics of structured civil society. These working parties will enable opposing points of view to be heard and thus allow a consensus or the full range of options within the debate to emerge.
The various aspects of this major European and world issue will be addressed simultaneously and from a number of angles in five workshops (Resources, Techniques, Solidarity, Economies and Education). Above and beyond the presentation of the main concepts, any specific proposals will be welcomed. Those taking part in the Agora will also need to be aware at all times of the need to synthesise their analyses, to prioritise and, above all, to ensure that all policies are sustainable.
The first Agora discussed the future direction of Europe - principally the new Treaty and opportunities ahead. Held in the European Parliament on 8 and 9 November 2007, it brought together more than 400 people over two days.
The work of the Agora was divided into five workshops, which produced working documents from the debates. The conclusions were presented during a plenary session and at a number of press conferences.
Because it is directly elected, Parliament is the European Union institution best qualified to take up the challenge of keeping open the channels of communication with European Union citizens. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are in regular contact with citizens and are directly accountable to voters.
All European Union institutions of course understand the importance of dialogue with citizens as part of the European Union project. Nevertheless, their responses were essentially to do with the debate on Europe’s institutional architecture. Although this issue is vital, it is also important to focus on the day-to-day concerns of ordinary people.
The European Parliament therefore now proposes involving citizens in a permanent dialogue on the European Union's future.
Revitalising European integration requires a strong link with European Union citizens. It is not enough to tell people that Europe is being built for them - Europe needs to be built with them. Making this idea clear, and acting on it, is absolutely essential to maintaining trust.
The European Parliament wants not just to communicate with citizens, but genuinely to listen to them. Citizens, who act as protagonists, rather than just consumers, may not only transform the nature of the exercise, but also its aims.
Concerted and balanced dialogue will help ensure maximum support for the European Union project. Yet how, in practice, can a meaningful and fruitful debate be held in a Community of almost half a billion people?
What the Parliament proposes here is to combine the participatory energy of European society, expressed via networks of associations, professional organisations and trade unions, with representative democracy, as embodied at European level by the European Parliament.
This combination could be called the "AGORA", as a tribute to the first public debating forum established by Athenian "direct" democracy, which is at the root of our European democracy.
The Agora, as a forum, would combine the voices of European citizens with those of their elected representatives. It would give its participants the opportunity to engage in the European debate and to come up with concrete policies, based on everyday experience, to tackle the problems facing the Union.
From stating the problem to achieving a consensus
The Agora can provide input for MEPs to take forward in their work during the drafting of reports in parliamentary committees, i.e. before a particular subject is voted upon by that committee. Its debates will focus on issues that are a priority on Parliament's agenda and have a clear impact on citizens' daily lives. It will thus help shed light on issues that are too often confined to discussions with lobbyists.
The Agora could also help reconcile different points of view. By way of example, the 2004 Convention on the Future of Europe demonstrated that large areas of agreement could be established without a vote, simply through discussion, even within an extremely disparate assembly.
To step up the participation of civil society in European integration, Parliament is proposing to bring more citizens into the hearings and consultations that the European union institutions regularly hold with sectors of European civil society.
The 500 participants in the Agora will be asked to do much more than just share their views on topics relevant to the European union or take up the microphone to stimulate the debate. They will also be actively involved preparing the report of the debates. They will be protagonists, not commentators.
Furthermore, Parliament aims to transcend the traditional sector-specific structures of civil society (social affairs, the environment, development, education, and so on), so as to enable different points of view to be heard and a broad range of options to emerge.
Cross-discipline working groups will be set up to accommodate contributors from different social and cultural backgrounds and to facilitate dialogue between different civil society organisations.
This open and broad exchange would also be a valuable complement to the current programme of committee hearings. Such hearings, which are an essential means of enlightening Members of Parliament, by providing them with expert information, remain occasional events which are not usually extended to the large network of European civil society, which can often feel left out of the process.
Finally, the Agora will differ from past citizens' fora held in all Member States in that it will be open to participants from different countries, regardless of their national origin. The Agora will enable electors and elected, from all civil society sectors and all European union Member States, to gather together to openly discuss the future of our continent.
Other European union institutions would have everything to gain from the success of this venture and are natural partners of the citizens' Agora. The support of all the European union institutions for the Agora could result in a win-win situation for each of them.
The Council could encourage its members to publicise Parliament's initiative at an early stage among civil society bodies in their respective countries so as to build popular interest in the project.
The Commission could adopt the Agora as an operational tool in its continuous efforts to improve communication between the Union and European citizens. It could include the Agora's discussions into its own political reflections.
The Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Council, given their specific roles, could be involved in the work of the Agora and even be invited to express their views in an expert capacity.
The Agora will be held in the European Parliament's hemicycle in Brussels. 500 representatives from civil society organisations will be invited.
The Agora will be organised in three phases: a) preparation and drafting of the working documents with the help of the Agora web site; b) two-day debates in the Parliament, with a record of the debates drawn up; c) dissemination of the results to all parties.
The Conference of Presidents,will decide on the Agora timetable and identify themes of interest to citizens for discussion.
The parliamentary committees would, on account of their expertise in specific areas, be the bodies best able to determine who to invite. They are therefore responsible for the accreditation of European civil society organisations. Each committee is in charge of issues falling within its sphere of competence under the EP Rules of Procedure.
Each Agora meeting debate would be wound up by two moderators, one chosen among MEPs or representatives from other European union Institutions, and the other from the invited organisations.
By contrast, those responsible for the report of workshop discussions will be chosen from among the 500 civil society members. There will be two or three such "reporters" for each of the five workshops. Their role is particularly sensitive.
These reporters will be responsible for preparing a discussion document before the meeting takes place, with the help of the contributions sent by the participants on the Agora web site.
Moreover, they will take charge of preparing a single recto-verso page paper summing up the debate and the range of options that emerged from the discussions.
Each organisation involved is asked to choose only one of its members to participate to the Agora. The choice of who to send to Brussels is up to the organisation itself.
An Agora will take place on 8 and 9 November 2007 and focus on the future of Europe: challenges, opportunities and tools presented by the new treaties. At the beginning of next year, other themes such as climate change and the social dimension of the European union will be discussed during a second Agora.
For this event, the Constitutional Affairs Committee has been designated as the lead committee and is therefore responsible for inviting half of the participants, i.e. 250 people. Ten other committees have been involved in the preparation of the Agora, each responsible for inviting 25 people. They are the committees on Civil Liberties, Foreign Affairs, Budget, Social Affairs, Development, Environment, Industry, Women's rights and the sub-committees on Human Rights and Security and Defence.
The record of discussions on a particular theme would serve not only MEPs in their own reflection but would also be brought to the attention of Parliament's committees and/or the other European union institutions concerned, thus ensuring that due weight is given to citizens’ views.
Records of the Agora's work will be sent to the European union and national institutions and to all organisations involved. The civil society organisations will also contribute, via their networks, to its wide dissemination.
On 50th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome, the European Parliament is making a remarkable bet - and one that citizens should be ready to take.
The Citizens’ Agora represents a link between the European Parliament and European civil society. It is a unique tool, in both structure and breadth, for discussing with citizens, issues on Parliament’s legislative agenda.
The Agora provides room for open debate with a view to building consensus or revealing diverging opinions within civil society on the analysis or the action to be undertaken to address Europe's future challenges.
As the EU develops its next initiatives, European civil society organisations are invited to express their views, bringing forward their analyses and proposals and highlighting the role they are willing to take in future EU actions.
The Agora conclusions, as drafted by the civil society representatives, are submitted to the European and national institutions and widely disseminated by all those involved.