In the current EU decision-making landscape, future generations lack representation and formal rights, and there are no strategies beyond 2050. This oversight leads to short-term prioritisation by policy makers, neglecting intergenerational equity, despite recognised principles such as sustainable development. To address this, institutional reforms such as establishing a dedicated EU office for future generations, improving impact assessments and creating parliamentary intergroups focused on long-term policies are crucial. By embracing such changes, the EU can strengthen its democratic legitimacy and resilience by governing across time and promoting intergenerational equity and sustainability.

The European project emerged as a long-term response to the immediate and tangible challenges facing all European countries in the aftermath of the Second World War. It was rooted in a desire to prevent the recurrence of destructive conflicts across the continent through unprecedented economic cooperation. As such, what is now the European Union (EU) was envisioned from its inception as a project meant to transcend current generations to protect future ones. Italy’s former prime minister, Mario Monti, famously dubbed the EU the “trade union” that defends the interests of future generations.

person wearing a suit smiling.
Alberto Alemanno

Yet, the big crises of the past decade or more – from the eurozone crisis to Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – have led to doubts about the EU’s ability to think and act for the long term. These rapidly succeeding events have put the union and its member states in a permanent emergency mode, with seemingly no space left for a longer view. While the EU proved its resilience by taking swift emergency decisions in relation to these crises, its responses also revealed the fundamental deficiencies of a system that seems capable of responding only to the present.

No recognition of future generations

Future generations have no rights or representation in the EU’s decision-making today. Its existing long-term strategies do not extend beyond 2050. In these circumstances, in which unborn generations do not have a seat at the table, neither policymakers nor political leaders are incentivised to think and act for the long term. They tend to respond instead to the wishes of the current generations of voters. The EU institutions – as those in other jurisdictions – are not legally mandated to think for the long term and lack the tools to systematically design future-proof policies.

First, the EU’s founding treaties do not recognise or define future generations. While the EU has over time acknowledged the emergence of future-oriented principles of law – such as sustainable development, the precautionary principle, the solidarity principle, and environmental non-regression – these fall short of sanctioning a principle of intergenerational equity. Only such a principle could require the EU’s policymakers, courts, and administration to embrace a systematic consideration of future generations’ interests. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which states that the enjoyment of these rights entails responsibilities and duties regarding other persons, the human community, and future generations, is the only instrument of primary law that makes an explicit reference to the unborn. But this has not yet prompted meaningful consideration and protection of their interests.

Second, the European Commission’s system of better regulation – possibly one of the most advanced regulatory approaches in the world – strives to assess the prospective economic, social, and environmental impacts of EU policymaking. However, it fails to consider implications beyond a time horizon of 20 years at most; that is, less than a generation from now. If the commission – the most technocratic of the EU institutions – fails to systematically take care of future generations’ interests in the preparation of its legislative proposals and other initiatives, the European Parliament and the EU Council do no better. Their members are elected officials who make policy within the logic of the EU’s five-year electoral cycle. Yet, many of the challenges that require an EU-level response affect the interests of future generations.

Third, the new wave of EU climate-oriented policy, under the label of the European Green Deal, is committed to supporting the transition to a fair and prosperous society that responds to the challenges posed by climate change and environmental degradation, thus improving the quality of life of current and future generations. Yet, this appears unlikely to be adopted by the end of the current policy cycle, which ends in 2024, or pursued in the near future.

As a result, future generations are a blind spot in the EU’s democratic model, despite the long-term original nature of the European project. This is set to get worse, as Europe is an ageing continent, where the share of people over 55 in the total population will rise from just under 30% today to just over 40% by 2050. Older generations are thus set to grab even more political power.

Yet, at the same time, there are seeds of change. A growing concern about long-term risks, most prominently relating to climate change and pandemics, is raising public awareness of the importance of long-term thinking as a civilisational priority. The emergence of several academic, official, and private initiatives also suggests that the idea of embedding future generations in existing policy ecosystems is gaining traction. But while this new trend may provide an opportunity to counter short-termism, for now it remains on the margins, and far from becoming mainstream.

How to recover the EU’s long-term thinking

Nevertheless, this might be the right time to create an institutional architecture that will make the “trade union” for future generations a reality in Europe. With the EU embarking on a new policy cycle in 2024, there might be an appetite for it to recover some of its original long-term thinking by embedding the interests of future generations in its decision-making. Some ideas for doing so include the following.

A dedicated EU office for future generations: One particularly symbolic and substantive approach to remedying the EU’s neglect of future generations’ interests would be to establish a new union-level institution to act as a guardian of future people.

There are many national examples of institutions that the EU can learn from: in Europe, where Finland, Hungary, Malta, Sweden, and Wales have such dedicated bodies; outside Europe, as in Canada, Israel, and Uruguay; or at the international level, with a 2021 proposal to appoint a United Nations (UN) special envoy for future generations. The latter would repurpose the UN Trusteeship Council (originally created to oversee decolonisation) into a future-oriented body and may lead to the negotiation of a declaration on future generations that could give future people legal standing. At the EU level, European Commission Executive Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič has been convening a Ministers of the Future meeting. This suggests that the foundations for a new, dedicated institution might already be laid.

When considering the choice of model for representing the interests of future generations at the EU level, the first question is whether it would create new institutions and procedures, replace old institutions, or merely add competencies to existing bodies.

A European ombudsman for future generations: One add-on option would be to confer extra competencies to the European Ombudsman, which is tasked with uncovering maladministration in the activities of the EU institutions and bodies. However, under its current mandate, it is competent only to monitor the preparation of policies, not to substantively review them. What is more, the ombudsman’s decisions are advisory and not legally binding. This would render it unfit for the purpose of representing the interests of future generations. But it could be invested with the authority to scrutinise policy decisions as to their impact on future’s people well-being, in line with article 3 of the Treaty on European Union, which states that the aim of the EU is “to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its people”.

Two other existing EU bodies with the potential to play a role in defending the interests of future generations are the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights and the European Environment Agency.

A European commissioner for future generations: Another add-on approach would be to give a portfolio dedicated to future generations to a member of the European Commission. This commissioner could even be made first vice-president to confer on this role a higher authority.

This commissioner would work across departments and act as the EU’s chief “foresighter”, leading a team of experts who would give their views on the commission’s political priorities, annual legislative programmes, and impact assessments. In order for this commissioner to act as a guardian and conduit for future generations’ interests across the EU, the incumbent would also be the “chief listener” – a channel open to direct input from citizens and organisations concerned about the long-term implications of EU actions and inaction. In this role, the commissioner might also help renew the EU’s vision of the future of Europe.

In so doing, this commissioner would embrace citizen participation processes such as visioning and deliberative processes such as citizens’ assemblies, or other futuring techniques, to ensure a planned transition towards a future that reflects the interests of generations to come.

To remedy the EU’s representational omission of future generations, one may also consider further complementary or alternative models and procedures.

Impact assessments for future generations: Since 2002, the EU has carried out impact assessments for its most relevant initiatives, conducted by the commission and increasingly by the parliament and the council. However, these do not have a time horizon of more than 20 years on average. Thus, there is scope to significantly expand the temporal dimension of impact assessments conducted during the preparation of an EU initiative – in the pre-legislative and legislative phases – with analysis being documented, circulated, and discussed among those involved. Portugal has recently developed and implemented a framework for intergenerational fairness that systematically assesses public policies according to what is fair and unfair to people alive today and to future generations.

A European Parliament intergroup on future generations: Intergroups are not official bodies of the parliament but are recognised by it as forums for informal exchanges of views on specific issues across different political groups. They are also a contact point between members of parliament and civil society. Intergroups must be composed of members from at least three political groups, and they are established by agreement between the chairs of the political groups at the beginning of each legislative term.

An intergroup for future generations would be a low-cost mechanism for making the parliament’s work more oriented towards the long term. However, it would not be capable of mainstreaming consideration of future generations’ interests into the day-to-day examination of legislative proposals coming from the commission.

An inter-institutional agreement on future generations: Such a text could be modelled on the union’s Inter-Institutional Agreement on Better Law-Making and confirm a commitment to future generations by the commission, the parliament, and the council. It would determine the relationships among the various mechanisms and bodies envisioned across these institutions to ensure their coordination.

Regardless of which institutional arrangement the EU might adopt, what matters most is for it to recognise that the time has come to prepare itself to govern problems that span temporal boundaries as well as spatial ones. Should the union succeed in embracing this new dimension in its work, this may help enrich its democratic qualities while laying the foundation for a new generation of future-oriented political reflexes and institutions. That is exactly what the EU must urgently acquire to be democratically future ready and potentially future proof.


Alberto Alemanno is the Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law at HEC Paris and visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges. One of the leading voices on Europe’s democratization, Alberto’s research has been centered on how the law may be used to counter social, health, economic, and political disparities of access within society. Alberto is also permanent visiting professor at the University of Tokyo School of Public Policy. Due to his commitment to bridge the gap between academic research and policy action, Alberto has established The Good Lobby, a nonprofit whose mission is to equalize access to power, by enhancing the advocacy capacity of civil society. Due to his public interest work, he was recognized Young Global Leader by the World Economic ForumAshoka fellow, Social Innovation Thought Leader by the Schwab Foundation and one of the top 40 influencers in Europe by Politico. Alberto is a regular contributor to Le Monde, The Guardian, Politico Europe, Bloomberg, and Euronews. His first trade book, ‘Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society’, provides a conceptual and do-it-yourself guide enabling ordinary citizens to speak up and inform policy decisions at local, national and international level. Originally from Italy, Alberto is a graduate of Harvard Law School, the College of Europe and holds a PhD in International Law and Economics from Bocconi University. He lives in Bilbao with his three daughters.