The Conference on the Future of Europe aimed to engage citizens in shaping the EU’s direction but faced challenges amid unexpected events like the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite making decisions on pressing issues like the pandemic and war, the conference lacked public attention and media coverage. A permanent people’s assembly for Europe could address these shortcomings by embracing ambiguity in defining “Europe,” engaging with political institutions, and incorporating voices beyond EU borders. However, achieving this vision requires overcoming bureaucratic hurdles and bridging the gap between existing deliberative assemblies and EU institutions. As the 2024 European Parliament elections approach, there’s an opportunity to steer towards a more transformative democratic model.

The Conference on the Future of Europe promised citizens to put “the future … in your hands”. Yet, this unprecedented institutional exercise, which involved the European Union (EU) institutions, panels of 800 randomly selected citizens from across the EU, and a plenary session with representatives of the citizens’ panels, national governments, parliaments, and civil society, was rapidly overtaken by events. Conceived by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 as an attempt to restart the engine of European integration after years of Brexit negotiations, the conference was delayed at the beginning by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, while its concluding months in 2022 were overshadowed by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Black and white photograph of Niccolo Milanese.
Niccolò Milanese

These world events were to a significant extent unforeseeable – although the Russian war against Ukraine has been ongoing since 2014, and the EU hosted a Global Vaccination Summit in 2019. Yet, the methodology used for the conference, despite being the EU’s best effort to be more inclusive, revealed several serious blind spots: only EU citizens, not residents, were eligible to be selected for the citizens’ panels; citizens from the EU’s neighbours were therefore excluded until some Ukrainian citizens were heard in the event’s final meetings; decision-making in the conference was opaque; the follow-up was non-committal; and citizens’ participatory experiences – both in the citizens’ panels and online – were individualising, depoliticised, and strictly time limited.

During the conference, the EU took significant decisions about how to address world events such as the pandemic and the Russian invasion, but the political processes that led to these decisions had no connection to the event’s participants. The most important blind spot revealed by the conference was the conference itself: a large institutional exercise that went almost totally unnoticed by the European public and was barely covered by the media.

If, following this experience, greater citizen participation in European affairs is still important for the legitimacy of the EU institutions and could even improve policymaking by benefiting from citizens’ collective intelligence, the question arises of whether a permanent people’s assembly for Europe could do any better.

Which Europe?

It is perhaps worth starting with the word “Europe” itself, which has always had ambiguous meanings from its earliest mythological sources. It is often used as a shorthand for the EU member states but is also claimed by those who feel no affection towards that club (“Love Europe, not the EU” was a Brexiteer bumper sticker in the UK) as well as by those who long for EU affiliation or membership, as with Ukraine’s Euromaidan movement. “Europe” of course has many other uses that reflect varied geographies, from football and singing competitions to schools of philosophy. Instead of trying to foreclose its own possible meanings and geographies, a people’s assembly for Europe should perhaps embrace this ambiguity and not set itself a predefined, circumscribed territory.

At the same time, to have a political impact, a people’s assembly needs to have at least one political authority in its sights – and the EU is the obvious primary interlocutor and target. But what does this mean? During the negotiations on the mandate of the Conference on the Future of Europe, one of the interesting discussions was about whether the conference should cover only matters within the EU’s competence or whether it should be able to deal with any political topic. Figures in the European Commission expressed the view that citizens should be free to bring up any topic and that the conference secretariat should be able to address the right authority, given that all levels of European governance were involved in the plenary session.

This innovation and opening up of the logic of European governance is surely beneficial: while it is important for reasons of accountability to be clear which authority has competence for which decisions, these restrictions do not need to be introduced at the start of participative processes, which risk sending citizens from pillar to post in search of someone to address. Rather, the institutional channels of participation should guide and accompany people in finding the right institution while fostering collective processes throughout.

Is it possible to square an assembly’s undefined territorial scope with the need to address political institutions that do have a territorial remit? The answer lies in the way the assembly decides who has an interest in being heard on each topic under consideration. Arguably, these voices will often be from outside the EU. Why should people from the countries most affected by rising sea levels not be heard in an assembly discussing the EU’s climate policies, for example? Why should people from migrants’ countries of departure not be heard in an assembly discussing Europe’s migration policy?

One of the advantages of participative democracy over representative democracy should be the former’s ability to overcome, at least partly, the blind spots built into the logic of the latter. These blind spots result from the need to establish constituencies that are represented, which leads to people outside these constituencies being ignored, if not excluded. A people’s assembly can be more nimble, flexible, and variable in its geographies and therefore more inclusive, going some way to integrate externalities. All the while, the assembly must keep in mind that it cannot include the whole world: the idea of a perfectly inclusive participative process is unattainable.

Transnational, topical, permanent

Rather than representing a circumscribed territory or attempting to encompass the whole world, the concept of Europe can signify going beyond borders – a form of transnationalism that can foster deep diversity. Above all, transnationalism should go hand in hand with localism: a people’s assembly should be embedded in local communities, work with municipalities and mayors as much as with politicians in the EU institutions, and articulate the various levels of European politics. That is to say, an assembly should relate the levels of European decision-making to the concrete, everyday experiences of people living in or affected by Europe.

Moreover, instead of having a permanent central location, a people’s assembly could be nomadic in a way that takes into account local specificities and critically reflects on local contexts and their connections to other contexts across Europe. A people’s assembly for Europe could even be the locus of an ecosystem of assemblies across Europe and beyond, including not only those formally established by authorities but also those that are more spontaneous and led by civil society.

To be visible to a wider public, a people’s assembly needs to be topical. This is about more than choosing issues of current and broad public political concern: crucially, it is also about how the assembly inserts itself into debates. Here, the starting point is that the assembly needs to involve itself in debates that are already happening in other places and spaces, rather than assume that its declarations will have an automatic audience outside its members by fiat. This requires using the languages and symbols of popular debates, not the jargon of institutions, and approaching issues from the point of view of people and their experiences, not from the viewpoint of policy.

But more than this, it requires a strategy that is developed over time and an audience for and around the assembly. The assembly’s nomadism is part of this, as is its embeddedness in local contexts. More generally, the assembly’s strategy needs to benefit from the energy of people and wider civil society to communicate about and through the assembly, including by critiquing it, contesting it, trying to influence it, and engaging in all other aspects of healthy democratic relationships with power and institutions. This is the opposite of the controlled-experiment approach to citizens’ assemblies, which may work to introduce these assemblies in consolidated democracies where political institutions are anchored in the public sphere and the public has a firm grasp of what would count as a representative sample of itself but results in assemblies remaining invisible to European publics and therefore lacking in legitimacy.

The permanence of a people’s assembly is thus a crucial aspect: the assembly will develop over time as its authority and legitimacy grow. This, after all, is a similar trajectory to that of the European Parliament. Permanence in this context does not mean that the assembly should include the same members over time – quite the opposite, the institution of the assembly should be a permanent fixture of the European political landscape, while its membership should be able to change. An institution is a body that has a collective identity separate from the identities of its members. If the institution were not permanent, each assembly of selected citizens would be a new formation, to be dissolved again after completing its work.

Ephemeral assemblies convoked on a European scale are weakly embedded into other structures where publics can hold power to account and are therefore always at risk of being instrumentalised. To prevent this, two conditions are required to build an assembly with its own authority. First, the assembly needs the time and permanence to hold accountable the external power that it addresses, to prove its effectiveness with regard to other institutions. Second, it needs the time and permanence to learn from its experiences and develop its relevance, inclusiveness, and capacity for deliberation; these qualities concern the assembly’s internal relations as well as its external relations with the public, the media, and wider civil society. In this sense, the assembly is a process, a continuous adventure of construction and reconstruction, and, ultimately, an experience in autonomy.

The most important part of a permanent people’s assembly for Europe would be the sense that it has been constructed by the people – and continues to be over time. A permanent people’s assembly could claim to be the first European institution established by the people and therefore provide a much-needed democratic origin story for the evolving EU. As the EU is increasingly seen as distant and detached, even as it is ever more present in people’s lives, this would be a major advantage of a people’s assembly.

This sense of ownership is the opposite of the usual experience in citizens’ assemblies convened and managed by states, where it is often professional facilitators and the mandating authority that run the show and control the time and space of the assembly. One of the enemies of autonomy is bureaucracy, and the people’s assembly would therefore need to benefit from the agile ways of working that are common in civil society movements and avoid the rigid formalism and hierarchies often found in political institutions.

A catalyst for co-creation

How likely is any of this to happen? The EU institutions are going to continue talking about citizen participation. The Conference on the Future of Europe made a recommendation to hold periodic citizens’ assemblies; even before this, the commission had launched a Competence Centre on Participatory and Deliberative Democracy and designed numerous calls under the EU’s Horizon Europe research programme to promote the holding of assemblies. The commission has followed the conference with further citizens’ panels, which it says should become permanent fixtures of European policymaking. Meanwhile, the parliament has passed resolutions that mention various possibilities for greater citizen participation and the use of citizens’ panels.

If left to their own devices, the EU institutions will continue to fill this space with the kind of instrumental, highly circumscribed, and alienated forms of citizen participation witnessed during the conference and the citizens’ panels. Currently quite detached from this, there is an evolving ecosystem of deliberative assemblies that are driven either by civil society movements or in connection with local municipalities or regions. At the moment, these two worlds almost never interact. A permanent people’s assembly for Europe needs to be the catalyst that brings these two spheres together to offer a process of co-creation between those who hold the reins of political power in Europe and the people on whose behalf that power should be wielded.

The creation of a people’s assembly would potentially displace the current destructive struggle between a popular and a technocratic Europe as they disassociate themselves ever further. The year 2024, when the next European Parliament elections will take place, is a crucial moment for democracy in Europe and around the world. Now is surely the time to redirect these dynamics into the generation of a transformational assembly.


Niccolò Milanese is chair of European Alternatives, a transnational civil society movement promoting democracy, equality, and culture beyond the nation-state. Besides promoting a radically democratic Europe, he has worked as a researcher, a critic, a poet, and a teacher. He has been involved in the founding of numerous political and cultural organizations, magazines, and initiatives, including The Liberal Magazine, YAANI, the Mena Policy Hub, bitmind, the Cultural Innovators Network, the ECIT Foundation for European Citizenship, the Europe+ campaign for a democratic EU, and Civil Society Europe. He regularly acts as a consultant for cultural, educative, and political institutions and activist groups on cultural mediation and artistic innovation, citizenship and political theory beyond borders, generational trends, and organizational design. He co-authored (with Lorenzo Marsili) Citizens of Nowhere: How to save Europe from itself (2018).