Anyone who has ever sat through inconclusive meetings at work might relate to leaders from nearly 50 European countries participating in a summit last week. Although topics ranged from Ukraine to immigration, the summit ended Oct. 5 with no action steps, or “deliverables.” Yet that was by design. The purpose of this latest gathering of the European Political Community was simply to listen and reflect in the spirit of equality. The usual dynamics of power were left at the door.
The informal forum was set up by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2022 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One aim is to build trust and create respectful deliberation among the European Union’s 27 members and 20 non-EU-affiliated countries, many of which seek to join the bloc. The summit’s tone of humility was reflected by President Macron himself. In June, he apologized to many Eastern European countries for not heeding their warnings about Russian aggression.
“We did not always hear the voices you brought,” he said. “That time is over.”
Europe has a strong record of creating safe spaces for loosely structured, often citizen-led groupings to discuss difficult topics without the trappings of institution and hierarchy. Ireland relied on temporary citizen assemblies to help create a consensus on issues such as abortion. The United Kingdom used such a forum to deliberate on the impact of Britain’s exit from the EU.
In 2019, the EU set up the Conference of the Future of Europe, consisting of young people and civil society, to recommend reforms in Europe’s official bodies. Citizen panels have become “a regular feature of our democratic life,” says European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The European Political Community has no budget or central office. Its gatherings rotate to countries willing to host the meetings. “The format offers a rare space to test ideas in closed sessions,” writes Camille Grand, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. It also “can help create the conditions for progress before more institutionalised processes take over.”
Not all talk shops are, well, talk shops. If they are set up for authentic listening more than artful persuasion, they allow the best ideas and information to emerge in gentle settings.
The European Political Community just finished its third gathering, this one in Spain, showing that informal discussions between leaders are needed. “There is sometimes underestimated value,” writes Alexander Adam, an adviser to the French president, “in deliberation taking precedence over … decision.”