WARSAW — Has Brussels’ blind optimism ever been clearer than at last week’s launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe? While supporters of the online forum speak of a new era in European participatory democracy, governments in Hungary, Poland and perhaps other countries are openly talking about hijacking it to push their own agendas.
If their takeover succeeds, it will turn the Conference on the Future of Europe into just another digital space taken over by political operatives, exacerbating the East-West divide that threatens to undermine the entire European project.
Proponents of the conference, most inside the Brussels bubble, seem to believe they can prevent anyone, even governments, from co-opting the process. There’s no reason to believe this is true.
Last month, as part of the conference, officials unveiled a multilingual, social-media-like platform where EU citizens can put forward their suggestions. But they left a key question unanswered: How will the conference be moderated, so that it encourages participation but doesn’t become just another digital misinformation mill?
The uncertainty about the platform’s security makes it a ripe target. One of the conference’s executive board members is the Polish MEP Zdzisław Krasnodębski, an advisor to Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the Law and Justice Party. Krasnodębski has already called the Conference on the Future of Europe an opportunity for Slavic countries to push back against the West.
And last year, Polish Minister for European Affairs Konrad Szymański told the Polish Sejm that he would like national parliaments to have a greater role in shaping the outcomes of the conference. In December, PiS together with ECR partners launched their own, parallel online forum, called “Europe’s future: a new hope.”
The leaders of Hungary and Poland have in the past proven skilled at laundering their policy priorities through friendly NGOs like the Hungarian Center for Fundamental Rights, Axióma and Poland’s Ordo Iuris — an influential anti-abortion lobby — to give them a false veneer of grassroots activism.
In Poland, “psychographic microtargeting” services similar to those used by Cambridge Analytica have been employed by the ruling party in other contexts. During the 2015 and 2020 presidential campaigns, PiS candidates used automated troll accounts, often created by digital disinformation specialists contracted to microtarget opposing views online.
There’s little stopping either government from channeling policy recommendations through the conference in the guise of private citizens or NGOs voicing their opinions. In France, by contrast, that sort of behavior would violate strict transparency rules for political content, created in response to the country’s 2017 electoral scandals.
If Hungary or Poland were to decide to put their fingers on the scale, what agenda would they pursue? They will first all seek to counter federalist ideas. Both Budapest and Warsaw dread the expansion of EU powers. Both want to upgrade the so-called “yellow card mechanism” — which grants national governments veto powers over EU legislation.
The risk now is that the Conference fails, and creates the same sense of “lack of control” among the public that drove Brexit narratives in the U.K. A massive online debate on the fundamentals of the EU, taking place while Brussels is in crisis management mode, is only asking for trouble and polarization.
The risk is particularly acute in the East. Polish trust in the EU has declined to just 50 percent, its lowest ever. The conference needs to succeed and show tangible progress, or the EU’s divisions are only likely to widen.
The way forward is clear: Civil society must speak out clearly, and the organizers of the conference must be alert to efforts by any government to hold the floor in process where they were only supposed to come and listen.