The Conference on the Future of Europe: are we there yet?

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Emily Phillips
Emily Phillips

Programme Assistant at Friends of Europe

Has the time to talk about the future of Europe finally arrived?

Despite European ambassadors finally approving the format proposed by the Portuguese Presidency, we need to proceed with caution as the bottom-up form of representation that is the Conference may still end in stalemate. In fact, there is still a very real risk that the Brussels Bubble may once again leave EU citizens empty-handed if certain conditions are not met in the light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The truth, though, is that the pandemic no longer represents a valid excuse for deferring an initiative that could easily have been reprogrammed to an earlier date.

In fact, pushing ahead and launching the Conference even in such a challenging context would have meant sending a positive message to EU citizens, as well as a genuine opportunity to reinvigorate European democracy.

Governance and leadership issues certainly did not help provide a smooth kick-start to the process and have actually served to undermine the credibility of this exercise. The lengthy deadlock over the role of who should chair the Conference has also showcased the fragility of inter-institutional cooperation, with the Parliament and Council engaged in a heated debate from the very start.

The signs are that the Conference will not provide any significant outcomes

It is clear that the main difficulties in organising this wide-reaching forum have been political rather than technical.

But if EU institutions really wish to let people give a new impulse to the European project and shape EU core policies in a stimulating and inclusive discussion, they need to avoid this kind of in-fighting.

Citizens don’t care who chairs the Conference, but that did not prevent a whole year passing before the bloc eventually agreed on a tri-partite presidency. And let’s be honest, the newly proposed governance structure fails to make the institutional set up of the Union less complicated to the eyes of citizens.

For an exercise supposedly based on transparency and dynamism, this bickering already acts as a negative backdrop to what may ultimately prove to be a weak and inconclusive exercise. Indeed, despite being ambitious in terms of objectives and content, the signs are that the Conference will not provide any significant outcomes.

To make matters worse, the suggested 12-month timeline for drawing conclusions will likely turn into a race against the clock. One forward-thinking aspect that many within the European Parliament halls would have liked to see discussed is treaty change. This includes establishing transnational lists in view of the next European elections and re-attempting to apply the (in)famous Spitzenkandidaten process. However, none of these topics are currently on the Conference agenda.

The EU’s initiative to improve citizen participation in the political system still represents a ground-breaking idea

It would be an unprecedented mistake to leave the Spitzenkandidaten system out of the discussion, especially as it had already been promised to people and not delivered in the 2019 European elections.

Although President von der Leyen welcomed “proposals for treaty change” in her 2019 political guidelines, the Commission and Council were then not bold enough to let related discussions take place in the Conference. This sets a risky precedent as the Parliament loses political leverage in proposing reforms with respect to member states who are against making the Union less intergovernmental.

It is no coincidence that in a recent survey published by the European Parliament, nearly half of all respondents support the EU but wish to see greater reform being brought about.

One can only hope that this poll represents a decisive wake-up call for Parliament to stress the need to reform the Union and at least make some capital out of the unique chance that the Conference undoubtedly represents.

Regardless of all these issues and challenges, the EU’s initiative to improve citizen participation in the political system still represents a ground-breaking idea and an opportunity to generate ideas more frequently than the usual five-year time span between European elections. Thus, it deserves to be fully supported.

We should just hope that no additional institutional bottlenecks occur prior to May 9th

The record turnout in the 2019 European elections was driven by the younger generation, so increased participation by young people could represent a crucial part of the Conference’s longer-term impact. After all, what sense would this initiative have without close engagement with this group? They are clearly the ‘future of Europe’ and are those most affected by any decisions taken at EU level. Involving young people in tackling climate change, economic recovery and discussing pressing political challenges must remain the main goals of a truly inclusive event.

Finally, whilst the Conference should also bring successful stories of minority groups to the attention of European institutions, Eurosceptic voices must also be included as criticism should be a core part of the debate and proposed improvements need to be reflected in the final recommendations.

However, before we start envisaging the active participation of as many citizens as possible, be they enthusiastic or sceptical towards Europe, we should just hope that no additional institutional bottlenecks occur prior to May 9th.

If this does happen, the EU will ultimately be responsible for postponing an innovative platform, planned for Europe Day, for too long.

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