We’ve got problems – but talks on Europe’s future must not be a Big Moan

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Europe is having another party. Sorry, my mistake. It’s not a party nor a celebration. It will be a sober and serious reflection, a much-anticipated ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’.

For two years, European citizens – and I’m quoting EU documents here –  will be consulted, listened to and engaged with in an open, inclusive and transparent manner.

The bottom-up forum will strengthen trust and confidence between EU institutions and the people they serve. “This is our chance to show people that their voice counts in Europe,” says Dubravka Šuica, the European Commission’s Vice-President for Democracy and Demography.

Her boss, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Geopolitical European Commission, is even more ambitious, “My wish is that all Europeans will actively contribute to the Conference on the Future of Europe and play a leading role in setting the EU’s priorities. It is only together that we can build our Union of Tomorrow.”

Public engagement on EU questions, as illustrated in last year’s European Parliament elections, is running high

David Sassoli, the European Parliament President says it’s about making “democracy useful to all our citizens”. Stronger institutions are “the best medicine against the anti-Europeans”, according to EPP leader and once-wannabe Commission president Manfred Weber.

So far, so lyrical – so institutional, so pompous and so self-important. And so very solemn.

The writing is on the wall. If these and other equally verbose EU policymakers have their way, we’re headed for a miserable 24 months of purple prose, tediously long sermons and unneeded – and unheeded – speeches and moralising. In other words: a ‘Big European Moan’.

This must be avoided. The idea to engage with citizens is noble. European citizens, bless them, appear to be in quite a good mood. Public engagement on EU questions, as illustrated in last year’s European Parliament elections, is running high.

Let’s capitalise on this rather jolly mood

After three painful years of Brexit doom and gloom, and as Britain now tiptoes out of the EU, Eurosceptic politicians seem to have realised that anti-EU rhetoric isn’t a vote winner. US President Donald Trump’s diatribes against Europe have, paradoxically, helped make us all feel quite self-confident and important. Let’s capitalise on this rather jolly mood.

That means ignoring or at least minimising the institutional hijack – and institutional confusion – surrounding the upcoming European conversation.

The battle for primacy among members of the Commission, Parliament and Council is, in some ways, reassuringly predictable.

The European Parliament, rushing to make sure it isn’t ghosted out of the exciting new democratic endeavour, has come up with a mind-numbingly traditional organisational blueprint which includes – you guessed it – plenaries, steering committees and executive boards.

Make sure the talk is infused with hope, not fear

The EU Commission wants a million citizens dialogues to bloom across Europe but is hesitant about making any treaty changes to accommodate any lucid proposals that are made.

France’s Euro-passionate President Emmanuel Macron wants the conference to “propose all the necessary changes to our political project, without any taboos, not even treaty revision”. Policymakers in Berlin are in corners, hiding.

These and other wrangles will pick up pace in the coming months, obscuring attempts to focus on conference content. Here’s how to make this an energising enterprise, not an exercise in Euro-penitence.

First, by all means talk about the EU’s headline goals – climate change, economic equality and digital transformation – as well as democratic foundations, but make sure the talk is infused with hope, not fear.

Give time to the hate-mongers by all means – but also spotlight Europe’s liberal and progressive voices

Europeans can get quite obsessed with bad news (remember all those references to Europe’s “valley of tears”?). Many like emphasising the EU’s trials and tribulations, the roads less travelled, the promises unfulfilled.

The conference ringmaster should allow some tears. But then point to Europe’s strengths. I’m sure he/she can find a few to dwell on. If not, others can oblige.

Second, expect a chorus of petulant, toxic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, anti-migrant, anti-women, homophobic screams from those advocating their wacky version of a truly Christian, patriarchal and inward-looking Fortress Europe. Give time to the hate-mongers by all means – but also spotlight Europe’s liberal and progressive voices.

Third, the conference will only be taken seriously if it is truly inclusive and representative of the multicultural societies we live in. EU institutions talk endlessly about diversity and inclusion but – as illustrated over and over again, including through the #BrusselsSoWhite Twitter campaign – there’s little understanding or sensitivity about reaching out to Europe’s minorities.

Any conversation on Europe’s future should be a celebration as well as a reflection

It also makes sense to send invites to friends and family in the Western Balkans, in Britain and to some of our immediate neighbours – all of whom have a stake in Europe and its future.

Finally, what’s going to happen to all the ideas, aspirations and proposals that pop up during the debates? The ill-fated 2003 Convention on the Future of Europe and the ‘reflection group’ led by former Spanish prime minister Felipe González, which published its findings almost a decade ago, are recent examples of (semi) futile conversations. Will it really be different this time?

Maybe, maybe not. Interestingly, people’s organisations across Europe appear to be gearing up for fun times with plans for parties and ‘fringe festivals’. No moans or yawns for them. They are right: any conversation on Europe’s future should be a celebration as well as a reflection. And yes, the two can be combined.

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