There have been growing fears that, with efforts focusing on the fallout from the Coronavirus pandemic, the Conference on the Future of Europe will be ditched altogether.
However, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has sought to revive the idea by saying, in her recent State of the Union speech to MEPs, that she wants the Conference to start soon.
She later said, “We are almost ready to start. It was difficult to get the Conference started because of COVID, but it is absolutely necessary and we are eager to get it started.”
German Europe Minister Michael Roth is also currently pushing to get the Conference started under the German presidency and for it to end under the French presidency. If that happens it would mean the Conference would have to be cut from two years to 18 months.
It is also felt that, given the enormity of the pandemic, health will be much more of a focus for the Conference than was originally envisaged.
Alexander Stubb's name, meanwhile, is fast emerging as a possible president of the Conference. Belgian Renew Europe deputy Guy Verhofstadt had been the frontrunner until now.
“We are almost ready to start. It was difficult to get the Conference started because of COVID, but it is absolutely necessary and we are eager to get it started” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission President
Earlier this year, it was reported that the three biggest political groups in the European Parliament, the EPP, S&D and Renew Europe, had agreed that Verhofstadt should be the chair but this “pact” appears to have fallen by the wayside.
In any event, the media-friendly Verhofstadt faces potentially stiff competition.
Former Finnish MEP Stubb, who served as the Prime Minister of Finland from 2014 to 2015, rose to politics as a researcher specialised in the affairs of the European Union and was elected to Parliament in 2004.
Another possible candidate, it has been suggested, is Lithuanian Dalia Grybauskaitė, a former EU commissioner and MEP, who served as the eighth President of her country from 2009 until 2019.
She is the first woman to hold the position and became in 2014 the first President of Lithuania to be re-elected for a second consecutive term.
Also in the frame is Gabi Bischoff, a German Socialist MEP. She was a member of the EESC in Brussels from 2009 until 2019. During her tenure, she served as President of the Workers' Group from 2015.
“Lockdown was a missed opportunity to launch the consultation online with so many citizens at home. Meanwhile, top-level horse trading continues about who will control this so-called ‘bottom-up’ conference” Roger Casale, CEO of New Europeans
Bischoff is also a member of the European Parliament's Working Group on the Future of Europe Conference.
One well-placed parliamentary insider told this site, “Guy Verhofstadt is the European Parliament's choice to chair the Conference on the Future of Europe, but the Council insists that the choice of chair should be made by the Council, Commission and Parliament together.”
“I don't think they [the Council and Commission] want Verhofstadt and I don't think Parliament will die in a ditch to ensure that it is Verhofstadt. The problem is that I am not sure he is seen as a team player.”
“So other names are in the frame but equally the Council is not keen to take forward the Conference at all, with the exception, it seems, of France and Germany and maybe one or two others.”
Further comment came from Roger Casale, CEO of New Europeans, an EU-wide citizens’ rights group which expects to play a role in the Conference.
He believes Verhofstadt, a former Belgian Prime Minister, would be a “great chair” of the Conference, which aims to pave the way for large scale reform of the EU in the wake of Brexit.
“Agreeing on a Joint Declaration is an essential step to launching the Conference as soon as possible in autumn, taking into account the specific situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The Joint Declaration will define the scope, the structure and main objectives and principles of the Conference” European Commission spokesperson
The former Labour MP added, “The key thing right now is to get the show on the road.”
He added, “If there is not a consensus around his name, we need a decision on someone else as chair. There are many excellent people with a commitment to citizen engagement who could fit the bill. Anyone from Stubb, Grybauskaitė or Bischoff would have our support.”
Casale also appealed to the EU institutions to launch the Conference as soon as possible, saying, “Lockdown was a missed opportunity to launch the consultation online with so many citizens at home. Meanwhile, top-level horse trading continues about who will control this so-called ‘bottom-up’ conference.”
“The failure to agree a start date has opened the door for initiatives such as Europe Future Fringe and Citizens Take Over to mobilise to give citizens a say about Europe’s future.”
The Conference is a joint endeavour of Parliament, the Council and the Commission.
A Commission spokesperson told this website, “The Commission welcomes the fact that discussions with Parliament and the Council presidency have started with a view to agreeing on a Joint Declaration on the Conference.”
She said “first talks” between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, and the Council presidency took place already before the summer break.
“Agreeing on a Joint Declaration is an essential step to launching the Conference as soon as possible in autumn, taking into account the specific situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The Joint Declaration will define the scope, the structure and main objectives and principles of the Conference.”
She added, “The current conditions do not allow us to define the timing in more detail. But there is common agreement among all three institutions that we need to start - at the first opportunity - an in-depth reflection with citizens on how to provide answers to citizens’ concerns and ambitions and how to build the future of our Union.”
“European policies affect European citizens in their daily life; the Conference provides an opportunity to give European citizens a greater say on what the Union does and how it works for them. European citizens can also bring up those topics that are most relevant to them.”
“It aims to create a space for discussion for all citizens and to allow them to play a more active role in deciding the future of the Union and its policies, including setting our priorities and our level of ambition.”
“Local, regional and national partners on the ground should be fully involved in the Conference: that includes national parliaments, social partners, regional and local authorities and stakeholders and civil society.”
“Also, other European institutions, the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee should be involved. Engaging with European citizens in a broad and inclusive debate on the future of Europe will help us to emerge stronger from the crisis.”
Meanwhile, a poll by Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the European Policy Centre found that 63 percent of respondents think the Conference should lead to treaty change but only a minority think this is likely.
Only 22 percent agreed that the planned exercise would shape the future of Europe, compared to 32 percent who said there would not be concrete results, and 42 percent undecided.
The survey on “How Brussels sees the future of Europe after COVID-19” was conducted among officials, think tankers, lobbyists and other stakeholders.