The conference, a flagship policy of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, will start on May 9, the 70th anniversary of the Schuman declaration, and will last up to two years.
The proposals include plans to involve citizens more closely in the debate about Europe’s future which will go some way to pacifying civil society organisations which want more input into the EU decision-making process.
However, a question mark still hangs over who will head the body, with EU ambassadors saying it should be an “eminent person”, which appears to point to former heads of state.
Guy Verhofstadt, the senior Liberal MEP who recently chaired Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, is being touted by some as a likely candidate, even though his last involvement with the Council was back in 2008 when his tenure as Belgium's Prime Minister came to an end.
One senior parliamentary insider said, “This is still to be decided, but of those suggested Verhofstadt increasingly looks like the best candidate. He is a former PM in Belgium and has a certain gravitas.”
In a new communication - the Commission's initial contribution to what it calls an “already lively debate” - the executive says the conference “will build on past experiences, such as citizens' dialogues, while introducing a wide range of new elements to increase outreach and strengthen ways for people to shape future EU action.”
“This is still to be decided, but of those suggested Verhofstadt increasingly looks like the best candidate. He is a former PM in Belgium and has a certain gravitas” Parliamentary source
The Conference, says the Commission, “will allow for an open, inclusive, transparent and structured debate with citizens of diverse backgrounds and from all walks of life.”
The Commission has proposed “two parallel work strands” - the first focusing on EU priorities and what the bloc “should seek to achieve”, with the second addressing “topics specifically related to democratic processes and institutional matters.”
Paris and Berlin, long seen as the axis of the continent’s post-World War Two unification process, said such a conference is necessary to make the EU “more united and sovereign” across a range of challenges. The reflection will last two years and consider reforms that would, among other aims, promote democracy and the functioning of a bloc.
Many EU citizens feel their voices are not heard by the EU and have little trust in its institutions - sentiments that drove Britain’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the bloc.
France and Germany, the EU’s two heavyweights, said citizens would need to be closely involved in the reflection on Europe’s future through a “bottom-up process” of consultations.
The Commission said the results will be expected at a closing conference in the first half of 2022. They will then be presented to the European Council for debate and implementation.
“We need to clearly transmit the message that Europe is not Brussels” Dacian Cioloș, Renew Europe leader
Parliament, for its part, has adopted a resolution calling for a “participatory and bottom-up approach” for the conference, saying citizens should be involved.
Commenting on the Commission plans, Renew Europe group leader Dacian Ciolos said, “We need to clearly transmit the message that Europe is not Brussels.”
Further comment came from Gabriele Bischoff, S&D member on the working group on the Conference, who said, “We want to put citizens at the heart of this so we have promoted the idea of citizens' agoras, as bodies representative of our diverse European society, to enter into a meaningful dialogue with citizens across Europe.”
This, she said, will make sure “that the very people whose future we are talking about have a key role to play.”
Bischoff added, “With a bottom-up approach and Parliament leading the way, we can start a new way of engaging with citizens with the aim of a more democratic, social Europe with a stronger capability to act. If we dare to leave our comfort zone, the conference can be a meaningful exercise.”
Parliament’s President David Sassoli adds, “Several issues that need to be discussed are already clear: the right of initiative of Parliament, ensuring the Spitzenkandidaten system works effectively, transnational lists, and reforming decision-making in the Council and a European electoral law.”
“With a bottom-up approach and Parliament leading the way, we can start a new way of engaging with citizens with the aim of a more democratic, social Europe with a stronger capability to act” Gabriele Bischoff MEP
“However, it must not be pre-determined; we must be open to new ideas and new input from people from across Europe - to ensure our Union can best serve the interests of all.”
EPP leader Manfred Weber, a German member, said “it is the role of an assembly directly elected by European citizens to fight for a more democratic Europe.”
“There are many in Brussels and other European capitals who prefer to make decisions through quick backroom deals, in which the direct choice of the voters becomes victim to personal power games.”
A spokesman for the leading German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung said, “One of the key questions is how European citizens should be involved in the conference in order to give them a real say. How do we ensure an inclusive and broad participation? Which topics should be dealt with and how can the outcomes of the conference be implemented politically?”