Proposed set-up for Conference on the Future of Europe under fire

The Conference, a project that aims to reform the EU and bring it “closer” to its citizens, has been beset by misfortune since it was first mooted by the French two years ago.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

08 Feb 2021

Member states had hoped a year-long dispute over the Conference’s mandate and leadership roles had been broken when, last week, they tabled a document outlining the “ground rules” for the conference.

But the draft presented by ambassadors from the EU27 appears merely to have thrown the whole exercise into further confusion.

One respected former MEP even branded the Council policy paper as “vacuous gibberish”, while Sandro Gozi, head of the Union of European Federalists (UEF), said Member States “do not understand” the reason for the Conference.

In a meeting last Wednesday of the EU ambassadors, Member States adopted their revised position on the conference. The document was proposed by the Portuguese presidency.

The proposal is to appoint the presidents of the Parliament, the Council and the Commission to preside jointly over the conference. This plan sought to break the gridlock over who would be steering the conference.

The text endorsed by ambassadors removed a paragraph in the initial Council proposal which stated that an “eminent European personality” would act as the Conference’s “independent and single chair.”

Instead, the Council proposes to have the Conference “placed under the authority of the three European institutions, represented by David Sassoli, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, the Presidents of the European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission, acting as a Joint Chairmanship.”

The text also said a formal launch “could be envisaged” for May 9.

“The Conference, as envisaged by the European Parliament, is more necessary than ever, but the methods for direct citizen participation are disappointing. Where are the citizens’ agoras proposed by the Parliament?”

Sandro Gozi, Renew Europe

Aside from a tripartite presidency of the Conference, the day-to-day business would be in the hands of an executive committee in which the three institutions would also be equally represented and take decisions by consensus.

First proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron back in March 2019, the forum has been bedevilled by bad luck – it should have started last spring but was put off by the health pandemic – and inter-institutional wrangling about its mandate and composition.

Gozi, whose UEF is a pan-European, non-governmental political organisation dedicated to the promotion of European political unity, said the conference “was not meant to be a general debate on topics that we already discuss every day, but to design a real and courageous future for our Europe and for us European citizens.”

“It seems that the Council does not understand: the Conference, as envisaged by the European Parliament is more necessary than ever, but the methods for direct citizen participation are disappointing.”

He asked, "Where are the citizens’ agoras proposed by the Parliament?”

“There also seems to be a ‘great Chinese wall’ between the Conference and Article 48 on treaty revision. Clearly, the Council is making a mistake by not being bold enough on the governance, functioning of the Conference, and new methods of citizens participation. This is not what we federalists were looking for.”

He added, “Unfortunately, this seems to be the only possible way out after the Council refused to agree to the solution proposed by the European Parliament.”

“There are two most important things now: to make sure that it’s the Parliament's representative in the executive committee who leads the work of the conference, and, more specifically, that of the plenary.”

“The pandemic has been a missed opportunity to start the Conference online. Many are understandably nervous about technology - but used properly it can have a powerful and positive impact on democracy”

Roger Casale, New Europeans

“But above all, we need to keep advocating for the outcome of the Conference to be totally open in terms of possible new policies and Treaty revisions.”

Further comment came from German Greens MEP Daniel Freund, who told this website, "The current struggle over the European vaccination program shows once again that the institutional set-up of the European Union needs a thorough update."

"Our citizens rightly expect more from the EU than chaotic decision-making and unclear competences. More democracy has to be the answer. We need to start the Conference as soon as possible in order to address this. Otherwise we're losing our citizens."

Former UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff, when asked by this website for his comments, was even more scathing, saying, “The Council’s paper is vacuous gibberish.”

His comments were endorsed by former UK Labour MEP Richard Corbett, a constitutional expert, who told this website, “Gozi and the Parliament are right. The Conference cannot just be a general discussion among insiders on current issues; it must be an inclusive and forward-looking forum that identifies the changes needed for the future of the EU.”

Roger Casale, a former UK Labour MP whose group, New Europeans, has championed the Conference from the start, told this site, “The European Council has never taken the Conference on the Future of Europe seriously - in fact it was often said that it gave EU ambassadors something to laugh about after COREPER meetings.”

“So it is not surprising that the Council is still frustrating the dreams of those who thought the Conference could lead to a new impetus behind a kind of United States of Europe.”

“The Conference was never meant to hold such noble ambitions. But equally it is a mistake on the part of the Council to fail to see its potential. Citizens have a powerful voice, as the British found when they put this to the test in the Brexit referendum. Governments can find that citizens have the last laugh on them.”

“The pandemic has been a missed opportunity to start the Conference online. Many are understandably nervous about technology - but used properly it can have a powerful and positive impact on democracy.”

“More important than the start date of the Conference, is the idea that it should never end. Many see the Conference as the precursor of a permanent mechanism of citizen engagement and consultation in the EU.”

“The real challenge is that COVID has fundamentally changed the conversation about the future of Europe. The Council's strategic plan from 2019 looks hopelessly outdated from the perspective of 2021.”

"We now need to talk about the steps Europe must take to better prepare for future pandemics. A health union for example, or a universal basic income; ideas that are much more popular now than two years ago.”

“Let’s also remember that the EU has doubled its budget. What oversight will Europe's citizens have on spending priorities for the recovery funds or how loans funded by Eurobonds will be used and paid back?”

He continued, “There is much to be gained by building on the feeling that the Coronavirus has instilled in so many of us; namely that we are all in this together. Civil society organisations working on the frontline against the pandemic experience that every day and it is vital that they are included in the Conference as partners.”

“Coronavirus has also taught us that every life matters. It's equally true that each and every voice should be heard. The Conference of the Future of Europe is a powerful instrument for making sure that happens.”

It is far from certain if the European Parliament will back the Council proposal. Most MEPs are known to want members from all the main political groups on the executive board.

Parliament President David Sassoli said that both he and the institution’s group leaders made clear at last Thursday’s Conference of Presidents that Parliament’s position on the Conference was to “have an official representing all political families.”

But there is disagreement here too, as MEPs from smaller political groups have complained that the proposal would exclude them.

Others have complained about what they see as the Council’s proposal to conclude the Conference next year rather than adhering to the Parliament’s wish to have it in place for two years.

EPP leader Manfred Weber said, “The health crisis shows us that debating the future of Europe is crucial to prepare us for the challenges that lie ahead. This is why we should finally get started on the Conference to lay the foundations of a new consensus on Europe’s mission and capabilities in the 21st century.”

“For us, the ambition of the Conference should not have any taboos. The urgency to involve citizens, to strengthen European democracy and to protect our way of life are decisive for our success in the decades to come.”

Deputy EPP leader Paulo Rangel added, “We applaud the fact that all European actors at last find themselves on the same page regarding the Conference. Let’s not waste any more time and take this opportunity to go forward, listening to European citizens and re-boosting the dialogue between them and the representatives of our democratic institutions.”

“Together, in the framework of the Conference, we will certainly find innovative solutions for the new challenges we are facing.”

Read the most recent articles written by Martin Banks - New EU regulations on AI seek to ban mass and indiscriminate surveillance