The Conference on the Future of Europe starts this Sunday in Strasbourg with a year delay and between doubts about its structure and results.
Coinciding with the day of Europe, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, gives this Sunday in Strasbourg the starting signal for the Conference on the Future of the Union. In a speech on May 9, 1950, the French Foreign Minister, Robert Schuman, put the first stone of a future federation to do unthinkable a new war between the European nations. Now, community leaders are entrusting themselves to citizens in search of new ideas to define the course of Europe after the unprecedented crisis of Covid-19.
However, the ceremony in Strasbourg – in which the presidents of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen; of Council, Charles Michel; and of the Eurocamara, David sassoli– was about to be canceled. This Friday morning there were still doubts about its celebration due to the pulse between the European Parliament and governments on who will have the last word about the results of the event. Finally, in injury time, there has been white smoke.
In reality, this is not the first stumbling block encountered by the Conference on the Future of Europe even before it began to function. It should have been opened a year ago now, but the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic prevented it. It was a personal project of Macron, which has promoted this type of citizen consultation in France, which the European Parliament has later assumed as its own.
However, most European leaders view this project with suspicion. They consider that the initiative has already been overtaken by events. The coronavirus tsunami has resulted in the biggest jump in European integration in decades. In response to the crisis, initiatives long discussed but considered impossible have been launched, such as the issuance of joint debt for the Fund Next Generation EU or the centralized purchase of vaccines.
What is this conference for? What are you going to talk about? What is the expected result? What will be done with the conclusions? At the moment, nobody seems to be very clear about it. In the European Parliament, opinions range from those who want a great leap forward in European integration to those who ask to dismantle the Union and return powers to the capitals. Others warn of risk of an anarchic debate in which everything is discussed and nothing is decided.
The conference does not have a single president but is directed by an executive committee in which the three institutions are represented: the European Chamber, the Council (the body that brings together the governments) and the Commission. Its centerpiece is a multilingual digital platform that it is already operational and that it wants provide a space for citizens to share their ideas and submit their contributions online. The topics of conversation are climate change and environment, health, economy, social justice and employment, the EU in the world, values and rights, digital transformation, European democracy, migration and education, culture and sport.
In parallel, the aim is to organize citizen panels in all EU countries and also centrally in Brussels to debate these issues. A plenary session of the Conference will be in charge of collecting and discussing all contributions received. The plenary will meet at least every six months and will be made up of representatives of the three institutions, national parliaments and 108 citizens from across the EU.
Fight between capitals and the European Parliament
Final results are expected in spring 2022. The final battle that put the opening of the Conference at risk has been fought over who will write the report of findings. The governments wanted it to be the executive committee to maintain control, while the European Parliament was betting on the plenary session. The final commitment establishes that the executive and full committee will have to collaborate in a transparent way.
“The final report will not be drafted and signed into an agreement in secret,” maintains German Green MEP Daniel Freund. “The Conference will be open to any contribution. If citizens propose policies that require a change to the Treaty, they will not be rejected.. Resistance from European capitals has been strong in recent days. It is a preview of what we expect in the coming months during the Conference, but the European Parliament is united, “said Freund.
However, the precedents for such an exercise are not at all promising. In December 2001, EU leaders launched a Convention on the Future of Europewhose mandate was to propose options or recommendations for reforms to improve the functioning of the Union. The Convention began its work on February 28, 2002 under the leadership of the former French president Valéry Giscard D’Estaing.
After a year and a half of discussions, the Convention drew up a draft of Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, which was transmitted to the Heads of State and Government in July 2003. After several months of additional negotiations to close the last fringes, the European Constitution was signed by European leaders in Rome on October 29, 2004 with the aim coming into force in 2007.
Spain was the first member state to approve it in a referendum on February 21, 2005 with an overwhelming majority of 77% of the votes cast. However, the European Constitution elaborated by the Convention was rejected in successive consultations in France (54.7% of the votes against) and the Netherlands (61.6%) and never saw the light. Governments saved its main elements in the Lisbon Treaty, which after another scare in Ireland ended up coming into force at the end of 2009 and is still in force today.
After this odyssey, EU governments have never again wanted to embark on new Treaty reforms. Will things change with the Conference on the Future of Europe? Will the proposals that come out of the citizen debate have the same fate?