After months of bickering among politicians, the people of Europe will finally get their say.
On Thursday, European Parliament leaders endorsed a plan to launch a Conference on the Future of Europe — a discussion forum meant to give citizens a chance to shape how the European Union will look in five, 10 or 20 years from now.
French President Emmanuel Macron initially floated the idea in 2019, and the conference was slated to begin in May 2020. But behind-the-scenes squabbling, a lack of enthusiasm in some quarters and the pandemic have all delayed things until now. And still, the Parliament, European Commission and Council of the EU must finalize their approval for the plan before the conference can truly kick off.
Some EU officials are doubtful that an additional layer of bureaucracy — the conference is to have a “Joint Presidency,” an “Executive Board,” a “Conference Plenary” and a “Common Secretariat” — will solve the EU’s already confusing bureaucratic ills.
“Do we need to engage in reform? Yes, probably … And democracy must be much more inclusive,” said Philippe Lamberts, the co-leader of the Greens group in the Parliament. “Is the conference going to do exactly that? It is less obvious.”
But many MEPs say that the pandemic has only highlighted how pressing the need is to reform the EU.
Iratxe García, the leader of the center-left Socialists and Democrats group, said the main value of the conference was its Europe-wide, “bottom-up approach.”
“It’s not the moment to discuss our future in the Brussels bubble,” García said. “I think it is a good opportunity to see how we can do better in Europe and improve our political system.”
POLITICO has taken a closer look at the Conference on the Future of Europe, examining its goals, its structure and its potential pitfalls.
Whose idea was this?
Macron proposed a “conference for Europe” in an opinion article he wrote for several European newspapers in March 2019, ahead of the European Parliament elections that year. Several months later, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen included the idea in her political guidelines.
But the EU’s need to engage in bureaucratic soul-searching is nothing new.
At the start of the millennium, former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing presided over a “Convention on the Future of Europe” from 2002 to 2003.
The goal of the gathering was to reform the EU’s treaties in preparation for the bloc’s 2004 enlargement — which brought in 10 Central and Eastern European countries — as well as to produce a constitution for Europe.
The adventure ended on a sour note, though, when France and the Netherlands rejected the proposed constitution.
In the last decade, the EU has also tried numerous ways to respond to Euroskepticism and improve its engagement with citizens.
The Commission and some European countries set up “citizens’ dialogues,” inviting people to share their views in town hall-style meetings with officials, MEPs or civil servants. Macron himself in 2018 launched the idea of establishing citizen debates or conventions citoyennes on several topics, including on the future of Europe.
“His convention on climate was a beautiful idea,” Lamberts declared.
The impulse to hold wide discussions on how the EU should be reshaped also emerged around the 2019 EU elections, after a failed push to elect the Commission president through the Spitzenkandidat system, which its supporters argued would give voters more of a say in who takes the EU’s top job.
How will the conference work?
While the upcoming conference bears some resemblance to Giscard d’Estaing’s convention of the early 2000s, it is not nearly as focused on reforming the EU’s underlying treaties.
Nearly two decades later, the idea of reforming these treaties has become a no-go in many European countries. Instead, the EU is aiming to “open a new space for debate” and “address Europe’s challenges and priorities,” according to the latest draft of the joint declaration on the conference.
EU citizens, the text reads, must “play a more active role in deciding the future of the Union and its policies.”
The EU institutions will jointly work to set up a “multitude of conference-events,” panels and debates across the EU, as well as creating “a multilingual digital platform.”
What will the conference accomplish?
The aim is to discuss and collect views from EU citizens on what matters to them about the EU — whether it’s the EU’s Green Deal and digital transition, or the way European elections should be designed.
The EU must reach conclusions by spring of 2022.
Who’s in charge?
That’s the question that took the EU nearly a year to figure out.
And the answer is not simple: It’s a lot of people.
Overseeing the conference will be a three-strong Joint Presidency — composed of the presidents of the Commission and the Parliament, as well as the EU’s rotating Council presidency.
Then, an Executive Board will make “decisions by consensus,” assisted by a “Common Secretariat.” The board will have nine members representing the Commission, Parliament and Council, and “up to four observers.” The three EU presidents will oversee the process while the Executive Board members will be in charge of making the conference work.
Additionally, a “Conference Plenary” will meet “at least every six months” to make sure the citizens’ recommendations are debated.
The near-final format was the result of months of debate.
Last year, the Council proposed to appoint an “eminent European personality” — selected by the Commission, Council and Parliament — to helm the project.
For its part, the Parliament asked for an Executive Coordination Board to be “under Parliament’s leadership” and put forward Guy Verhofstadt, a liberal MEP and former Belgian prime minister, to lead the conference. That led to months of wrangling as EU governments refused to back Verhofstadt because of his federalist views. (Some EU officials joked that the event should be renamed the Conference on the Future of Guy Verhofstadt.)
Other names were floated for the job, including former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, but none was acceptable to all sides.
Who else will be involved?
There is no official agreement on the names of the Executive Board members yet.
It is also not yet clear if Verhofstadt will agree to be a member of the Executive Board on behalf of his Renew Europe group after failing to become the conference head. German MEP Gabriele Bischoff from the S&D is another possible appointee.
On the Commission side, a few vice presidents are expected to play important roles in making the conference work: Dubravka Šuica, the democracy and demography commissioner; Věra Jourová, the values and transparency commissioner; and Maroš Šefčovič, interinstitutional relations and foresight commissioner.
How long will it last?
The conference should kick off soon and “reach conclusions by spring 2022,” according to the joint declaration put forward by the Council.
Critics say the conference’s timing is a favor to Macron, given that it is scheduled to culminate during the French presidency of the Council, during which he is expected to be running for re-election.
What happens after that?
After EU citizens offer their recommendations, the Conference Plenary will ensure that the ideas are debated “without a predetermined outcome and without limiting the scope to predefined policy areas,” according to the declaration.
The Executive Board will “report on a regular basis” to the joint presidency, “publish the conclusions of the plenary,” and the “final outcome” of the conference will be included in a report to the “Joint Presidency.”
The three institutions will then look into ways to follow up on the report, including through legislation.
Will this lead to changes in the EU’s treaties?
Initially, in its 2020 resolution on the conference, the Parliament agreed to follow-up on the conference with “legislative proposals” by “initiating treaty change or otherwise.”
Yet the Council rebuked any mention of treaty change in its declaration, and explicitly stated that the scope of the conference “should reflect the areas where the European Union has the competence to act or where European Union action would have been to the benefit of European citizens.”
Who came out on top in the negotiations?
As the only institution that EU citizens directly elect, the Parliament positioned itself as the lead institution and main architect on the matter.
Yet while the Council took many of the Parliament’s proposals on board in its declaration, the joint presidency will take away much of the power the Parliament had hoped to wield. And the final declaration also removed any mention of treaty change, another significant blow to the Parliament’s initial proposal.