The Conference on the Future of Europe

The Conference on the Future of Europe.

A table to discuss the future or another attempt at vertical communication from Brussels?

27.01.2020. Luis Bouza García, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Photo credit: European Parliament

In less than one month the European Council, European Parliament and European Commission have adopted conclusions, resolutions and communications on the convening of a “Future of Europe” conference. This will have escaped most commentators of EU politics as attention is focused on the definition of the agenda for this legislature, international tensions and of course Brexit. For those that have noticed these resolutions, it may seem as a new inter-institutional debate that still has to gain momentum. However, and without prejudice as to the results of this conference, these arguments miss the context and timing of the conference.

To start with the timing, this conference is due to start on May 2020 and last until the first months of 2022. That means that not only will it start soon, but it will finish in time for succession of Angela Merkel and the presidential elections in France in 2022. Depending on the results of the conference its recommendations or mandates may arrive on a suitable window of opportunity for reform.

On the context, even though previous debates have reached the public with varying intensity the convening of the conference can be seen as a critical juncture resulting from the coincidence in the period 2017-2019 of Mr Macron’s and the EU Commission agenda of citizens’ dialogues, the debate on the future of Europe between the EP and heads of government and the European election 2019. The complex election of the Commission over the summer however demonstrates that the Parliament and member states are not on the same line, so questions must be asked about the potential of this conference to relaunch the EU post-Brexit.

What is at stake
Most analysts are comparing this conference to the 2003 – 2004 Convention that prepared the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. This comparison is fully justified as the inter-institutional dynamics of the convening of the conference start to resemble it, but there are important differences as to the political context.

Firstly, some argue that the potential of the Lisbon treaty has not been fully applied in relation because of lack of member states commitment. Thus, they say, discussing further commitments to EU integration without having fulfilled the previous ones will only carry promises that cannot be achieved because of political and intergovernmental disagreement.

Secondly, the three institutions have different expectations. The Commission’s communication on the conference emphasises its interest in discussing the agenda for 2019 – 2024 with citizens’ and the need to enshrine the spitzenkandidaten principle and transnational lists into EU law. The Parliament shares the Commission’s objectives but stresses that the Conference must include a large number of MEPs and representatives of the member states at the ministerial level as well as national MPs, thus trying to repeat the composition of the Convention of the future of Europe where the European Parliament achieved a much higher influence than in a traditional intergovernmental discussion. And so far, the Council has not clarified its position, although the Croatian presidency has made this conference one of its’ strategic objectives.

What to expect for the legitimacy of the EU and the relaunch of EU integration then? From the first point of view, it can be expected that the conference will convey different notions of what citizens’ participation means. The Commission has emphasized it intends to build on and institutionalise new avenues for citizens’ direct participation such as a citizens’ panel. Whereas attempts to capitalize upon participatory democracy to improve the legitimacy of the EU are not new, this confirms the EU turn from mediated participation via civil society towards a model emphasising individual online participation. So far, all EU attempts to foster vertical participation or communication without intermediaries (journalists, national or regional MPs or civil society organisations) have had little impact on public opinion.

On the second question, this conference appears like yet another example of what Luuk van Middelaar calls “building a table”.The EU is calling for what looks like a forum with modest ambition but whose work may be ready in a totally different context and is thus a bet into the future. In this sense the most important is not necessarily how the conference starts but whether the EU of 2022 will want to take its message.