The position of the Commission and the European Parliament regarding the Conference on the future of Europe

23.03.2020. Pau Torres Menéndez, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid

Photo source: European Parliament - Flickr
This article summarizes the different proposals of the European Parliament and the Commission. Some of the ideas in the different proposals can create a conflict of interests in institutional triangle, and here we analyze why. In its proposal for the Conference, the Commission, makes a general diagnosis of the current EU situation and says that European citizens want a more active role in the European politics. This is based on the high turnout in the last European elections (the highest in its history).It also says that the EU has “more jobs than ever, ten years of economical growth and the highest popular support to the Union in the last 30 years. That means a collective internal strength that we should use to forge a vision of our future”. In short, the Commission sees the Conference as window of opportunity enhance democracy, as a way to empower the European citizens.

In its proposal, the EU Parliament added to this the need to tackle both the internal and external challenges that Europe is facing, as well as the new societal and transnational challenges. Therefore, the Parliament says openly that there is a challenge. And this is important because in some way it admits what a big number of scholars and analysts say about the Conference: it’s a strategy to face a difficult situation after Brexit, migratory crisis, euroscepticism, etc. Both the Parliament and the Commission defend that it must have cooperation among the three institutions: European Parliament, the Council and the European Commission. But the Council does not have a proposal on the structure of the Conference.

Issues of discussion

For the Commission the Conference must have two scopes: be focused on policies and what the Union seeks to achieve, that is, set the EU’s headlines ambitions (p.e. fight against climate change and environmental challenges, an economy that works for people, social fairness and equality, Europe’s digital transformation, promoting our European values, strengthening the EU’s voice in the world, as well as shoring up the Union’s democratic foundations).

And referring to the institutional matters and more related to democratic processes: it has said that the Conference “should be focused in the lead candidate system for the elections of the President of the European Commission and transnational lists for the election to the European Parliament”. [The Spitzenkandidat system envisions that the Council should nominate for Commission president someone who stood as a lead candidate for a pan-European alliance of parties in the European Parliament election, likely the candidate of the party that won the most seats. The Council has insisted it cannot be bound by that system] .

The European Parliament proposes that the Conference Plenary “should enable an open forum for discussions among the different participants without a predetermined outcome, while including input from Citizens’ agoras and without limiting the scope to pre-defined policy fields or methods of integration”; suggests as a guidance: European values, fundamental rights and freedoms, democratic and institutional aspects of the EU, environmental challenges and the climate crisis, social justice and equality, economic and employment issues including taxation, digital transformation and security and the role of the EU in the world. In this case they use the Eurobarometer as a way to support agenda setting and debates in the framework of the Conference process.

About the lead candidate system and the transnational lists: the European Parliament says that it should be taken into consideration during the Conference process. The Commission, in this communication, seems much more interested in addressing this issue. That’s not surprising because the Commission and Jean-Claude Juncker especially, the former President of the Commission, have always defended the system of Spitzenkandidat. The Council has been the major opposition to this new system.

Participants of the Conference

The Commission, to hear the contributions of citizens, elected representatives and stakeholders, wants to create deliberative panels for specific issues. A European Citizens panel could meet several times during the Conference and report to the Conference with a list of proposals for recommendations. They also say that some other Conference-related events should be organized by local, regional and national partners. And both interactive and creative forms of participation such as sporting events or festivals, should be used, in particular to attract younger people without forgetting old people.

It’s clear that the Commission doesn’t have a specific idea of how this Conference will be composed. They just have a general draft with some abstract principles. This contrasts with the clarity of Parliament’s scheme. The European Parliament has a very concrete idea about who participates and how they do it. Its proposal is to create four bodies with diverse responsibilities: the Conference Plenary Citizens’ agoras, the Youth agoras, the Steering Committee and the Executive Coordination Board.

The Conference Plenary Citizen’s agoras would consist in several thematic Citizens’ agoras reflecting the policy priorities, these would be held throughout the Conference process (maximum of 200-300 citizens, minimum of three per Member State). The participation in these agoras of elected politicians, senior government representatives and professional interests’ representatives it’s prohibited. Each individual thematic Citizens’ agora must be composed of the same participants at each of its meetings in order to ensure coherence and consistency and there would be a minimum of two meetings of each thematic Citizens’ agora in order to provide input for the Conference Plenary and receive global feedback on the deliberations in another meeting in dialogue format. Citizens’ agoras should seek to find agreement by consensus. And in order to guarantee the feedback loop, representatives from the thematic Citizens’ and Youth agora will be invited to the Conference Plenary in order to present and discuss their conclusions.

The Youth agoras would be one at the beginning of the Conference and one towards the end (two in total). The age of participants to be set at between 16 and 25 and representatives of this agora will be invited too to the Conference Plenary in order to present and discuss their conclusions

The main differences between the Commission and the Parliament in the citizen participation it’s that the first wants to gather the deliberative panels ”several times” (when the Parliament says just two times), it doesn’t talk about a final agoras meeting to receive global feedback and it doesn’t talk about the possibility of having representatives of this Agoras in the Conference Plenary, like Parliament does. As we see the Parliament takes more seriously the citizens’ participation, not only for being more specific, but because of the citizen’s accountability that exists in the Parliaments proposal is much more intense and allows them to press more the Conference.

The European Parliament proposal for the composition of Conference Plenary (the Commission hasn’t specified any scheme in its proposal)  is: 135 members of the European Parliament, 27 members of the Council (at ministerial level), between two and four members per Member State parliament, the three Commissioners of the European Commission, four members of the European Economic and Social Committee , four members the Committee of the Regions and in the EU-level social partners with two members each.

This Conference Plenary would meet in plenary session at least twice per semester at the European Parliament. At its first meeting the Conference Plenary would have to adopt a working plan and that, after each meeting of the Conference Plenary, a plenary report with conclusions and working group reports be made available to the Conference participants and the general public. The Parliament proposal says that the Conference should seeks ways of involving representatives of the EU candidate countries in discussions on the future of Europe.

In order to ensure efficient guidance of the process as a whole and for all bodies concerned, the Parliament proposes that the governance of the Conference process should be ensured by a Steering committee and an Executive Coordination Board.

The Steering Committee would have an equal weight for all the components: representatives of Parliament (all political groups represented as well as a representative of the Constitutional Affairs Committee and a representative of the European Parliament Bureau), the representatives of the Council (EU Presidencies) and the representatives of the Commission (three Commissioners responsible). This body would be responsible for the preparation of the meetings of the Conference Plenary (drafting agendas, plenary reports and conclusions), the preparation of Citizens’ and Youth agoras and would oversight of the activities and organization of the Conference process.

The Executive Coordination Board would be composed of the three main EU institutions under Parliament’s leadership. All the members of the Executive Coordination Board be part of the Steering Committee. The Board would be responsible for the daily management of the Conference process, in particular the practical organization of the Conference, working groups, the Citizens’ agoras and any other initiative determined by the Steering Committee. The Parliament wants to have the leadership of this Conference, maybe because it very interested in its success. What it’s true it’s that neither the Commission nor the Council have responded that leadership with other proposal.

The European Parliament also propose the creation on the Secretariat, whose members should be drawn from the three main EU institutions, to assist the Conference process.

The European Parliament has a very clear idea of what must be the Conference. Its proposal also specifies the way the citizens would participate and contribute to this process. If we compare that with the way the Commission wants the citizens to participate, we can see how, even if the Commission proposes “several” meetings, the Parliament wants a stronger accountability of the outcomes. The Commission says that the deliberative panels would “report to the Conference with a list of proposals for recommendations”. Here finishes the role of the citizens. We also believe that the Commission proposal is more an exposition of principles than a draft of what must be Conference. There is not anything specific except the timeline. But at least there is something, we still waiting for the Council proposal. Maybe that differences can make us think in how much importance every institution give to Conference.