Member states stymying debate on EU’s future, says MEP

MEP Gabriele Bischoff during European Parliament plenary session. [EP/Genevieve Engel]

This article is part of our special report Conference on the Future of Europe: EU overhaul in the making?.

After the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the Conference on the Future of Europe, a two-year soul-searching exercise aimed at reforming the EU after Brexit, onto the back-burner, the recovery from the health crisis could present a new opportunity, Socialist MEP Gabriele Bischoff told EURACTIV.

Gabriele Bischoff is a German MEP for S&D and member of the European Parliament’s Working Group on the Conference on the Future of Europe

It started as a radical Franco-German set of proposals, including changing the way the president of the European Commission is elected and allowing transnational candidate lists in European elections.

Some of these proposals would need changes and amendments to the EU treaties, a torturous procedure requiring unanimity among member states.

Upon the announcement, Commission Vice-President Dubravka Suica did not rule out that the conference might initiate changes to the EU treaties.

“If people want treaty changes, we are open to that too,” Suica said.

“This is a conference, a two-year process, and not a convention, which means it is not about coming up with a list of treaty changes. It is rather a  new approach to engage citizens and involve them in what kind of Europe they want to live in and how to increase Europes capacity to act,” Bischoff said, “but at the same time, it is also about testing the appetite for change – also for treaty changes.”

However, member states’ reactions to the conference have been distinctly lukewarm, particularly compared to the European Parliament.

“We had a very clear position as Parliament who should chair it, we defined criteria and outlined our goals,” Bischoff said.

The assembly picked Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister and current liberal MEP, to lead the process, but EU diplomats have expressed unease about Verhofstadt’s suitability to lead the conference given his federalist views and status as a polarising figure across the bloc.

“The problem is that in the Council, couldn’t agree on anything for 5 month and instead of coming up with alternative suggestions, they are just saying ‘no’ for another 5 month – this is irresponsible,” the German MEP said.

As EU member states paved the way for the opening of discussions with the Commission and the Parliament in June, it has become clear there will also be no obligation on the part of the EU institutions to actually address the issues raised in the debates.

EU ambassadors stopped short of committing to any possible treaty change, and the compromise circumvents the issue by simply stating that the conference itself should not be the same as the formal convention that is needed for an amendment to the treaties.

According to the Socialist MEP the COVID-19 pandemic has been both a curse and blessing.

“What I find so striking is that in this pandemic the first reaction was nationalistic closure of borders, even not letting medical products pass in the common market, which then was followed by a sort of awakening,” Bischoff said.

“The next minute we know we had one of the deepest integration push so far with de-facto Eurobonds and the recovery programme, that no one would have anticipated a year ago,” she added.

“If you ask citizens, almost no one realised that, there were no debates about this, there is actually an interest not to have debates about this,” Bischoff said.

According to Bischoff, the conference could prevent mistakes made during the last European Convention in 2004, where the debates largely happened at interinstitutional or intergovernmental level, leaving many to regard the Constitutional Treaty as an elitist construct.

The Constitutional Treaty was ratified by 18 member states, which included referendums endorsing it in Spain and Luxembourg.

However, the rejection of the document by French and Dutch voters in May and June 2005 brought the ratification process to an end, although the bulk of the substantive changes were kept in the Lisbon Treaty agreed two years later.

“We need to create a European public space with this conference to avoid mistakes of the past,” Bischoff said.

When asked about what will happen if citizens decide they want less Europe, Bischoff said the conference would be an “opportunity to reconnect with the people that lost faith in Europe, that are sceptical and to really engage citizens everywhere in Europe.”

But for that it’s important that this is not the usual, top-down academic middle-class debate on the future of Europe.”

“After the last elections, where we had a much higher voter turnout than before and a very active civil society engaging in activating people to participate in the elections, we disappointed a lot of people with not sticking to promises regarding the Spitzenkandidat,” the German MEP said.

After a traumatic two months of fighting between the EU’s institutions and political groups over the distribution of top jobs, many policymakers proclaimed the Spitzenkandidaten system and the idea of transnational lists to be dead.

“You cannot announce that you have Spitzenkandidaten, you have them touring around Europe and debating and then after the election, you say, there is no need for this.”

“It’s very important before the next election, that we really have a properly defined and regulated procedure for the Spitzenkandidaten principle,” she said.

However, with the delay in the start of the citizens’ consultations, hopes for workable results are dwindling.

“In parallel, we already have to work on that, we cannot wait until 2023,” Bischoff said, adding that Parliament will start to work on a new electoral law “quite soon”, likely in spring next year.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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