The European Parliament’s leaders endorsed on Thursday (4 March) the blueprint for the much anticipated Conference on the Future of Europe, a day after national governments also backed it. The Conference, which aims to reform the European Union and bring it “closer” to its citizens, is set to start its work on 9 May, Europe Day.
In a statement, the leaders of the Parliament’s political groups said they wanted the reform agenda to “start its work as soon as possible”, adding that it would “contribute significantly to building a citizen’s Union.”
The project has been repeatedly delayed and watered down since French President Emmanuel Macron set out the outline for it in March 2019.
Originally intended to start work last spring, the Conference was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and inter-institutional wrangling over its mandate and governance. In the meantime, Macron appears to have lost interest in leading the project, which is set to last for one year.
With little appetite for a revision of the EU treaties, it is unclear what national governments want to be the final outcome of the Conference process.
EU governments have stripped out the original proposal the idea that an “eminent European personality” would act as the Conference’s “independent and single chair.”
Instead, the process will be overseen by the presidents of the European Commission, European Parliament and the Council, backed by an “executive board” made up of an MEP, a Commissioner and the ambassador from the member state holding the six-month Council presidency, accompanied by four “observers”.
The Joint Declaration on the project describes the arrangement as a “lean governance structure”.
That prompted MEP Sandro Gozi, Italy’s former Europe minister and the chair of the Union of European Federalist’s, a pressure group, to complain that national governments “do not understand” the rationale behind the Conference.
The text drafted by Portuguese government, which currently holds the six-month EU Council presidency, promises that the process will “open a new space with citizens to address Europe’s challenges and priorities” and pledges that “Europeans from all walks of life will be able to participate”.
However, campaigners and politicians argue that the structure and mandate of the Conference point to it being guided by politicians and bureaucrats, instead of civil society groups, detracting from its goal of being a truly democratic exercise.
There are also concerns that since the pandemic remains the dominant issue facing the bloc’s leaders, there is little interest in the project among the EU’s 27 member states.
“I think Macron and also the Euro-federalists generally will be disappointed that the Conference agenda is not more ambitious but it is certainly to be welcomed that it is going ahead,” Roger Casale, president of Europe’s People’s Forum, told EURACTIV.
“Rather than focussing on treaty change as an objective, my view is that the key legacy of the conference should be a permanent mechanism for citizen consultation in Europe between election cycles to the European Parliament – that leaves the door open to institutional reform at a later date,” he added.
The conference will run under the joint presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, David Sassoli and Portuguese premier António Costa, until the end of June, after which Costa will be replaced by the prime minister of Slovenia.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]