A ‘Conference on the future of EU’, what next? EU elections 2024

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

brussels [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

For the moment, no one is talking about the ratification of a possible new treaty following the Conference on European Reform. To avoid failure and to engage citizens, the EU’s institutions must be made to work according to the principles of representative democracy, and treaty reform must be the central issue at stake in the European elections of 2024, write Giorgio Clarotti, Oliver Costa and Christophe Leclercq.

Giorgio Clarotti is co-founder of Alliance4Europe and a member of the Federal Committee of the Union of European Federalists (UEF); Olivier Costa is Director of Research at the CNRS  and Director of European Political and Governance Studies at the College of Europe; Christophe Leclercq is founder of the EURACTIV Media Network and of the EURACTIV Foundation

A ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ will open this spring. The Juncker Commission (with more than a thousand ‘Citizens’ Dialogues’ since 2015) and President Macron (by launching ‘Citizens’ Consultations on Europe’ in 2018) have tried to involve citizens in setting the agenda for the 2019 European elections. The Conference intends to build on these reflections and on the contributions of NGOs and citizens, but this will not be enough. It is also necessary to organise the conditions for a real democratic debate on the final text, so that it can be followed up.

Indeed, the Conference’s proposals that fall within the Union’s current powers can be implemented by the Commission, which will have a clear mandate to do so. On the other hand, if there is to be a reform of the Treaties, it will necessarily take the form of a Convention or, for a minor revision, an Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). In any case, the text will then have to be ratified in all Member States. This is the challenging bit: the parliamentary route tends to operate on the fringes of public debate, whist referenda debates often address questions other than the one put to citizen.

If a new reform of the treaties is not to suffer the fate of the 2005 European Constitution, it must be placed at the centre of the 2024 campaign. Political orientations of this magnitude must be discussed in depth within the political parties, at all levels of government, and then between them; and must be the central issue at stake in the elections. On this condition, we believe that the ratification of a new treaty could escape the difficulties encountered over the past 30 years. Moreover, the discussion of new treaties in 2022, as proposed by the Council and the Parliament, risks interfering with the German and French elections of 2021/22 and the European elections of 2024 (Cfr Exhibit).

First the Conference, then representative democracy

Referenda are often presented as the democratic instrument par excellence. We believe, however, that it is not suitable for the ratification of a new treaty. Indeed, it does not allow a debate on its content – citizens are forced to approve or reject it in its entirety. A referendum is a potentially virtuous instrument for deciding on a specific issue that is well understood by citizens, but it does not allow for a constructive debate on a complex text containing dozens of provisions of various kinds.

In order to overcome this difficulty, we propose that the EU institutions should operate according to the logic of representative democracy, in order to promote a broad debate to confirm the guidelines proposed by the Conference. This approach underpins the legitimacy of national political systems: government programmes are not the result of a conciliation process validated by a referendum, in an all-or-nothing logic, but of a wide-ranging and contradictory public debate, decided by legislative elections.

The proposed timeline for the #FoEConference, ending in 2022, will clash with DE, FR and EU elections. We propose to make treaty reform the central issue at stake in the European elections of 2024.

The campaign for the 2024 European elections must therefore become the moment for a fundamental political debate on major European options, and citizens must be allowed to express themselves through their vote. The results of the ballot will make it possible to see where citizens’ priorities and preferences lie. In short, an election favours a more subtle debate than a referendum, and allows citizens to feel genuinely involved in the choices. However, three problems remain:

  1. How can we ensure that this debate has a real impact on the revision of the Treaties? How can we prevent the Convention, the IGC and then the European Council from doing as they please?
  2. How can ratification of the Treaty by referendum be approached in those States where this is a constitutional obligation or a political option?
  3. How can we avoid that the discussion on new EU competences and possible ratifications/refe-renda interfere with the German elections at the end of 2021, the French elections in 2022 and the European elections in 2024?

Participatory reflection, then political support for decision making

To overcome these difficulties, we propose a step-by-step approach, separating substance from the ratification process :

  1. Once the positions and proposals have been defined and debated by the Conference and all the parties involved, probably towards the end of 2022, we propose that the process should pause for sharing and wider debate.
  2. The actors in the process should agree only on ‘Sketches of Europe’, which would include the main proposals worthy of debate, without concern for overall coherence. There will probably be a pro-European synthesis, but also alternative positions, particularly Eurosceptic positions, reflecting the various opinions.
  3. 2023 will be the year of debate, orchestrated by political parties, civil society organisations and the media, at the various levels of government (European, national, regional). These debates will become part, we expect of electoral campaigns for national or regional elections.
  4. NGOs and the European institutions should facilitate these debates, drawing inspiration from the methodology of the 2018 Citizens’ Conventions. The European Parliament will have a key role, and its members should organise and participate in debates throughout Europe.
  5. This process will prepare for the European elections of 2024, when parties and candidates will compete in the Member States and at European level through the programmes of the European parties. This debate would be facilitated by the Spitzenkandidaten procedure and the existence of pan-European lists of candidates, as foreseen in the von der Leyen Commission’s programme and as requested by the European Parliament.
  6. The elections should foster, as in 2014 and 2019, the emergence of a new majority coalition at EU level. It will then be up to the European Parliament and the Commission, resulting from the ballot box, to call on the members of the Convention and the members of the European Council to respect the objectives and options (our ‘Sketches of EU’) on which a consensus has been reached.
  7. The clear ‘constituent’ nature of the electoral sequence and the wide-ranging debates it will have generated will create a dynamic favourable to the approval of the options taken. The ratification of the new treaty, by parliamentary or referendum process, depending on the State, will be facilitated.

We will then be in 2025. Some will find this horizon too far away. But, in the current context of the crisis of the European idea and the rise of Euroscepticism, it is no longer possible to rush things by negotiating a new treaty behind closed doors. Broad deliberation based on participatory democracy: this is the only way to define new European perspectives with the support of a broad public.

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