European Waves

Conference on the Future of Europe

In our Explained section, we are taking a closer look at either a buzzword, key concept, theory, or a person that has been or is influential in discussion on the EU and Europe. This edition deals with the Conference on the Future of Europe

The Conference on the Future of Europe is a platform jointly organised by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the EU Council, where EU citizens can make suggestions on how the European Union should evolve. Launched on the 9th of May this year, it is to be concluded in the spring of 2022. 

The presidents of the European Parliament, Commission and Council of the EU signed a joint declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe. Source: EP.

A Slow Start 

The story of the Conference on the Future of Europe essentially begins with Ursula von der Leyen’s nomination as President of the European Commission in 2019. Given prior criticism about the intransparency of selecting a Commission President, in the 2019 European Parliament elections, the party families in the Parliament were campaigning with their respective lead candidates. Underlying was the idea that the process of selecting a Commission President would mirror that of national elections in parliamentary democracies, in which the lead candidate of the biggest party usually takes the position of president. However, given the complex institutional set-up of the EU, doubts about the qualifications of the European People’s Party’s (EPP) lead candidate, Manfred Weber, and political power struggles, the European Council eventually decided to nominate von der Leyen rather than Weber. Although von der Leyen was narrowly confirmed by the European Parliament in the ensuing vote, the nomination proved highly unpopular among many parliamentarians, as they considered it an undermining of the election process. What may be considered a peace offering to the European Parliament and disappointed voters, was von der Leyen’s proposal for a conference to discuss how Europe should develop in the future. The main goals of the conference, as outlined in her speech, were to reconnect European citizens with political elites and European decision-makers and create a forum for input into Brussels’ decision-making and political priorities for European citizens.

The Conference eventually launched on Europe Day 2021 – with a delay of over one year. Its less than speedy takeoff has been attributed to the global developments over the last fifteen months – the Covid-19 pandemic prevented any major in-person gatherings, which was regarded as crucial by the organisers for a successful conference. Regardless, the global pandemic is only partially to blame for the postponed takeoff. Inter-institutional squabbles between the Council, the Commission and the European Parliament equally contributed to the delay. While the Commission outlined her general goals for the Conference as early as January 2020, it took the Council and the Parliament until June to formalise their respective decisions. Combining those and drafting the joint declaration took another nine months, until March 2021. As the institutions decided that they would not sway from the mostly in-person format to further promote the Conference’s spirit, the organisation of the Conference has been relegated to 2021. Critics might posit that this shows a limited interest of the EU institutions in popular input with regards to EU decision-making and this delay strengthens the perception of some that the Conference is more of a PR instrument than a real instrument for citizen involvement.

Who Is Involved and How?

At this point in time, it is yet too early to say what the Conference will exactly look like. It is a bit like looking into a crystal ball or shaking a magic 8 ball – even though it has officially started, there are still many uncertain variables. It is an ongoing process that could still derail at any time, making any prediction on the Conference reasonably uncertain. Ideally it will consist of both physical and online events aiming at creating a bottom-up platform, which would allow Europeans from all over the continent to contribute their input and insights into how Europe should look like in the future. Physical events should be organised at the local, regional, national and European level and involve civil society actors and other relevant stakeholders. 

Next to these events, citizens can also submit their own ideas for the future of Europe and endorse ideas of others on the already existing webpage of the Conference.

In addition to the Conference-related events and the webpage, the European institutions will organise European citizens’ panels, which should be representative of European citizens in terms of geographic origin, gender, age, socioeconomic background and educational level. These Citizens’ Panels should incorporate inputs from both the Conference-related events and the online platform and consequently discuss those and draft recommendations for the Conference Plenary Meeting to further discuss and vote on.

In order to prevent a ‘Brusselisation’ of the Conference, the institutions have agreed to establish a slim administrative body led by the Joint Presidency of all three institutions (i.e. David Sassoli for the EP, Ursula von der Leyen for the Commission and the respective rotating president of the Council). Most notably for the Conference is its plenary, which will convene at least every six months and consist of representatives from the European Parliament and all national parliaments, the Council and Commission as well as citizens. In this plenary meeting, the representatives of the institutions and the national parliaments will discuss issues on an equal footing with regular citizens and draft recommendations for actions to be taken by the relevant national or European institutions. These issues and recommendations will then be grouped on the basis of broader policy fields and depending on the issues discussed, representatives of key stakeholders, like representatives of trade unions (e.g. ETUC) and employer associations (e.g. Business Europe), will be involved as well. While the outcomes of these plenary are undetermined beforehand, some of the potential outcomes advocated for by the EP were already rebuked by the Council – such as treaty changes, which were intentionally omitted from the joint declaration. Whereas the Council would prefer only to account for initiatives within fields the EU already has competences in, the EP would like all fields to be open for discussion. The President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, emphasises that if citizens deem it necessary, changing the Treaties is not off the table, but will most likely require tough negotiations with the Council. In this sense, the vague formulation of the joint declaration is a double-edged sword as it neither explicitly includes nor excludes treaty changes. 

What are Key Issues?

One of the key issues that could prevent any notable progress towards citizen participation would be if the Conference fails to engage citizens in a meaningful way. The EU is famously bad at conveying its successes to the population at large. Hence, large parts of the population are simply unaware of what is happening at the EU level or consider it an overregulating bureaucratic colossus that is far removed from its citizens. In order to really engage the citizenry, there is an urgent need for popular representatives promoting the idea of Europe and the Conference. Otherwise, the Conference will suffer from the same illness so many of the EU’s initiatives have suffered from – elitism and a way too narrow engagement with the public at large.

The flipside, though, could be equally damaging. Assuming the public was successfully activated and the Conference turned out to be successful as far as engagement and proposals for the future of Europe goes, the next step could be even more challenging. This next step is the implementation of the proposals put forward by the citizens. It will be crucial to show legitimate discussion and where applicable implementation of the ideas put forward by the Conference. If local, regional, national and supranational actors promoted the Conference for the next few months saying “We want your input!” and “We want to listen to you!” and consequently fail to turn those inputs into actual policy, it will be highly damaging to public trust in the EU and decision-makers, who openly supported the Conference. 

These two, closely related issues bear the distinct potential of major disappointment for those that put significant confidence in the Conference’s ability to renew the EU’s bond with its citizens. 

Having thus introduced the notion of the Conference and its potential pitfalls, the question remains, what we as individuals can do to a) better understand the Conference and b) engage with it to ensure its success.

Inform Yourself and Spread Information

There is a wide range of organisations and institutions providing information on the Conference. By engaging with those and potentially sharing their information, the outreach of the Conference can be increased and its challenged legitimacy overcome. For example, the European Movement International and her national sub-organisations provide non-partisan information in most, if not all languages of the EU. Moreover, our social media will also share information and resources about the Conference, so be free to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Attend Events and Make Your Voice Heard

Alternatively, the Conference’s webpage provides ample information in the form of a list and a map on different Conference-related events organised by the EU. Many of these are happening online, but due to the improving Covid situation an increasing number of events is organised in person. Moreover, the webpage offers a section allowing you to submit your own ideas for the future of Europe or support those that other people have contributed.

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