In her political guidelines, Ursula von der Leyen had already announced in July 2019 the convention of a Conference on the Future of Europe to bring citizens and EU institutions closer together. On 22nd January, the Commission published a communication outlining the organisation and content of the conference.
Inspired by the increased voter turnout, EU institutions are making an effort to give EU citizens a voice outside of the European elections. After all, the subsequent levering out of the Spitzenkandidaten process, which resulted in the election of Ursula von der Leyen as Commission President, left a bad aftertaste and once again placed European policymaking in the light of trading political posts and power struggles. In a bottom-up process, the new Conference on the Future of Europe shall now provide citizens with the opportunity to contribute their visions for European policy making. In a second strand, the way European institutions work shall also be put to the test within the scope of the consultations.
Commission presents its vision
The appointment of the Croatian native Dubravka Šuica as Vice-President in charge of the Conference on the Future of Europe already indicated that the Commission took this project seriously. The Commission Paper presented on 22 January 2020, proposes to group the Conference thematically around the six political priorities of the Commission. The already existing citizens’ dialogues shall be continued and enriched with new participative formats, for example issue-specific deliberative panels, where civil society experts and representatives shall also provide input. During the conference, a multilingual digital platform shall inform on contents and events. In addition, a wide range of events under the banner of the Conference, supported by multipliers at national, regional and local level, shall take place throughout Europe. Thanks to a feedback mechanism, citizens’ ideas shall be translated into concrete recommendations for EU legal acts. The “major pan-European democratic exercise” shall be launched on Europe Day, hence the 9th of May 2020. The date falls on the 70th Anniversary of the Schuman Declaration and one day after the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Results of the debates shall be presented and processed during the first six months of 2022.
Parliament with detailed proposals
Last week already, the European Parliament delivered a detailed proposal on the organisational structure of the Conference within the scope of a resolution adopted with a large majority. In doing so, MEPs base their ideas on previous resolutions on the future of Europe and demand, as the only democratically legitimized EU institution, a leading role. The European Parliament focusses on citizens' forums, so-called Citizens’ agoras, which shall comprise 200 to 300 drawn by lot citizens. The citizens' assemblies shall meet in respect of certain policy fields, feeing the results of their discussions into a Conference Plenary, to be set up separately. To ensure that the interests of young people at the of 16-25 are heard, Parliament intends to set up additional Youth agoras. The plenary, made up of members of EU institution and national parliaments, shall meet twice every half year. The “high-level patronage” of the three EU institutions shall find expression in a steering committee and in the executive coordination board, where representatives of European Parliament, Council and Commission come together.
Matter of duty or sweeping reforms?
The resolution and the previous debate in the European Parliament clearly show that MEPs demand comprehensive reform processes, which shall herald the start of Treaty amendment procedures. Regarding transnational lists for EU elections, the Commission has specifically mentioned an amendment of the right to vote in EU elections, indicating a positive stance.
Even if there are no official taboos, it remains to be seen whether substantial reform proposals will indeed be implemented. The rather offhand Council conclusions have already shown an imbalance of the institutions’ willingness to reform, bearing in mind that all three institutions are supposed to jointly develop the Conference on an equal footing. It is in particular the Council’s modus operandi on which Parliament’s appetite for reform has been focussed on. Time and again, a lack of transparency and the principle of unanimity in various policy areas are paralysing the EU’s ability to act and the work of other institutions.
Which role is played by social partners and civil society organisations?
Representations of interests of employees and trade unions insist on having a voice at the Conference to enable them to actively address social issues. According to proposals by Parliament, two representatives each of the employers’ side and trade unions’ side shall be represented at the plenary of the Conference. The Commission too wants to actively integrate all “stakeholders”. In Parliament, the Greens and Social Democrats already expressively supported the involvement of civil society organisations.
The Croatian Presidency will develop the position of the Council on structure and sequence of the Conference within the scope of a general approach. Apart from that, top representatives of the institutions will meet at the end of January 2020 to agree on a detailed schedule. In the meantime, Parliament has already agreed on the MEP Guy Verhofstadt to be the leading the Conference. Closer to the time, a joint declaration by Council, Commission and Parliament will clarify in how far Parliament will be awarded this position in the first place.