On Sunday, the “Conference on the Future of Europe” was solemnly launched on Europe Day in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The event was attended by EU leaders, Erasmus students from the 27 member states and included video contributions from EU citizens. The initiative with the slogan “The Future is in your hands” wants to breathe more life into the democratic idea of Europe by involving EU citizens in the debate. This process, which will take a year, could even lead to a change in the EU treaties.
The initiative goes back to the French President Macron, who has already demanded a platform to involve EU citizens in 2019. Macron, therefore, did not miss the opportunity to attend the conference in person. In his speech, he stressed the primary role of Strasbourg as the formal seat of the European Parliament and the importance of European sovereignty.
In the context of the current pandemic and health crisis, which had a significant impact on the EU economy, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa, on behalf of the Portuguese Council Presidency, stated that “this official launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe is a message of confidence in the future that we want to convey to all citizens of Europe.” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed that “we must listen to all voices. — whether critical or complimentary — and ensure that we properly follow up on whatever is agreed.” Parliament President David Sassoli used the event to raise the issue of possible treaty changes, saying, among other things, that the conference could be an opportunity to give the EU Parliament the power to initiate legislation.
Part of the initiative is also an internet platform futureu.europa.eu on which citizens can publish ideas, opinions or suggestions for improvement as well as organise events. Since mid-April, the online platform has been activated in the 24 official languages. “This is an exercise in democracy on a very large scale that has never been done before,” said EU Commissioner Suica. So far, more than 9,000 people have registered and posted over 2,000 reform ideas. The topics are defined by the EU and range from health, climate change to democracy. Participants can comment on and support the proposals already posted.The suggestions will be evaluated regularly. These reports will then be presented to representatively selected panels of citizens for discussion. The results of the citizens’ panels would then be fed into plenary sessions of the whole conference. This plenary will include representatives from the EU institutions, as well as members of civil society. It is placed under the authority of the three main EU institutions: the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the EU, which will be supported by an executive board.
The fact that the project was initiated after almost two years was not only due to the pandemic. It was also because Parliament, Commission and member states argued about how powerful the conference should be. On the one hand, the Parliament wants to let citizens discuss and vote on non-binding changes to the EU treaties. On the other hand, many national governments see the conference as a threat to their power.
At this stage, it remains unclear if the conference will be a breakthrough and how its outcomes will exactly be determined and implemented in the end. On the one hand, there have been similar unsuccessful Commission efforts to involve EU citizens more closely in the past. Whether this will change this time, in the current crisis context, remains to be seen. On the other hand, it is questionable whether representatives of the Council, the Commission and the Parliament are prepared to act based on the conference’s recommendations. Some member states have already ruled this out and refuse to change the EU treaties, which would be necessary, for example, to change the allocation of posts, the decision-making procedures, the introduction of transnational lists, or the “Spitzenkandidat” system.