It Was Only After the Invasion That the Future of Europe Began to Be Discussed in Earnest

The Union is still only able to change under external pressure, the conference was supposed to change that

11 May 2022

The most important date for the Conference on the Future of Europe is not even the beginning of May 2021, when it was launched. Nor is it 9 May this year, when the three representatives of the European institutions present the final proposal. But 24 February this year.

Indeed, we can quite rightly ask whether a number of the Conference’s objectives for Europe have not been paradoxically achieved as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

If the invasion had not taken place, the outcomes of the Conference would have been read as a manifesto for civilisation. The Europeans, in their various proposals, have set out what they would like to see in the areas where the Union has an impact. 

Editor’s Pick: Divergent Strategies For EU Funds

At the same time, we would perceive that in this way the European institutions are trying to establish a direct dialogue with the citizens and to get permission from them to ask for more competences. 

Last but not least, we would see the Conference as a ‘European democratic exercise,’ informing citizens about the functioning of the Union, connecting them with experts and networking willing Europeans. 

Judging by the resonance of this event in the Slovak media scene (and it was hardly different elsewhere), we could not expect much. Trying to change the Union from below is a fair and honest event. But it was only the events in Ukraine that delivered serious arguments, increased public attention and the willingness of politicians and removed several taboos in the European project. 

Orbán Wanted for Visegrad What He Denies to the Union

Take the example of the Visegrad countries. For a long time, Viktor Orbán has tried to make Visegrád look like a single bloc enchanted by his ideas. He has succeeded in selling this illusion to uninformed observers or domestic fans. However, Visegrád is just a neighbourly grouping that has achieved the appearance of a united policy by stamping out ‘anti-quota’ positions on the migration crisis. 

But when it came to the attitude to the war in Ukraine, suddenly it was a very different Visegrad. Poland took the initiative, and for a long time the Czech Republic and Slovakia did not hesitate either. In the case of Poland, it would not have looked any different with a different government at the helm, while we can have doubts about the other Visegrad partners, judging by the behaviour of the parties in opposition. But we will leave this for an alternative history. 

In any case, Hungary was left out.

Orbán wanted to make Visegrad into a kind of mini-Union, which would form an opposition to Brussels and amplify his positions. And he actively worked to prevent the EU itself from achieving such unity of position. 

But Visegrad is in fact what Orbán would like the Union to be — a loose grouping that acts together when it is convenient for the states and at other times governments can look for other partners if they disagree with their neighbours. 

For example, the trip to Kyiv was planned jointly by Poles, Czechs and Slovenes. The Slovak Prime Minister later went there with Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel. Orbán was lonely and his partners also cancelled a meeting of V4 defence ministers shortly before the elections to express their disapproval of Hungary’s position on Ukraine. 

Orbán wanted a more united Visegrad, but not a more united Union. He correctly understood that he needed a higher displacement for his ideas, which he would achieve by merging and a kind of — albeit false — unity. However, he denies these same moves to the Union because he knows that they work. They establish the weight and recognisability of the Community.

The Hungarian prime minister tried to argue for the common civilisational fate of the Visegrad neighbourhood. Central Europeans were supposed to be culturally different, they were supposed to preserve archaeological remnants of real European values before the Brussels-liberal turn. A kind of conservative core that Orbán wanted to nurture together with his Polish, Czech and Slovak colleagues. 

In the process, he found partners from the Western European and world far right, or from among old and new conservatives, who were to help him transform the Union into the image of this Visegrad experiment. 

Such a project was based on the idea that Central Europeans are one cultural bloc facing the West and striving for its value – and political – transformation. It was supposed to be a civilisational retaliation to the democratisation efforts after 1989. 

And the condition for such a mission is that a European people does not exist and must not be created. The Union must remain as loose as possible. But the conference on the future of Europe was based on the exact opposite. Firstly, because it envisaged a demonstration by Europeans  at the level of citizens, citizens’ initiatives, at national, intergovernmental and euro-institutional level – where they were to demonstrate their will. And on the basis of this, the European institutions have the possibility, if not the obligation, to incorporate the resulting proposals into legislation and, where appropriate, to open the Treaties.

The purpose of the whole endeavour is a more robust European project that is more resilient to pressures from without and within. 

And Yet, the European People Exist

Such action is a response to the 2001 Convention, which wanted to come up with a European constitution along the lines of the US. However, it was rejected in national referendums. This gave the impression that a closer union of the Member States was something that the political elites wanted and that the citizens of the individual states were rejecting it. Brexit has only confirmed this impression. 

But the gradual dismemberment of the EU by the will of its citizens has not followed. And the European institutions have learned the lesson that if they want change, they have to ask for it from below. 

At the same time, the Conference had many pre-existing conditions manifesting themselves in the form of bias. These are the subject of evaluative analyses, but we can already tell right away that the Conference has had a problem with media presentation and justifying its own existence to a wider audience that is not used to such exercises of political imagination.

In terms of representativeness, it is clear that the Conference was primarily aimed at motivated and active Europeans, for whom a pro-European bias is to be expected. On the other hand, the historian of social movements can point out that even in the case of the demands of the Slovak Nation, the entire nation was not present in Liptovský Mikuláš, but a political will was being formed that presupposed such a nation. 

The outcome of the Conference also shows that there is something like a common political will that transcends nation states. 

The representative of the Hungarian Parliament spoke at the plenary session on the conclusions of the Conference to complain about exactly this. Firstly, she said that national parliaments are closest to the people and that is why she disagrees with the introduction of the requirement for the abolition of the unanimity rule, transnational voting lists and Spitzenkandidaten. Because these are instruments that institutionally strengthen the European political people. 

All Eyes On… Putin

If the aim of the Conference was to gain a kind of legitimacy for the reform of the Union, the war in Ukraine struck more fundamentally and created a much, much clearer and more acute momentum than the Conference itself. 

Especially in the energy sector, but with an emphasis on derusification of the sector, not on its green transformation, which is not excluded in the longer term. But also in other areas: self-sufficiency in food and production, strengthening common security, a stronger EU foreign policy, majority voting facilitating foreign policy in particular, and demands for accession negotiations with candidate countries.

Indeed, what is happening in Ukraine is the strongest argument for a geopolitically relevant, action-oriented, defensive and expanding Europe that there has been in recent times. Moreover, the war in the neighbourhood is breaking down a number of taboos, opening up possibilities for imagining change and increasing the willingness to participate in it. Ukraine is teaching Europeans to think in larger wholes, something many of us were not used to. And this applies especially to geopolitically shy Slovaks. 

The real Conference on the Future of Europe thus began at the end of February and is ongoing. 

The unpleasant thing is that this confirms the suspicion that the Union is so far able to change mainly under pressure from outside, when circumstances demand it. The conference was supposed to prove the opposite, that change can come at the behest of the citizens. 

However, it will take time for the European institutions to win allies in the media sphere, among national politicians and citizens themselves. Until this is done, the Conference will be under-attended. 

Orbán is now innocent in this, but all eyes in Visegrad — and probably all of Europe — are on Putin on 9 May, not on Macron, who is presenting the outcomes of the Conference.


Co-financed by the European Parliament this article is part of an ongoing project organised by Visegrad Insight, involving Hospodářské novinyRes Publica NowaSME, and HVG, and discussing the Conference on the Future of Europe. The European Parliament was not involved in the preparation of the materials and shall not be liable for information or positions expressed by the authors. To see more articles from this project, click here.

Published also in Czech in Hospodářské noviny.

Photo: European Union 2022 – Source EP

Zuzana Kepplova

Columnist, writer and an editor of the opinion section at the leading Slovak newspaper, SME.


Weekly updates with our latest articles and the editorial commentary.