In an attempt to respond better to the needs of citizens, the EU is planning a two-year long consultation that will see greater dialogue with citizens. While the conference is driven by noble intentions, a succesful outcome is not assured.
This week, a select group of diplomats and experts joined us for a V/I Breakfast format meeting about the conference on the Future of Europe. Our invited guest was Roland Freudenstein, a German-born expert on European integration and international security. Freudenstein is currently working as Policy Director for the Martens Centre, the official think tank of the European People’s Party (EPP). He is also familiar with Poland, having in the past been the Director of the Warsaw office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
The meeting was an ideal opportunity to ask about the latest state of play with regard to the Future of Europe conference that will kick off in a couple of months. Expectations are high but may not materialise in what is likely to be a long, complex process of discussion, citizen interaction and should lead to the formulation of new ideas. What could be the end product of the conference? How will Central Europe approach this opportunity to shape the future of Europe?
In two words
When asked about the current state concerning the preparations for the conference, Roland Freudenstein evoked the story of Theodore Herzl visiting a shtetl and asking the local rabbi to describe the situation in one word to which he said: “good”. Dissatisfied with the response, the famous zionist asked for a more detailed description, in two words, to which the rabbi replied: “not good”. Similar to the story, Freudenstein considers it important to manage expectations about the conference right from the start. “At best, we can expect a slight improvement; at worst, the whole idea may backfire.”
While the European Parliament was the first EU institution to publish a document on the conference, in fact, the idea originated in French circles. President Macron is seen as a driving force for the entire process on the future of Europe, which should end with the French EU Presidency in the first half of 2022.
As such, the concept of a conference is a prolongation of a philosophy and a method introduced by La Republique En Marche (LREM) in France with the presidential election of 2017. “At the European level there has not been such a revolutionary success but the concept is significant because it effectively sidelines existing intermediaries and bodies and installs a direct dialogue between the executive and citizens”, says Freudenstein.
The European Parliament was glad to take up an idea born in Paris, although the Von der Leyen Commission is more hesitant about the outcome of any major initiative based on dialogue with citizens. So far, it has not made mention of any possible treaty change at the end of the process. Meanwhile, the Council of the European Union is openly sceptical about the entire idea.
Big plenaries, small agoras
Commissioner Dubravka Šuica from Croatia will lead the preparatory work for the conference on the Future of Europe, which is set to start on 9 May 2020. In practice, there would not be a single conference but rather two plenaries organised every six months for a two-year-long period, to discuss ideas and work out what is taking place in smaller citizen assemblies and agoras.
When the idea was voted in the European Parliament, 494 MEPs from the traditional party families and the greens voted in favour, whereas 147 voted against, mostly from eurosceptic party families. There were 49 abstensions.
Although the aim is to involve citizens in the big debates about the future of Europe, the reality may boil down to a more technical discussion about how to improve the functioning of the institutions. Freudenstein sees three possible areas where discussions could see some result.
First, there is the potential to bring the system of Spitzenkandidaten back to life, albeit in revised form. “Rumours of its death are vastly exaggerated”, thinks Freudstein, noting the relative success of the election process in 2014. Ursula von der Leyen has promised to enshrine the Spitzenkandidaten system in some sort of interinstitutional agreement.
A second point would be the idea of pan-European lists, previously evoked by the French president. While voting for politicians across the borders of member states sounds good in theory, much will depend on the fine print of a future proposal.
“Citizens may not welcome it as a revolutionary idea, but it could give a broader base to the parliamentary elections.”
Third, the decision-making procedures of the Council of the European are in need of an overhaul to improve transparency and give the Union a more decisive voice in today’s global context.
Few of these procedural matters will excite European citizens, even though they matter a lot to the functioning of the EU. Anything more substantial could halt to a grind because of the treaty change it would require. “Some parties may actively campaign against it, or national governments fearful of populist sentiment might not explain the importane of these procedural changes.”
In Brussels, the jostling for the senior jobs regarding the organisation of the conference has already started. Freudstein notes how the conference is not only represented as a goal in itself, but also the governance of the entire process. Several European politicians have an eye for a seat in the steering committee or the executive board. For now, it appears that Guy Verhofstadt stands a good chance of becoming the chair of the executive board of the conference.
Citizens will be tempted to debate the EU’s policy priorities, even though the existing decision-making process is there to meet such demands. Freudenstein also considers it is unlikely that citizens would raise issues that have not been evoked in the European Parliament up until now.
“When we asked citizens to ‘Tell Barroso’ in 2009 by means of an application what the new European Commission should do, many of their ideas submitted to us had already been discussed by the institutions.”
Yet, Freudenstein acknowledges that the conference has the potential to generate positive feelings and give citizens the sense they are taken seriously. This could result in a practical discussion about how the Union can respond better to common needs. What is the downside of an attention-grabbing event? “They risk organising a conference that will ‘not be helpful’, in the words of Angela Merkel, and give more proof to citizens that the EU does not care.”
The direction and outcome of the conference on the Future of Europe are still in flux. The next couple of months will be key to get the message right regarding citizens’ dialogues and their impact on the Union.