12 May 2022

The good, the bad and the ugly of the Conference on the Future of Europe

0

The Conference on the Future of Europe is over. It actually went well, at least when only considering the participatory element and citizens’ enthusiasm to take part. However, as anyone with at least a passing knowledge of EU institutional power games would have anticipated, cooperation between the main EU institutions has been less than stellar. Whilst the conference should definitely serve as an inspiration for future experiments in bringing citizens’ participation deeper into the EU policymaking process, some further legwork must be done to ensure the institutions themselves don’t become a persistent roadblock for positive progress.

Unfortunately, from the very start, the European Parliament (EP) and the Member States have had polar opposite ideas on the conference’s purpose and how it should operate. Consequently, it morphed into yet another manifestation of typical inter-EU tensions, embodied in an eye-roll-inducing EU-esque compromise solution. But all is not lost and lessons can – and should – be learnt going forward.

The good: citizens’ participation

First the good, specifically the unique element of this exercise – its participatory dimension. This was surprisingly fruitful, even if there is still room for improvement regarding the organisation of the process itself. The very existence of the citizens’ panels as a first attempt by the EU to engage so directly with its citizens was significant and was enhanced by the enthusiasm and ownership brought to the table by those citizens.

And as a mark of this success, the conference has now produced a report with 49 recommendations and more than 200 proposals on how to improve the EU. These include deeper EU integration in climate, social, and health policy, and the switch from unanimity to majority voting in the Council across all policy areas.

Whether these proposals go anywhere is another story…

 The bad: turf-battles

… and this leads us onto the bad. Even the most enthusiastic citizens cannot make up for a lack of buy-in from their governments, most of which have shown scant interest in the conference.

Many of the conference’s recommendations can be implemented through the Lisbon Treaty (e.g. introducing transnational lists for EP elections). Some of the ‘big-ticket’ items, however, would require treaty change (such as giving the EP the right of legislative initiative or making health policy a shared competence).

Unsurprisingly, Member States are reluctant to go down that fraught path leading to treaty change (some of them have even come out explicitly against it), preferring instead a policy-focused fine-tuning of the European Council’s own (strategic) agenda.

Then, in the other corner stands a battle-ready EP, eagerly willing to pick up the most ambitious recommendations. The EP constantly pushes for substantial and ambitious institutional change. It has already taken a first step by setting up a post-conference convention. The push for more European democracy and supranational power goes hand-in-hand with the increase of the EP’s own power.

But whilst the EP’s attempt to increase its power shouldn’t be condemned per se, it has fuelled those Member States intent on discrediting the conference, arguing that it was hijacked by the EP.

The ugly: process-fixation

Additionally, what has united the two institutions, plus the rather blasé European Commission, was their common fixation on the process and their respective roles in it.

Keep in mind that the conference lost one year to a ridiculous disagreement over who was going to preside, with the pandemic being used as a convenient smokescreen. But one can also wonder as to whether the conference would have actually started earlier sans pandemic.

As such, the complex institutional setup of the conference embodied an EU-esque compromise solution. It did not resolve any turf battles but simply kicked the can down the road. Many procedural questions needed to be tackled as the conference chugged along, requiring much time and energy to be spent on who could decide what and how. This was precious time that could have been invested in matters of substance.

What could make the difference: citizens’ involvement and war in Europe

Going forward, two aspects could make all the difference.

First, a representative cross-section of European citizens is demanding ambitious institutional reform and has formulated concrete recommendations. The long-standing assumption that citizens do not care about the mechanisms of institutional change but only its concrete outcomes (i.e. policies) seems to have been proven wrong; they do care and they demand democratic standards that they are familiar with from the national level (i.e. citizens having a direct say in who is leading the government).

One core demand stemming from this is the abolition of unanimity in the Council, something discussed across all thematic working groups. Undoubtedly, abolishing this will be key to increasing the EU’s ability to act and act quickly when necessary.

Secondly, the war in Ukraine has fully exposed the EU’s deficiencies, demonstrating that individual Member States cannot deliver alone on fundamental questions, such as security. In some areas (such as energy), they do not cooperate enough to act effectively. The war has injected a sense of urgency to the reform process and shows that the EU needs to be made fit for purpose for the challenges of the twenty-first century.

The forecast: uncertainty

The fate of the conference’s recommendations is still unclear and it remains to be seen if the citizens’ panels will have any impact on Member States’ positions. The European Council meeting on 23/24 June could give a first indication, where President Macron has suggested a debate on establishing a formal convention.

Member States are firmly in the driver’s seat as they must unanimously agree on any treaty change. Time is pressing, as some of these issues (with or without treaty revision) must be tackled before the 2024 EP elections, such as how to appoint the next Commission President.

The ultimate success of the Conference on the Future of Europe and its legacy will hinge on the follow-up. Going forward, the three EU institutions must focus less on their institutional power games and more on constructive compromise solutions that take citizens’ ideas on how to improve the EU’s policies and polity into account.