The Conference on the Future of Europe was supposed to be officially launched on 9 May 2020 – on Europe Day. Meanwhile, 2020 is coming to an end and the Conference lacks both, format and leadership, as well as a political mandate by the EU institutions. This blog post looks back at a crisis-ridden year and seeks to contextualize the failure of the conference start.
The Conference on the Future of Europe was supposed to be launched on 9 May 2020 – on Europe Day – as a prestige project of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Now, we are approaching the end of the year and the Conference remains unlaunched, leaderless and without the basis of an inter-institutional agreement between the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament. Obviously, this year’s special circumstances play a role: yes, this was in the middle of a global crisis of unprecedented extent, caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, European leaders and institutions had a lot on their plates and arguably had more urgent matters to deal with. And yes, organizing such a conference in times of travel restrictions and social distancing poses additional challenges.
At the same time, however, if the political motivation behind this project in the Commission and the Council was genuine, pushing it on the EU’s political agenda could have been an excellent opportunity for trust-building, for channeling some of the issues and concerns Europeans have expressed regarding the EU’s democratic set-up and functioning, and in particular for building a resonance chamber for those debates which have surrounded the pandemic and the handling of the crisis by the EU, the member states and the regions. Every crisis has the potential of being a catalyst for change and for bringing about far-reaching reforms. Making the Conference on the Future of Europe a vehicle for such catalyzation in times of crisis could have been one way to go.
But this is not the path EU leaders chose. As much as a crisis can be a catalyst for reform, it can also act as a multiplier for existing problems and deficits, as Euractiv’s Alexandra Brzozowski highlights here. Whereas some national governments have received high approval ratings for their crisis management agendas, the rise of protests and the formation of new political movements as a direct response to crisis management policies in several EU member states (e.g. Spain or Germany) illustrate that trust in national as well as European institutions in light of the current crisis seems to deteriorate more than it seems to be strengthened in some parts of European societies. Existing political cleavages like the one between increasingly authoritarian member states such as Poland and Hungary and more liberal member states deepen, and bridges become all the more difficult to build. A format like the EU Future Conference is designed to give room to a dialogue on change, to building these bridges, rather than going into frustrated opposition and polarization. Such format can be of particular use in times of stronger public contestation of political decision-making.
Tying the lessons learned from the process surrounding the Conference on the Future of Europe to the challenges of the current pandemic-driven situation has been one focus point of the REGIOPARL blog over the past months. We have looked at the discussions on the new MFF in light of crisis, the developments in Hungary as a response to the pandemic as well as the interplay between the EU institutions, especially the role of the parliament, in such processes. We have asked: how could the crisis caused by the pandemic be turned into a window of opportunity for reform, and how could it shape the future of Europe?
The result of our analyses is sobering: the above-mentioned opportunities remained largely untapped, the political will behind the EU future project seems shallow amongst European political leaders in the European Council and Council. What was predicted by commentators after the announcement of the Conference – assuming it would be more of a PR stunt rather than a meaningful process with tangible results – appears to have come true before the Conference has even started. Even if the project is eventually launched in 2021, the political momentum offered by a crisis like the current one will have passed.
However, drawing the conclusion that this postulates a complete lack of political will for dialogue and reform in the EU would be under-complex, too. The recent report “High hopes, low expectations – Brussels’ perspective on the future of Europe after COVID-19“ by the European Policy Centre (EPC), the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) and ifok highlights that amongst stakeholders in Brussels – including policy makers in EU institutions – when asked in a survey about the Conference on the Future of Europe, a majority clearly calls for far-reaching reform up to treaty changes as possible outcomes of the conference. At the same time, however, a majority also does not believe that the conference will produce such outcomes. Therefore, we can deduct that there is a gap between what is deemed necessary for the EU’s future and what is – realistically speaking – being expected from the Conference on the Future of Europe by stakeholders. EPC’s Johannes Greubel has presented the findings of the report in more details in a valued guest contribution on the REGIOPARL blog.
Meanwhile, in addition, over the past months, citizen assemblies in several member states have formed and met, with some of them getting ready to be transferred into permanent structures of dialogue, exceeding the timespan planned originally for their work. Civil society organizations, think tanks, NGOs and the European Parliament as well as the Committee of the Regions have had the Conference on the Future of Europe on their agenda regularly, and have started working on possible topics and ways forward. Whilst the Council (and to some extent the European Commission as well) have sadly fulfilled the expectations placed in them by not fueling the process with the political will necessary, it seems that citizens and other stakeholders have started the Conference anyway, by creating fora for dialogue and participation in a bottom-up manner rather than waiting for the EU institutions to give their ‘go’.
Whilst these are promising developments that point to the urgency with which a structured dialogue on the EU’s future is needed, they also underline that European leaders have chosen a different set of political priorities in times of crisis. Ursula von der Leyen has illustrated this beautifully with the discrepancy between her two comments on the Future Conference when announcing it in 2019 on the one hand: “I want citizens to have their say at a Conference on the Future of Europe… I am ready to follow up on what is agreed, including by legislative action if appropriate. I am also open to Treaty change” – and in her State of the Union Address in 2020 on the other, when all she had left to say about it was that discussing health competences would be “a noble and urgent task for the Conference on the Future of Europe.“ What does this tell us about the State of the Union, really?
It tells us firstly that a participatory project which takes calls for reform seriously, which allows for meaningful results and which is more than a communication exercise will probably not be imposed onto citizens by institutions which struggle to agree amongst themselves for months on end in order to decide on the format, the chair and the outcome. Secondly, it tells us that the political will for such endeavor is not guaranteed and that Europeans should not wait for their political leaders – especially in the Council – to find it. And thirdly, it tells us that it will take more efforts than a half-hearted citizen consultation exercise to reconnect the EU to its citizens. Mainly nationally driven crisis politics and the response of the European publics of the past months have highlighted that trust and affirmation for the EU are shaken more deeply than may have been visible before the pandemic. At the same time, European politicians and citizens have voiced their continued interest to establish a structured dialogue on reform – they have even started this dialogue. For 2021, one can only wish the EU’s institutions that they do not let this opportunity pass once more.