Friday

28th Feb 2020

EU commission 'lacks ambition' on future conference

  • Commission adds little to parliament's ambitious EU reform plans (Photo: European Parliament)

The European Commission is keen to stay clear of possible treaty changes as a result of the planned conference of the future of Europe, in its draft position to be published on Wednesday (22 January) and seen by EUobserver.

The EU executive's communication on the conference, a two-year soul-searching exercise aimed at reforming the EU after Brexit, is less enthusiastic about the revamp than the European Parliament.

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German MEP Gabriele Bischoff, a Social-democrat member of the parliament's working group on the conference, said the commission's input was "not very ambitious, not very clear, not very outspoken, and is not addressing what should come out of this conference".

The parliament, which adopted its position last week , set out a complex proposal with so-called citizens' agoras including hundreds of EU citizens.

It also proposed an organisational structure involving a plenary, a steering and an executive committee in charge of the process, in which centre-right EPP group leader Manfred Weber, liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt and a yet unnamed Socialist MEP would play central roles.

But the commission, instead, argues that "the conference should build on the well-established citizens' dialogues".

The executive said it has conducted 1,850 of such town hall-style meetings with commissioners and citizens in the last five years in 650 locations with over 200,000 participants.

But a "citizens' dialogue reloaded is not enough if you want to reach out to a wide range of people, not only the ones who are already pro-EU," Bischoff, the German MEP, told EUobserver,

The commission also says the conference should be about "reaching out to the silent majority of Europeans, empowering them and giving them the space to speak up is essential for our democracy".

But Bischoff said the position paper was "very vague" and lacked plans on how to have a meaningful dialogue with citizens.

The commission defines the conference as a "new public forum for an open, inclusive, transparent and structured debate with citizens" that is open to civil society, national and regional authorities, and parliaments.

It also says that "success will largely depend on how effective and widely it is communicated to Europeans", and it adds that the conference needs a "joint promotion plan".

Working out the concept, structure, scope, and timing of the conference should be the result of negotiations between the commission, parliament and member states, the draft paper points out.

The commission argues the conference should first focus on the "EU's headline ambitions", such as climate change, equality, digital transformation, strengthening the EU's role in the world, and "shoring up" the EU's democratic foundations.

In a second strand, the conference should work out the lead candidate system, and transnational lists for the next EU elections, which require unanimity among member states, the commission notes.

The commission proposes to kick off the conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, on 9 May, which is Europe Day.

What to do?

But the executive, which has the power to propose legislation, remains muted on how it wants to put citizens' demands into action.

EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen has pledged "to follow up on what is debated and agreed during the conference".

However, a reference in an earlier version of the text to take legislative action and propose treaty change "if appropriate" was taken out.

"I expect a clear commitment from the commission to treaty changes," Green MEP Daniel Freund said, who is also part of the EU parliament's working group on the conference.

"If we want to make the European Union more democratic and more powerful, we must not cling to the status quo. It is clear that in the end the only way to achieve this is by changing the treaties," said Freund, who thinks the commission's proposal "signals that it is open to the ambitious reform plans" of the parliament.

He added that the conference is an "enormous opportunity to make the EU fit for the future", but that the commission and member states "must now show citizens that they are serious about reforms".

Next phase

The three EU institutions will have to agree on the substance, final framework, and possible outcomes of the conference, and talks are still ongoing. EU leaders last December were cautious about a major reform exercise.

The EU ambassadors are expected to discuss the issue on Wednesday in preparation for the EU affairs ministers' first discussion on the conference next Tuesday (28 January).

Member states are not expected to hammer out a joint position next Tuesday, but will formulate one "soon", a diplomat said, in time for the possible 9 May start of the conference.

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