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31st Oct 2020

Future of Europe: EU Council urged to propose a chair

  • The discussion so far about the conference have been mainly focused on who should take charge - instead of on the scope or content of the actual event (Photo: Mike Cohen)

EU commissioner for inter-institutional relations, Maroš Šefčovič, warned on Tuesday (13 October) that it was crucial to reach a "quick agreement" on the Conference on the Future of Europe and its launch date, saying there is a "significant appetite" across society to engage in this event.

The much-delayed conference is seen as a chance to have an inclusive dialogue with citizens and other participants, such as civil society organisations, about the way ahead for the EU - particularly after the pandemic revealed weaknesses of the Union.

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However, the two-year event, which was initially scheduled for Europe Day on 9 May, has been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Since the German presidency has promised that the conference will start still under their leadership, the European Commission and MEPs are both confident that the event could be launched before the end of the year.

"We count on the German presidency to kick off the event at the end of this year. Too much time has been lost because of the Covid situation, so the timeframe of the conference should be extended beyond 2022 to ensure enough time for a proper consultation with citizens," Iratxe García, head of the socialist group in the parliament, told EUobserver-

Similarly, MEP Daniel Freund from the Greens said that "there's still a chance that the conference will be kicked-off this year - with citizens dialogues starting reasonably soon in a digital way".

However, negotiations have been slowed down due to clashes between the parliament, who want an open and inclusive process, and the council, who has been narrowing it down, especially regarding the possibility of any eventual treaty changes.

But also due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has affected all planning in every institution.

"We don't want that this Conference to be just the sum of 27 national debates: we need a true European debate. Of course, the governance questions are also important, but they should not play the central role. We should try to avoid a clash of egos," García said.

Hence, the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission still have to agree on the scope and structure in a joint declaration.

Who sits in the top seat?

But there is one major issue: who will chair the conference.

"The German presidency has made huge efforts. We are ready to organise the start of the conference. Now it just depends on who is to be on the chair - just a name," said Michael Roth, Germany's minister for European affairs.

Earlier, the parliament proposed Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and MEP of the Renew Group, as the head of the conference.

But since the council opposed this option, many names started flouting in the Brussels bubble, including EU's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.

"Council should openly clarify what is its view regarding the conference chair," said socialist MEP Domènec Ruiz Devesa.

The discussion so far about the conference, which was an idea from French president Emmanuel Macron, has been mainly focused on who should take charge - instead of on the scope or content of the event.

"This conference has so far more been about the people leading it, than the people participating in it," said fellow MEP Damian Boeselager, urging parties involved to stop politicising the event.

"A single person at the head of the conference will not make the difference, but Europe's citizens will. What is key is that there is useful and concrete participation by and accountability towards the EU's citizens - that is the core of its success," he added.

The Committee of the Regions previously warned the main EU institutions that a top-down, centralised, Brussels-driven process that does not actively involve its local and regional leaders is doomed to fail.

"The commission is keeping an open mind and is ready to consider all proposals, which will lead to a consensus between the institutions," a commission spokesperson told EUobserver.

In person or online

Meanwhile, the EU executive wants to launch the conference, using both online platforms and physical formats - should the restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic allow it.

This multilingual digital platform will allow citizens and other participants to submit proposals and contributions to the discussions online but also to organise conference-related events themselves, which will ultimately feed into the debate on the future of the bloc, the commission spokesperson said.

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