Tuesday

26th Jan 2021

Future of Europe conference: one year on standby

  • Discussions so far have been mainly about who should take charge - instead of on the scope or content of the actual conference itself (Photo: DG EMPL)

The troubled Conference on the Future of Europe, intended to reconnect the European project with its citizens, remains in deadlock due to an ongoing institutional dispute over who will chair it.

The much-delayed event 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 major weaknesses of the Union.

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The two-year conference, initially scheduled to be launched on Europe Day (9 May), was postponed due to the first outbreaks of coronavirus.

Now one year after the European Parliament and the European Commission presented their views on the conference, member states are still involved in political wrangling over who should lead the work conducted by the conference - an issue that has blocked the launch of the event for months.

"The conference was announced as the largest public consultation ever organised, but paradoxically its preparation has not benefited from any public input, having been concocted among the three institutions," pointed out Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris.

This "original sin" will bedevil this self-proclaimed democratic exercise until its end, warned Alemanno, arguing that "the moment of truth" will be when the input of the conference will have to feed into EU decision-making.

As the end of the year approaches, the search for the right chair is now expected to become a headache for the incoming Portuguese EU presidency.

Brexit negotiator and former Belgian prime minister MEP Guy Verhofstadt was the parliament's choice to lead the conference.

But he was rejected by some member states who see him as too federalist.

Former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former president of Lithuanian Dalia Grybauskaitė and the Italian former prime minister Enrico Letta were among the proposed names being discussed by EU officials.

Despite speculation of Thorning-Schmidt getting this high-profile job, she has not so far received broad support either.

"There could be a consensus [around Thorning-Schmidt], but there is no agreement yet. However, I do not see any other name out there with a comparable high chance of securing a council consensus and a parliament majority," a senior EU diplomat said.

Meanwhile, the possibility of having the conference chaired by more than one person has emerged as a potential compromise.

"The possibility of co-chairs in the conference would allow us also to look at gender or geographical location," MEP Daniel Freund from the Greens suggested.

Earlier this month, the Socialists & Democrats group in the parliament suggested that the conference should be extended until 2023, some months ahead of the next European elections, to have enough time "for a proper consultation with citizens".

"A lot of precious time has been lost over institutional quarrels on who will chair it [the event]. Not delaying the conference any further is a big priority," Iratxe García, head of the socialist group, told EUobserver.

"Since this is not a convention, but an open conference aimed at engaging citizens, the parliament must have a prominent role," García also said, adding that this will be crucial to have "a successful democratic exercise that will effectively reinforce the European project".

Despite the current uncertainty, Portuguese prime minister António Costa already reaffirmed his intention to launch the conference under its presidency to enable an open and wide debate.

'Not another beauty contest'

The conference, at least in the first months, will most likely take place in the form of hybrid events - although debates on the ground are also expected if the epidemiological situation allows it.

"It [the conference] does not make a lot of sense if physical meetings are not possible, you will get nowhere. Perhaps it will change under the Portuguese EU presidency, but if there is a third wave, the political attention will be elsewhere again," a senior EU diplomat warned.

Meanwhile, the commission has developed a multilingual digital platform which will allow citizens and other participants to submit ideas online, setting the agenda of the event, participate in debates and organise conference events.

Earlier this month, the president of the Committee of the Regions, Apostolos Tzitzikostas, warned that the conference must not be "just another beauty contest between EU institutions leaving us only with words," urging a launch as soon as practicable, involving cities and regions.

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