Friday

14th May 2021

12-month Future EU Conference is 'impossible', expert warns

  • The conference will now be 12 months or even less (including holidays), which, for some, is not feasible (Photo: European Union)

The debate about the much-delayed Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) so far has been locked in endless institutional infighting over who should lead the event - lowering the expectations about what can be achieved in the coming months.

The Portuguese presidency recently broke the year-long deadlock in the European Council by proposing a co-presidency with the heads of the three main EU institutions (Parliament, Commission, Council) and a three-strong executive committee - instead of a single "eminent European personality".

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MEPs generally accepted having a joint presidency, but some have questioned the role and competences of the executive board - the body that will steer the everyday work of the CoFoE.

The group leaders Manfred Weber of the centre-right European People's Party, Iratxe García of the Socialists & Democrats, and Dacian Cioloș of the liberal Renew Europe, who are likely to represent the European Parliament on this board, wrote to Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa at the weekend calling for greater flexibility regarding the structure of the executive board.

"Our citizens find the institutional set up of our Union complex. With the Conference on the Future of Europe, we can show them we want things to be done differently," they said in a letter.

A Renew official told EUobserver that the joint declaration launching the event, as it stands, does not satisfy some members of the three main political parties in the European Parliament, who want "lighter governance" and a "more operational" executive board.

Green MEP Daniel Freund, for his part, warned that "in two years from now citizens won't care if there were one, six or 500 presidents. What's gonna count in the end is the political outcome".

The joint declaration launching the conference, which was presented to EU ambassadors on Monday (1 March), maintains a strict composition of the executive committee, which would be also co-chaired by the three main EU institutions, each having three representatives and up to four observers.

One of these observers will be the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, a body composed of national lawmakers dealing with EU affairs.

Meanwhile, the remaining observers could be representatives of other institutions, notably the European Committee of the Regions and the Economic Social Committee, or social partners.

Timeline is 'Mission Impossible'

The joint declaration foresees that CoFoE conclusions should be reached by spring 2022 - a date set before the pandemic, suitable for French president Emmanuel Macron.

This way the initially-scheduled a two-year conference would last only a year or even less (considering holidays), which, for some experts, civil society organisations and MEPs, is not feasible.

"Identifying themes through online consultation, convening citizens' panels to discuss them and wrapping those up in less than one year at Covid-19 times seems 'Mission Impossible' at best, or a mere tick-box exercise at worst," warned Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris.

The European institutions and member states are expected to commit to organising European and national "citizens panels" to collect citizens' inputs on a long list of themes based on the EU institutions' political priorities. The declaration explicitly allows citizens to come up with more topics.

However, these events will have to respect a set of principles and minimum criteria, the so-called "conference charter," to be defined by the joint presidency and executive board.

Additionally, citizens are also expected to be part of the "conference plenary" which will help draw conclusions of the conference, together with EU representatives, national lawmakers and civil society. They will meet at least every six months.

According to Alemanno, "by now expectations are low" since the event remains at the moment "a top-down exercise of little interest to most EU citizens".

"To take off, the CoFoE would need to be genuinely bottom-up and driven by civil society together with political leaders at the national and local level and the media playing their part to 'tell' Europe to as many citizens as possible," he added.

EU ambassadors are expected to give the green light to the joint declaration on Wednesday, while the Conference of Presidents in the parliament will assess the draft agreement on Thursday.

Opinion

Why a shortened 'Future Europe' conference suits France

Convening citizens' panels and conducting multi-level debates on various policy topics in the timespan of one year, and under social-distancing restrictions, will be either impossible, or will boil the Conference on the Future of Europe down to a mere window-dressing.

Future of Europe: Nearly half of citizens want reforms

European Parliament president David Sassoli called for the Conference on the Future of Europe "to start as soon as possible". Meanwhile, nearly half of EU citizens would like to see reforms to the bloc.

Agenda

EU 'Future' Conference plus Covid recovery talks This WEEK

MEPs will give the green light for a more united EU health policy, a new investment plan, and debate the Covid recovery fund, which is yet to be unleashed. Lawmakers will also debate media freedom in Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.

Opinion

'Future EU' conference: good idea, bad timing

Listening to European citizens should be a permanent and continuous process - not merely limited to one event which starts on 9 May 2021 and is to finish before the presidential elections in France in the spring of 2022.

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