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24th Oct 2020

Opinion

How Juncker laid groundwork for 'Future EU' conference

  • One should also build on already existing good ideas. After all, it was the same European Commission which presented the white paper only three years ago - simply with a different president (Photo: European Commission)

Even if this goes unnoticed in the capitals of EU member states', the talk of the town in Brussels these days is the Conference on the Future of Europe, an important element of the Ursula von der Leyen Commission agenda.

The European Parliament voted its position on 15 January on the implementation of the conference, the Commission announced its broad lines a week later and the Council is to follow.

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  • Gone but not forgotten - Jean-Claude Juncker's 2017 proposals were very similar to the Conference on the Future of Europe plan, now overseen by his successor, Ursula von der Leyen (r) (Photo: European Commission)

So the game is on.

If the European parliament's plan is to come through, we are speaking about a massive operation: conferences, consultations and debates, activating civil society, NGOs and alike . Everybody wants to be involved, and so the discussion is currently focused on format rather than content.

Debate on the future of Europe comes and goes in various yearly cycles.

The last time the Future of Europe was on top of the agenda was, in fact, recently.

In 2017, after both French presidential and German parliamentary elections, the expectation was that a new set of reform proposals would be launched.

Against that background, the European commission then led by Jean-Claude Juncker had in March published a white paper on the future of Europe, The Way Ahead.

For many, the white paper on the future of Europe was one of the best papers of the Juncker Commission.

Rather than pushing a specific commission proposal, which assumingly would have proposed strong integration in various areas, Juncker's commission set on the table five scenarios for all to choose: from "nothing but the single market" to "doing much more together".

It was then up to European political actors to pick their favourite and defend it. The commission turned the tables, and responsibility was now for the member states to choose the way forward.

A very interesting debate started, but it was not thoroughly followed through. Many remained silent. In particular, you could have assumed that anti-EU populists would have celebrated the document and chosen the option with the least EU integration - driving the debate in the process.

Eurosceptic silence

But that did not happen, because of course for populists it is not interesting to debate the EU's functioning, even downsized, rather than simply oppose the EU.

Nor did many member states' actors take a position in relation to the five scenarios.

The challenge of the Juncker Commission's five proposals for the opinion makers is that when you pick your preferred model, you cannot hide behind duplicity, for example asking for much more common action but preferring minimal integration at the same time.

If the debate on the future of Europe is really conducted along the EU's headline ambitions, following a thorough conversation on each policy topic as is currently proposed, we can already guess how the story will go.

EU-oriented politicians, civil society representatives and stakeholders, often Brussels-based, will provide proposals, where the conclusion is that (much) more integration is needed in various policy areas.

Then, the council, reflecting the mood in the member states' capitals will take the role of toning the proposals down, if not ignoring them altogether.

In addition, if the future of Europe discussion is conducted focusing on separate policy areas, which are many and often technical and complicated, the citizens will not be able to follow.

But if we start from the big picture, as Juncker's white paper proposes, it can all can become much more understandable – and will set a framework for the conference debate.

Juncker's paper is an excellent starting point, as nothing essential has changed in substance even taking into account Brexit.

Using Juncker's paper to launch the discussion, all the integration options are on the table. It would be very difficult for anti-EU forces to label the Conference on the Future of Europe as just an artificial attempt to gain legitimacy for more integration.

In its recent communication on Shaping the Conference on the Future of Europe, the commission makes a strong point on building on experience.

One should also build on already existing good ideas. After all, it was the same European commission which presented the white paper only three years ago - simply with a different president.

Author bio

Tomi Huhtanen is executive director of the Wilfried Martens Centre, the think tank of the European People's Party.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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