Friday

9th Dec 2022

Opinion

Time for the Conference on the Future of Europe to start

  • In Europe too, democracy needs a shot up the arm (Photo: Mike Cohen)

In a democracy, trust is never a given, warn MEPs. After a transformative year, Europe needs an open debate on what comes next, or we risk losing the public.

It was the year a pandemic kept us all at home, and the EU set up an unprecedented bond programme to deal with the economic fallout.

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When authoritarian tendencies in Europe thundered on, and anti-democratic spoilers both within and outside the EU actively promoted mistrust in public policies. When one of Europe's biggest members left for good, and one of the world's leading democracies often seemed to have lost the plot.

We are all happy to leave 2020 behind, but we would be irresponsible not to draw conclusions from its malice. The world is a different place, and politics will need to change to cope with that fact.

One person who understands is president-elect Joe Biden. Not only will he reach out to democratic unbelievers in his own country to heal the wounds of past years.

He has also promised to bring the world's democracies together to update their narrative, and to lay out a shared agenda to breathe new life into it.

Fighting corruption, defending human rights, tackling authoritarianism and the fundamental problems underlying its attractions... these are no longer issues one country can deal with on its own. They are world-wide problems, and the democratic world should come together more effectively to find solutions.

In Europe too, democracy needs a shot up the arm.

The EU has already adapted to some of the issues it faced.

It now plays a decisive and delicate role in tackling health crises, for instance through negotiating vaccine purchases on behalf of national governments.

It took up another major role in financing the recovery, which means member states link up to borrow and spend a staggering €700bn on top of the normal EU budget together. With that power comes great responsibility.

On the other hand, the EU has shown traditional weakness in other fields, such as belated sanctions on Belarus' election thuggery and a bewildering naivety towards China.

The final compromise on the rule of law guarantee for recovery fund projects also left much to be desired. Weakness too carries obligations.

None of these can go without democratic oversight and public legitimation. When policies take a leap forward, democratic politics need to be adapted accordingly.

Already after the last European elections, the EU promised a public consultation on the state of our shared politics.

A Conference on the Future would be set up to make the debate on the bigger picture more interactive: what do we want and need to do together, as Europeans, and how do we best make that happen?

Those are not questions Brussels can answer on its own.

So a two-year debate would be organised as broadly as possible, in time for the EU leaders present and future to draw conclusions before the next elections to the European Parliament in 2024.

Ursula von der Leyen promised it, the European Council supported it, the European Parliament was enthusiastic to go ahead.... and then, nothing.

This week (15 January), the European Parliament's opinion on the Conference is one year old.

Ever since then, Council and Commission have been stalling. Do they fear a genuine public debate would come up with conclusions they wouldn't like?

Or do they fear a truly European debate would draw lessons they cannot control?

Whatever the reason their fear, as always in politics, is a really bad counsel. Because when powerful politicians shy away from public scrutiny, the public loses trust.

This is a crucial time for EU politics. Momentous decisions are being taken, and we stand behind them whole heartedly. But in a democracy you cannot wield and expand power without active engagement of the public.

No more excuses, no more delays: the Conference on the Future of Europe needs to start now.

Author bio

MEPs Gabriele Bischoff (S&D), Damian Boeselager (Greens), Pascal Durand (Renew), Daniel Freund (Greens), Danuta Huebner (EPP), Domenec Ruiz Devesa (S&D), Paulo Rangel (EPP), Helmut Scholz (GUE/NGL), Guy Verhofstadt (Renew).

Disclaimer

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

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