Friday

5th Mar 2021

Opinion

Why a shortened 'Future Europe' conference suits France

  • President Emmanuel Macron would like to claim credit for the successful conclusion of the conference which - let's not forget - was his original idea (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Last week (3 Febraury) the EU Council - at level of ambassadors - adopted its official position on the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE): a project announced by the European Commission's president Ursula von der Leyen in her political guidelines to give European citizens a greater say on what they expect from the European Union.

The start of the Conference, initially envisaged for May 2020, was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and is now foreseen for 9 May 2021.

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  • Two new issues are particularly alarming: the downgraded status of national parliaments in the steering committee, and a prohibitively short timeline for the Conference on the Future of Europe (Photo: European Commission)

While, over the last days, media have focused on the altered governance structure of the Conference based on substituting its originally envisaged one-person presidency of an "imminent European personality" by a shared leadership of the presidents of the three EU institutions (i.e. the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission), the recently-adopted Council position raises further doubts as to the truly democratic and inclusive character of the forthcoming event.

Two issues in particular require critical reflection: the downgraded status of national parliaments in the steering committee and a prohibitively short timeline of the CoFoE.

Downgraded national parliaments

In its original position on the CoFoE from 24 June, 2020 the council foresaw setting up of "a steering group composed of representatives of each institution on an equal footing, as well as the current and incoming COSAC rotating presidencies".

COSAC (Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union) is the most important transnational forum of cooperation among national parliaments in the EU which brings together representatives of parliamentary committees specialised in European affairs.

The inclusion of national MPs into the steering group of the CoFoE has been a sensible and right decision due to the fact that national parliaments constitute the second most important - next to the European Parliament - strand of democratic representation in the EU's multi-level political system.

They also play a critical role in ensuring ownership and implementation of European policies at the national level.

Yet, in its newly revised position, the council has decided to relegate COSAC from a full member of the conference "steering group" to a mere observer affiliated by the renamed "executive board".

While looking for possible explanations of this important modification we should take into account the altered status of the CoFoE's leadership.

Substituting "the single chair" by a collective authority of the three EU presidents, whose political agendas are already fully packed, implies that it will be the lower-level "executive board" who will take actual responsibility for the management of the Conference.

In this context, there might have been fears voiced by EU institutions that the involvement of additional representatives of national parliaments might unnecessarily complicate smooth steering of the CoFoE.

In other words, after consulting with the parliament and the commission, the council has agreed to relegate national parliaments to the rank of observers to keep them at a 'safe distance' from influencing the course of the event.

Yet, from a normative and functional point of view, such a decision is a mistake.

As a result of European integration, a broad range of important state powers have been transferred to the supranational level.

Some of them - such as monetary policy or trade and competition policy, have become exclusive competences of the EU already some time ago.

Recently, however, through the various new modes of EU governance, also social, fiscal and budgetary policies - which form the core of what the popular will should determine in a democratic system - gradually escape domestic parliamentary control.

In other words, democracies have been weakened in their effective capacity to define national public policies other than in their diluted and incremental participation in the definition of European policies through their government representatives in the council.

Pursuing this upward delegation process further results in an ever increasing democratic deficit of EU governance that can be only compensated by the direct and meaningful involvement of national parliaments - as legitimacy intermediaries - in the EU policy-making, as well as in transformative debates such as the CoFoE.

Further hollowing-out of this crucial representative dimension within the EU realm will prove counter-productive for the EU-level legitimacy, fostering nationalist narrative hostile to further EU integration.

Clock ticking

Another problem which seems to weaken the potential democratic leverage of the conference is its timing.

In the current council position we find that member states expect to conclude the CoFoE in 2022 – a date established before the one-year delay has occurred due to the pandemic.

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

Sources in Brussels report that the lack of a more generous time-adjustment in this case can be explained by the pressure from France to end the CoFoE during the French EU Council presidency and just before the French presidential election - both taking place in 2022.

This way, president Emmanuel Macron would like to claim credit for the successful conclusion of the conference which - let's not forget - was his original idea.

Yet, the French striving for 'success' cannot prevail over the European interest - that is, substantive recommendations for EU reforms stemming from meaningful debates and authentic civic engagement.

EU institutions as well as member states should not allow particularist political ambitions to stand in the way of a genuine and socially-responsive outcome of the forthcoming CoFoE.

Author bio

Dr Karolina Borońska-Hryniewiecka is visiting research fellow at the Pantheon-Sorbonne, among other academic posts, and member of the European University Institute Forum on Democratic Participation and the Future of Europe. Professor Guillaume Sacriste of Sorbonne University is the co-author with Thomas Piketty, of How to Democratise Europe by Harvard University Press.

Disclaimer

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

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