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The Conference on the Future of Europe: 3 stumbling blocks to the Joint Declaration

Future of Europe / COMMENTARY
Johannes Greubel

Date: 15/07/2020
Before they can even adopt a Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe, the EU institutions need to agree on at least 3 central issues: Who will lead the process? Will there be treaty change? And what would be the follow-up?

On 30 June 2020, the Presidents of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council officially kicked off the negotiations on a Joint Declaration (JD) for the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE). By outlining the objectives, content, scope, composition and governance structure of the Conference, the JD will provide the cornerstones of an interinstitutional mandate for a complex two-year process. Thus, it will determine whether it will, at the end of the day, lead to much-needed reform of the EU.

Striking a compromise on some aspects will be harder than on others. The three institutions’ positions set forth over the past few months already overlap in some parts. Nonetheless, there are at least three key issues where they diverge profoundly, and consent will probably be hard-fought: (i) determining leadership; (ii) the question of treaty change; and (iii) the post-Conference follow-up. The positions of the Parliament and the Council are, in particular, diametrically opposed to each other on these issues, while the Commission is much more cautious. (See the annex below for a comparative table of all the commonalities and differences in the positions of the three EU institutions.)

Stumbling block 1: The ‘right’ leadership

The Parliament and the Council differ on their preferred leadership options. The former calls for the CoFoE to be steered by “the three main EU institutions under Parliament’s leadership”. The latter wants an “eminent European personality as its independent and single chair” who can “represent the joint interests of all three EU institutions” to lead the Conference, and thus rejects the Parliament’s potential leadership role.

The CoFoE leadership will be critical in steering the process towards a successful outcome. Having someone who enjoys the support and trust of the three main EU institutions in control is, therefore, of utmost importance. It also makes the leadership question a particularly sensitive one.

Although the JD will set the framework for the CoFoE, the former will and should not aim to provide all the details related to the different phases and layers of the latter. The Declaration cannot include or anticipate all the aspects of such a complex and long-term process. Many issues will have to be solved and managed by the Conference leadership as the process unfolds.

The leadership must elaborate a detailed work plan that will ensure that the various elements of the Conference – citizens’ agoras, thematic conferences, meetings of the Conference Plenary, national and regional activities – all feed into the process constructively. It must specify how citizens will, in practical terms, be involved in the process, given that the JD will most likely only set broad criteria in this regard. It must clarify issues related to the random selection of citizens, the content the citizens’ agoras will deal with concretely, and the interlinking of the citizens’ and representative dimensions of the CoFoE. Finally, the leadership might have to be ready to adapt the process to possible future waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To perform all these tasks, those at the helm of the Conference should be politically and institutionally independent, have vast political experience at the highest level and be able to bring the different strands of the CoFoE together constructively. The leadership should be supported by a steering committee which includes not only institutional actors, but also a wide range of experts in the field of participatory democracy. In addition, the leadership should draw on past citizens’ participation projects, which offer valuable lessons for the many decisions that will have to be taken. Finally, the Conference leadership should be equipped with adequate resources, competences and funds to cover the activities undertaken in the context of the CoFoE.

Stumbling block 2: The question of treaty change

Another highly controversial issue relates to the question of treaty change. While the Parliament is open to all possible outcomes, including amending the EU’s primary law, the Council rejects the idea of treaty reform. The Council states that the “Union framework offers potential to allow challenges to be addressed in an effective manner.” Member states thus seem firm in their position that the CoFoE does not fall within the scope of Article 48 TEU, which outlines the options available for treaty reform.

Those two diametrically opposed positions seem difficult to reconcile. However, if the Conference is to enable European citizens and their political leaders to formulate a joint vision for the future, as all three institutions claim in their position papers, it must leave the door for a potential treaty reform open. Excluding certain options from the start could dent the credibility of the Conference as an exercise which takes citizens’ opinions into account. Moreover, specific policy reforms needed for the Union’s successful future post-COVID-19 might require treaty change.

The debate about institutional reform is a case in point. A year ago, the nomination of Ursula von der Leyen as Commission President sparked criticism among political groups and the public and led to pledges from the Parliament and several EU leaders, including the Commission President herself, to reform the (s)election process before the next European elections in 2024. Since then, the debate around this issue went silent.

The COVID-19 crisis might have shifted the focus of the Conference towards more policy-oriented issues. However, to avoid a repeat of 2019, institutional reforms should not fall off the agenda. A comprehensive and open debate about how to reform the Spitzenkandidaten system and whether to introduce transnational lists might discover that the Union’s current institutional framework does not suffice. This effectively means that the possibility of treaty change cannot be simply dismissed at this time.

Stumbling block 3: The post-Conference follow-up

The positions of the Parliament, Commission and Council suggest that the CoFoE should end with a report summarising the outcome of the process and potentially including recommendations on how to translate them into reform. A thorough post-Conference follow-up is, therefore, essential if the process is actually to lead to tangible reforms.

While the Parliament calls for final CoFoE conclusions that include concrete recommendations and the EU institutions following them up individually through concrete legislative proposals, the Council advocates that the outcome of the Conference should be reflected in a report to the European Council in 2022. It would then be up to the heads of state or government to define the next steps. The EU institutions would then formulate their response to the CoFoE based on these steps.

Nevertheless, if the experience with the European Citizens’ Consultations (ECCs) is any indication, leaving the outcome of the Conference in the hands of only one institution – that is, the European Council – risks failing to produce a proper follow-up to the Conference. The ECC process was granted only one paragraph in the European Council’s conclusions at the end of the initiative.

Over the past year, EU institutions have raised citizens’ and civil society’s expectations about the CoFoE, while the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgency to build a more resilient Union. To avoid that the Conference becomes a paper exercise that does not translate into much-needed policy and institutional reforms, the JD should foresee a joint, coordinated follow-up by all institutions. This should be based on a comprehensive Action Plan that includes tangible recommendations on institutional and/or policy reforms.

The negotiations on the JD will, to a large extent, define whether the Conference will be successful or not. Compromise on the three controversial issues will require substantial concessions from all sides. To cross that bridge, the three institutions should be ready to get the ball rolling and already launch the Conference this autumn. There is no time to lose, and the multiple consequences of the COVID-19 crisis show us that the business-as-usual approach cannot be an option when it comes to the future of Europe.

Annex (click on the table) - last updated 2 March 2021: 

Johannes Greubel is Policy Analyst of the European Politics and Institutions programme.

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