Hijack the Conference on the Future of Europe!
Grab your pitchforks. This exercise designed to go nowhere could drive change — if ordinary citizens mobilize.
Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the Europe At Large column.
PARIS — The Conference on the Future of Europe, which opens with grand fanfare in Strasbourg on Sunday, Europe Day, has been painstakingly designed to go nowhere. Unless its participants band together to make their voices heard, it risks turning into yet another unproductive EU talking shop.
Billed as an unprecedented EU-wide exercise in citizen consultation intended to enhance the bloc’s democratic legitimacy, this hybrid vehicle is on track to become an online complaints box and a recipe for disillusionment, with national governments controlling the steering wheel but keeping both feet on the brakes.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated by wrangling among EU institutions means the unwieldy exercise is already starting a year late. Only nobody has changed the deadline. Results are still expected in the spring of 2022. As of this week, EU governments, the European Commission and the European Parliament were still arguing over how the conclusions will be reached and reported.
The chances of failure are high. But they don’t have to be. If enough European citizens get involved and demand change, it will be hard for national leaders and the European authorities to ignore their voices.
This column is an appeal for a hijacking. The conference may be an imperfect vehicle, but it’s the only one we have and it offers ordinary citizens, especially the young and idealistic, a unique opportunity to set an agenda for post-pandemic Europe.
Whether you want an elected European president, a minimum income for citizens, an EU-wide minimum corporate tax level, a European emergency stockpile of essential medicines and medical equipment, or rules to force freight transport off the roads and onto rail, this is a chance to put your dream on Europe’s to-do list.
We know from opinion polls what citizens care about most: improving public health care to prevent future pandemics, reviving the economy in the aftermath of COVID-19 with sustainable jobs and greater social justice, and transforming our way of life to combat climate change.
Some would add defending European values and interests in an increasingly rough world, upholding democracy, diversity, freedom of expression and the rule of law at home and abroad, making the EU competitive in the digital economy and managing migration.
The conference provides an opportunity for citizens to put forward and debate ideas via online participation.
Non-governmental organizations, think-tanks and interest groups can also contribute, but the main focus is supposed to be on listening to the all-too-often silent majority rather than the “usual suspects.”
So far, there has been no rush to break that silence. As of May 4, just 7,184 of the EU’s 450 million citizens had participated, and 1,420 ideas had been posted on the platform.
Some EU governments undoubtedly consider the whole experiment in participatory democracy an unwelcome gimmick dreamed up by federalists to try to wrench control of the bloc’s agenda from their hands, though few dare say so openly.
They have built in locks to try to ensure that doesn’t happen — notably by barring former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, a veteran federalist, from chairing the conference. As former European Parliament President Pat Cox put it, this won’t be a bottom-up exercise, but it will at least be “bottom also.”
Having pioneered this format for citizen participation at home, French President Emmanuel Macron needs an outcome he can sell as a success during France’s EU presidency next year, especially as it coincides with his bid for re-election at home.
That might not be so easy. A 12-nation coalition of the unwilling — spearheaded by countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland and Sweden that have lost past referendums over EU treaty change or euro membership — insisted before the opening that the exercise “should not create legal obligations, nor should it duplicate or unduly interfere with the established legislative processes.” They oppose any suggestion that the conference findings should kickstart negotiations to amend the EU’s governing treaties.
Yet those same governments are often struggling at home with a loss of public trust, groping for new forms of grassroots involvement in decision-making and trying uneasily to close the widening gap between citizens’ expectations, the plodding pace of policy making and the viral spread of anger on social media. Populist insurgents are snapping at their heels too.
“We must bring citizens into the heart of EU policymaking, otherwise others will occupy this space,” says Dubravka Šuica, the Commission vice-president for democracy and demography, and a member of the conference’s executive board. “This conference does not replace representative democracy, it enhances it.”
Some EU advances could be achieved without treaty change. It would require only a unanimous decision by EU governments to apply provisions in the Lisbon Treaty allowing some foreign policy implementing decisions to be taken by qualified majority vote instead of each country wielding a veto — a rule that can cripple rapid and effective action, and is open to many abuses.
Coalitions of willing countries could move ahead with joint policies in a range of areas from taxing financial transactions to building an integrated European defense force.
The EU demonstrated in 2020 that faced with a crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19, it is capable of interpreting the treaty creatively to allow, for example, collective borrowing secured on future EU revenues to fund an economic recovery program, or collective purchasing by the European Commission of vaccines for all member states.
Ideally, the EU should be able to go further and turn that collective borrowing into a permanent ability for the Union to issue debt. However, as the German Constitutional Court is sure to insist when it examines lawsuits against the EU recovery fund, that would probably require both treaty change and an amendment to the German Basic Law.
Such changes should not be taboo, but it will take a sizable mobilization by citizens to convince governments to take the political risk. The EU is giving ordinary people the chance to weigh in on this debate. Use it or lose it!