EU to launch Europe-wide debate on future of the union

Europe Letter: Obsession with internal organisation must give way to focus on issues

A pro-EU,  anti-Brexit protester in London: The willingness of EU leaders to circumvent MEPs’ involvement in the election of commission president Ursula von der Leyen has led to calls to give them more teeth. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP

A pro-EU, anti-Brexit protester in London: The willingness of EU leaders to circumvent MEPs’ involvement in the election of commission president Ursula von der Leyen has led to calls to give them more teeth. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP

 

It’s an explicit recognition that the whole Brexit affair reflected a wide alienation of citizens across the EU. The EU must now find ways of bridging that gulf, and the Conference on the Future of Europe, to be launched in Dubrovnik in May – 70 years after the signing of the Schuman Declaration and 75 years after the end of the second World War – is supposed to do that.

The two-year conference, we are told, will be broadly representative and tap into the perspectives of member states through the EU Council, MEPs, the European Commission, national parliaments, regional authorities and NGOs, as well as initiating dialogue between citizens at national level.

They will all be “contributing as equal partners”, we are told – exactly how is not clear.

On Wednesday, the commission outlined its view of the scope and organisation of the conference and MEPs did so earlier in the week. They even optimistically named former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt to chair the whole thing.

Member state ambassadors have also discussed the idea and, it has to be said, reflected varying degrees of enthusiasm for the great project.

One Irish diplomat suggests the exercise, although worthy, must not be allowed to occupy “too much bandwidth” in the EU’s agenda.

The obsessive preoccupation of the union with its internal organisation during the last three years’ negotiations over Brexit, and the seemingly endless talk on how to complete economic and monetary union, are issues which, though important, have to become a thing of the past, critics say.

If the union is to demonstrate its relevance to citizens and engage them more, they say, it must first of all demonstrate that it can bring real added value to tackling issues that affect them, from climate change to jobs, the digital economy or projecting the EU on the world stage.

‘More streamlined’

The ambassadors’ statement says the organisation of the conference should involve “shared ownership” by EU institutions, “equality between the institutions at all levels”, and calls for “respect for each institution’s prerogatives”. “The majority of member states would prefer a leaner and more streamlined governance,” the document says.

The three institutions will come together to produce a joint position over the next month.

Member states like Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Sweden are particularly concerned at the ambition expressed by many MEPs to come up with treaty changes. In Ireland that would almost certainly mean a referendum, a prospect the Government is most keen to avoid.

Even treaty changes intended to empower citizens risk being rejected by an electorate that has shown in the past on two notable occasions its willingness to vote down EU treaty changes for reasons that appear to have little to do with the question on the ballot.

In December, Portuguese prime minister António Costa tweeted that he would call on European institutions and countries to “make use of the large untapped potential of the treaty to develop policies that respond to the legitimate expectations of our citizens, rather than embarking on sterile institutional reforms”.

“There will be treaty changes,” Brigid Laffan says. Laffan, a professor in the European University in Florence, says Ireland needs to prepare for referendums well in advance by initiating broad discusssion at home on the future of the union.

Digital economy

The agenda will be as broad as participating citizens want, says commissioner Dubravka Šuica, vice-president for democracy and demography.

That will involve two major strands of discussion: first, an overview of the key policy issues the union faces, from climate change to the digital economy; and second, the institutional reform/democracy issues, notably the lead candidate system, known as spitzenkandidat, and transnational lists for elections to the European Parliament.

The willingness of EU leaders to circumvent MEPs’ involvement in the election of commission president Ursula von der Leyen has led to calls to give them more teeth – a clearly democratic election system for the commission president will give voters a greater sense of ownership of the union’s executive.

But that contention is not universally shared any more than the idea of electing MEPs from Europe-wide constituencies – a recipe for concentrating power in the larger member states, critics say.

The conference agenda will also include, Suica promises, a discussion of improving the ease of decision-making through the further reduction of unanimity voting.

Areas like foreign policy, economic management and taxation remain within the purview of veto voting – extending majority voting to these areas would also extend the remit of MEPs to contribute to these decisions. But perhaps that’s all too ambitious.

You will be hearing more about the conference – much more. It’s coming to a location near you.

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