Irish Times view on the ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’

Most member States do not share Emmanuel Macron’s reforming zeal

Member of the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt speaks to the press during the opening remarks by the Co-Chairs of the Conference on the Future of Europe Executive Board in Brussel. (Photo by François WALSCHAE: AFP) (

Member of the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt speaks to the press during the opening remarks by the Co-Chairs of the Conference on the Future of Europe Executive Board in Brussel. (Photo by François WALSCHAE: AFP) (

 

Emmanuel Macron was nothing if not ambitious in his response to Brexit and the tide of Euroscepticism. The French president argued that the EU needed to respond to the negativity of the Brexit debate by rearticulating the great purpose of the union in order to reconnect to citizens. Nothing less than a “European renaissance” was called for. “We have to establish a ‘Conference for Europe’,” he argued in a 2019 opinion article for international newspapers, “in order to set out all the changes required by our political project, and do so without taboos, even on treaty revision.”

The said Conference on the Future of Europe, a gathering of member-state representatives, MEPs, EU institutions, and randomly chosen citizens, opens its deliberations formally in May – its multilingual digital platform launched last week and within days more than 3,000 citizens had contributed their views online. Clearly there is an appetite for its work. Public meetings will be held across the EU, and suggestions will be condensed into a report next year with a promise from leaders they will try to implement the ideas expressed by the multiple fora involved.

But most member states do not share Macron’s reforming zeal. Talk of treaty change – code for the transfer of new powers to Brussels, enhanced powers for MEPs, the further erosion of inefficient unanimity voting – is not on their agenda. The conference is, they believe, an opportunity to “open a new space for debate” and “address Europe’s challenges and priorities”, according to a joint declaration issued by the EU leaders, the European Parliament and the European Commission. And particularly to engage widely on the union’s political priorities, climate change and the green economy, the digital revolution, integrating markets and fighting coronavirus.

A talking shop, say critics. Worthy but toothless, and not fit to answer the reforming challenge posed by the alienation of citizens and the need to enhance the democratic legitimacy of the union’s institutions.

Ireland has joined 11 other member states -– including the Netherlands, the Baltics and Nordics – in setting out in a common declaration their aspirations for the conference. These rule out any change in the institutional balance and distribution of competences, and make clear the conference does not have a legal treaty-changing role.

One strand of the discussions will address democracy and promoting the rule of law. The emphasis will be on transparency and mechanisms to ensure that erring member states like Hungary can be brought to book. MEPs will hope the debate will give the opportunity again to raise the issue of an electoral mandate for the president of the Commission. But even if such a proposal is endorsed by the conference, there is every sign that leaders will not go there.

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