The Conference on the Future of Europe
12 January, 2020
The new initiative aims at bringing together EU institutions, Member States and civil society. The details are still unknown but a Franco-German “non-paper” sheds some light on how the Conference on the Future of Europe could look like.
The current idea to a Conference on the Future of Europe dates back to spring 2019 when French President Emmanuel Macron published an open letter to European citizens calling for a “European Renaissance”. He outlined his visions on the future of the European Union including constitutional changes. What was originally part of his party programme for the European Election in 2019 had quickly turned into the idea of holding a conference on EU’s future. This idea took shape in November 2019 when France and Germany wrote a “non-paper” wherein they outlined their common ideas on how a Conference on the Future of Europe could look like.
The idea of holding a conference to develop a new constitution or amend the existing one is not new though. Already between 2001 and 2003 the Convention on the Future of Europe (a body established by the European Council) aimed at drafting a European Constitution. French and Dutch voters ultimately voted against the draft in a nationally required referendum in 2005 and the Convention on the Future of Europe found its unsuccessful ending.
The renewed idea is still at its beginning. After the Franco-German “non-paper”, the Council discussed the idea in December 2019 but did not publish any opinion on the process. To the same time the European Parliament established a working group chaired by its President David Sassoli which worked on a draft for the structure and composition of the conference. The Commission tasked Dubravka Šuica, Commissioner for Democracy and Demography, with the preparation of the Conference.
According to the Franco-German proposal, the Conference consists of two phases: Phase 1 would start in February 2020 until the summer of 2020 and focus on issues related to EU democratic functioning. Phase 2 focusing on policy priorities would launch in mid-2020 to the time Germany takes over the presidency and close in early 2022 with the end of the French presidency. The two phases would feature thematic conferences in different EU Member States. Moreover, a midterm review is planned. However, a clear roadmap for the Conference is still missing at this point.
One of the first questions to address will definitely be the leadership question. As Politico reported, the current President of the European Parliament, David Sassoli, former President Antonio Tajani and the former leader of the liberal ALDE-Group (now Renew Europe) Guy Verhofstadt are likely candidates even though only the latter has been officially suggested by his group.
The final roadmap and structure of the process can be expected soon but remains unclear up to this point.
The Conference will probably involve all three institutions (Parliament, Commission and Council) as well as the Member States and will most likely feature a broad consultation with experts and civil society (a bottom-up approach is explicitly mentioned in the non-paper). While thematic conferences in different Member States seem very likely, we do not know about any details on possible themes and the overall framework in general.
However, it seems very likely that a prominent member of the European Parliament will chair the Conference. First of all, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen supports that idea in her political guidelines. Secondly, the Parliament is in a stronger position than it was at the time of the Convention on the Future of Europe. Its members demand more influence in a more democratic union and are very much keen on constitutional changes after the loss in the power play between Council and Parliament after the last election in 2019. Lastly, the Council was responsible for the Convention on the Future of Europe, which ended in a rejection by France and the Netherlands after they held a referendum on the matter in 2005. If the Conference shall have more success the Council must demonstrate that the citizens have an important voice in the process. The Parliament as directly elected would match that need.
As the framework is still unknown, predictions are hard to make. A new treaty seems currently unlikely as the tensions within the EU are too big and the risk of failing through a referendum as in 2005 is high considering the general mistrust against the EU in some member states. More likely are therefore specific amendments.
According to the non-paper, the Conference would “address all issues at stake to guide the future of Europe with a view to making the EU more united and sovereign”. This has to be understood in the way that all policy fields, from security to migration and climate change will be addressed. It is however uncertain if the Conference will lead to policy proposals or to constitutional changes or both. A mere focus on policy proposals does however not require holding a two-year conference. The Council passed a strategic agenda and the Commission works according to political guidelines as well. Considering the tensions within the EU it might nevertheless be important and necessary to keep the framework of a Conference in order to get all stakeholders to work on a common goal and to find common ground between the three institutions, Member States and citizens living in the EU.
The election system will very likely see an overhaul. The spitzenkandidat system, which was first applied in the 2014 election, was more or less abolished after the election in 2019. The Council has never been an ardent supporter of the system and the process itself has no foundation in the treaties. Nevertheless, the Parliament but also the Member States, in particular France, are keen on reforming the electoral system.
To conclude, the Conference on the Future of Europe has the potential to unite Member States once again and to update the self-understanding of the European Union. It is hard to imagine that the outcome will be less EU, despite the growing nationalism. But in order to reach an agreement the EU will have to find common ground on the big challenges of our time, such as climate change and migration.
We as A Path for Europe will closely watch the process and aim at sharing our ideas on the Future of Europe. If you would like to share your thoughts on the Conference on the Future of Europe, draft articles can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org