EU conference on future of Europe dubbed failure: ‘Brussels has out Brussels-ed itself’

Vaccine row: Ursula von der Leyen says EU was ‘too confident’

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The European Parliament and member states will have to give their verdict on the joint declaration on the Conference of the Future of Europe this week, negotiated under the aegis of Portugal’s presidency of the Council of the EU. The proposed declaration, a four-page document presented on Monday to the ambassadors of the 27 member states in Brussels, is expected to be agreed today at a meeting of the Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper), before being discussed on Thursday by the European Parliament’s Conference of Presidents. After a long impasse regarding the holding of this event aimed at EU citizens, which was originally meant to start in May 2020 but was postponed due to coronavirus and the different positions taken by the EU institutions, the Portuguese presidency came up with a new format.

If the declaration is confirmed, the conference will begin in May under the joint presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, David Sasssoli and António Costa as President-in-office of the EU Council until the end of June, when he would be replaced by the Prime Minister of Slovenia, which succeeds Portugal as holder of the presidency on July 1.

The Conference on the Future of Europe is a proposal of the European Commission and the European Parliament, announced in 2019 and spearheaded by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Its objective is to look at the medium to long term future of the EU and what reforms should be made to its policies and institutions.

It is intended that the Conference should involve citizens, including a significant role for young people, civil society, and European institutions as equal partners and last for two years.

According to the head of Oxford-based think-tank Euro Intelligence Wolfgang Munchau, the conference represents perhaps the last opportunity for the EU to move forward on establishing the legal structures for a real fiscal union – but if the joint declaration is anything to go by, European citizens should not expect much.

Mr Munchau noted many observers have already concluded the conference has failed before it has even begun.

He wrote: “Alberto Alemanno argues that what strikes him most about the joint declaration is that it is lacking any sense of what the conference aims to do and how it will do it.

“The conference is meant to be a citizens-focused, bottom-up exercise for Europeans to have their say on what they expect from the EU.

“But details are scant, with the joint declaration only mentioning plans for conference events, physical or digital, that can be organised at different levels, and should involve civil society and stakeholders reflecting European diversity.”

The conference, he noted, has been in the headlines in recent months because of infighting over who would chair it.

The European Parliament wanted Belgiam MEP Guy Verhofstadt, but this was rejected by the Council, triggering a stalemate and warnings from various stakeholders.

The solution, as outlined in the joint declaration, is a governance structure that Professor Alemanno described as “sophisticated”.

Prof Alemanno wrote on Twitter: “Identifying themes through online consultation, convening citizens’ panels to discuss them and wrapping those up in less than one year at COVID-19 times seems ‘Mission Impossible’ at best, or a mere tick-box exercise at worst.”

Attempting to explain the format of the event, Mr Munchau added: “The conference will be overseen by the Presidents of the Commission, Council, and European Parliament, as well as an executive board with three representatives and four observers from the same institutions.

“The Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union, Cosac, will also participate as an observer, and other committees may be invited, as well as representatives of other EU bodies and social partners.

“But wait, there’s more: a common secretariat will also be established to ensure equal representation of the three institutions and assist the executive board.

“A conference plenary will be established to bring forward recommendations from European and national citizens’ panels, the latter of which will be established in every member state but grouped by themes in the plenary.

“These panels will respect a conference charter that will establish a set of principles and minimum criteria reflecting EU values, and defined by the conference structures. Citizens, MEPs and EU representatives are also expected to join the plenary, although its total size was not included in the joint declaration.”

He concluded: “It is a mind-bogglingly complicated set-up for what the document describes as a lean governance structure, leading some observers to fret that the conference has failed before it has even begun.

“This is a problem because the eurozone is not properly regulated, and will require treaty change to establish the legal basis for a proper fiscal union.

“The Lisbon Treaty was a step in the right direction, widening the scope for enhanced cooperation, but even this procedure hasn’t been used for anything of great significance.

“If the conference on the future of Europe is a fudge, rational observers will draw the conclusion that a fiscal union is not going to happen.”

Brussels correspondent Mehreen Khan echoed Mr Munchau’s claims, arguing the Conference risks becoming a “vote-free zone dominated by bureaucrats” as member states and MEPs fight about who should run it — or, more pertinently, who should not.

She added in her piece for the Financial Times: “The [declaration] has been met with derision from observers who think the Conference should be an opportunity to create a genuine grassroots forum for democratic debate rather than a job creation scheme.

“‘Brussels has out Brussels-ed itself’, said one official.”

Ms Khan added: “Diplomats and officials admit that the byzantine management is largely by design.

“The Conference has become an unwanted nuisance for governments that have spent the past year fighting the pandemic.

“Cheerleaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron have also seemingly abandoned the idea, leaving the Conference as an orphan political project.”

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