A conference without a purpose

The European Parliament in Brussels, surrounded by statues of ostriches (Copyright: PC)

By Pelle Christy Geertsen (EU expert, analyst, commentator, and lobbyist)

The work on the “Conference on the Future of Europe” (CoFoE) is finally underway. At least, that is what is being announced with tweets and declarations, following the constitutive meeting of the conference’s executive board on 24 March and their first meeting on 7 April.

After some delay, related to the pandemic and other things, the conference, which was first announced in 2019, is finally in sight. Europe, get ready to rejoice, our future is finally here.

Well, maybe not.

Despite members of the executive board and their supporters declaring that we shouldn’t shy away from big ideas and other lofty and inspirational promises, one of the outstanding questions remains what the actual purpose is of this endeavour.

That is not true, you might say. We know plenty about what the Conference, is supposed to do. It will involve the citizens, it will strive for tangible results, and, last but not least, it will consider the mid to long-term future of Europe. These are lofty goals and it is very hard to oppose them.

Of course we need to debate the future. Naturally, citizens should be included. Also, tangible results are always nice to strive for, even in politics.

Yet, with that said, one of the big questions about the CoFoE still remains: what is it really supposed to achieve? Besides creating debate on the Future of Europe, it is still opaque how and what it will produce, and more importantly how this – whatever it might be – would then be used.

My issues with the conference might be because I cannot help but compare the current process to the last time the EU undertook a similar exercise. Here, I am of course referring to The “Convention on the Future of Europe.

Back then, the purpose and the expected outcome was much clearer: A Constitutional Treaty for Europe. The idea then was that this Treaty would attribute clear rights to citizens and that it would be easier and more inspirational to read than the EU treaties of the time, an ambition which wasn’t exactly hard to fulfil.

If you cannot recall this very well, do not despair. It all took place almost 20 years ago, kicking off in 2002 and ending in mid-2003. Then, more time was provided for discussion than what’s the case now with the CoFoE, which aims to wrap it all up in less than 14 months.

At first glance, the Convention may not look all that different from what we have now.

Back then, they debated the future, and now we do it again, so what is the difference? The difference – or rather, one of the differences – is rather substantial: The convention was set out with a clear mandate to think big. It was allowed to dream of – and propose – radical reform of the European Union.

This sets it apart from today, where some of the first statements from the Commission – and from others – about CoFoE were to point out that whatever the outcome of the conference, treaty change should not be considered. At least this is what the common position agreed by EU member states is.  

In reality, this means that we are about to begin a supposedly Europe-wide debate on our future together, while merely allowing cosmetic changes. This begs the question: if no real EU reform can be called for, is the debate going to be a purely intellectual exercise, and is this truly what we think will warm citizens to the EU?

Do not get me wrong. Far from everything was okay with the convention. It had serious issues with representation, democracy, and transparency and much can be said of its lack of citizen involvement. In the end, however, it produced something clear, even if it was a text containing 60.000 words, contrasting with the 4,600 words of the U.S. Constitution.  There were possible mistakes, such as opting for more centralisation of powers, something which was a strong factor in it being rejected in the 2005 referendums in France and the Netherlands.

Still, for its ills, the 2002-2003 convention did ultimately shape today’s EU, not least because most of its content was reheated in the Lisbon Treaty, which was a questionable spectacle.

Despite of what it was lacking, the convention had a clear purpose and it had a concrete output. Reform of the EU – in one way or another – will not happen without it.

It does not look at all that this will be the case with the CoFoE, especially if treaty change – or proposals requiring treaty change – remains ruled out.

Because of this, the question remains: Is the “Conference on the Future of Europe” in a reality a conference without a purpose?

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