The “Conference on the Future of Europe” reveals the goals of those supporting more EU centralization  

By Swedish MEP Charlie Weimers (SD – ECR)

Hardly any ordinary voters have heard of the ‘Conference on the Future of Europe also known as “CoFoE”. Even fewer know why it came about, what was discussed and what the conclusions were. No wonder. The EU’s Future Conference has been an elite-driven brewing project, intended to centralise power, which no sensible person cares to follow. However, anyone wanting to understand the direction to which the European project is moving would do well to study CoFoE, as it provides an indication of the powers which the centralists now want to transfer to Brussels.

Among the proposals put forward by CoFoE were to scrap veto powers of member states in those areas where they still exist, like foreign policy; to strengthen EU powers in the field of health (the so-called European «Health Union»); to introduce minimum wages set according to ‘objective criteria’ monitored by the EU; to extend EU powers to social policy and ‘inclusion’ and to harmonise the ‘socio-economic’ quality of life in different EU member states; to strengthen the EU’s role in areas such as asylum and migration.

Salami tactics

In Brussels, advocates of more supranational decision-making use so-called ‘salami tactics’. This consists of constantly eroding national powers while expanding the EU’s powers ‘one slice at a time’. It happens slowly and in many steps. Most often, by redefining and reinterpreting, officials, politicians and diplomats change what the existing EU treaties are considered to contain.

In concrete terms, this is done through many small changes to the wording of countless boring documents that very few people have the energy to read. Each individual change is small, but the sum of the small changes to the treaties is that the balance of power is shifted further. When voters and national parliaments understand what has happened, they are faced with a fait accompli .

No one summed it up quite as well as former EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker:

«We decide on something, leave it lying around, and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back.»

An example of salami-slicing is when, in practice, much of the decision-making power over Swedish forests was transferred to Brussels, despite the fact that, according to the Treaties, this is a national issue.

By referring to legal texts like the climate, renewable energy and the Birds, Species and Habitats Directives in all the texts on which the new EU forestry strategy was based, the European Commission redefined forestry from a national issue to an instrument for achieving EU climate targets. Since forestry is now considered an EU issue, it is considered natural that forestry should be monitored centrally ‘to facilitate comparisons between Member States’ and it is seen as necessary for the EU to define what constitutes sustainable forest management.

Another example of salami-slicing is the proposal for a European minimum wage. There have long been forces in Brussels that keen to regulate wages at European level, despite the fact that the EU treaties explicitly state that wage conditions are not part of the Union’s competences.

The opening came with the European Social Pillar, adopted at a summit in Gothenburg in 2017. On the initiative of former Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, among others, a political declaration was authored that would not be legally binding and that, from the Swedish Social Democrats’ perspective, was only intended as a PR exercise to demonstrate their power and influence. However, through countless meetings and many small changes to various wordings, a new interpretation emerged of the article in the Treaties which provides for the EU to support and complement the activities of Member States in the area of working conditions.

The decisive factor in the transfer of power was a new interpretation of the words “decent working conditions”, whereby it would also include wages. The European Commission legitimises its proposal for a European minimum wage, despite opposition from many Member States, by pointing out that the proposal does not contain any measures that directly affect wage levels. The Commission therefore considers its proposal to be within the limits of the Union’s powers. The question which arises, of course, is whether this lack of constitutional respect would ever hold up in an independent court.

From convention to conference

Sometimes, the integrationists in Brussels, despite their undeniable successes, get frustrated that they are not achieving their goals fast enough. After all, there are real limits on what they can decide. When frustration with the slow ‘progress’ of salami-slicing bubbles over, they tend to try radical steps to take really big steps towards the United States of Europe.

However, the integrationists have two big problems:

(1) the decision-making process to change the treaties requires unanimity among member states; and, (2) voters in many countries don’t want more supranationalism. The risk of a ‘no’ vote means that integrationists try to bypass the normal treaty change procedure, seeking instead non-legislative means of forcing through centralisation of power.

The last time the centralists in Brussels tried a real big move was in the early 2000s. Then, they wanted to have a European constitution on the American model. However, fearing that the usual method of changing the treaties through negotiations between member states would not be sufficiently centralising, the centralists forced through that the draft constitution would be negotiated and authored in what came to be known as the “Convention on the Future of Europe”.

The Convention consisted, as the Treaties stipulate, of representatives of the governments of the Member States, but also of negotiators from the national parliaments, the European Parliament and the European Commission, amongst others. The latter are not required by the Treaties to be part of such a negotiation, but this ensured a strong pro-integration majority among the negotiators.

Although the negotiated draft European Constitution was rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands (as several other referendums were cancelled), almost everything that was proposed was implemented. This was after the draft Constitution was rewritten to be completely illegible and renamed the Lisbon Treaty. To reduce the risks, the choice was made not to hear voters’ views on the Lisbon Treaty in referendums, except for Ireland, where submitting it to a referendum was a constitutional requirement. When Irish voters voted ‘no’, this result was not accepted. Ireland was given political promises and, after a fierce campaign of persuasion, the Irish voted ‘yes’ in a second referendum.

The Conference on the Future of Europe

Now, barely a decade and a half after the Lisbon Treaty came into force, the centralists have once again grown tired of the few constraints that still remain. They want to take another big step towards the federal state they long to build. These dreams have been fuelled by the departure of one of the biggest stumbling blocks – the United Kingdom. The centralist majority in the European Parliament, together with the Commission and governments of pro-centralisation governments like the French one, are pushing for another big step towards a federal Union. One of the proposals put forward by CoFoE was to ‘reopen’ the debate on a European Constitution.

Centralists are aware that Europeans in general do not see more and bigger transfers of power to the Union as a priority. Knowing that there are reluctant countries, those that want to centralise power created, as they did last time, a negotiating body outside the legislative method: a body with a guaranteed centralist majority.

This time the negotiating body was called the “Conference on the Future of Europe”. The Conference on the Future of Europe was created to give the image of popular support in order to put pressure on reluctant countries.

In order to give the Conference on the Future of Europe more ‘popular legitimacy’, the proposal to include ordinary citizens was well received. The conclusions of the conference could then be said to have been legitimised through deliberative democracy and the whole thing could be sold to the press and public as a ‘grand democratic exercise’ to engage citizens in the EU.

In reality however, CoFoE was an expensive and undemocratic exercise to enable even more and greater transfers of power from Member States to Brussels.

Rigged process

The outcome of the Conference on the Future of Europe was predetermined. The only possible answer to the questions posed was that the EU needs more power at the expense of nation states. The integrationists had already rigged the process at the planning stage. This became clear when the political groups that did not want to shift more power to Brussels were excluded from the preparation of the conference’s agenda.

The European Commission and the European Parliament pushed to expand the group that would negotiate and write the conclusions to a larger group than just government representatives. By including supposedly “randomly selected” citizens, EU-funded activist organisations, and trade unions and business federations, a pro-centralisation majority was assured.

Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, perhaps the European Parliament’s most prominent centralist, was elected as co-chair of the Future Conference. He was the one actually leading the activities. Also here too, EP political groups that were too critical were being excluded from real influence, as they were relegated to observer status on the committee that monitored the work and conclusions of the conference.

Biased selection of participants

As mentioned earlier, the conference was supposed to be a civic exercise in so-called deliberative democracy. Therefore, randomly selected citizens would participate. Citizens’ representatives and negotiators from employers’, workers’ and activists’ organisations were on an equal footing with democratically elected members of the various national parliaments, the European Parliament and government representatives in the conference negotiations. This in itself is democratically questionable.

In representative democracy, we elect our representatives by universal suffrage. Those that are elected are those who have the legitimacy to make decisions. Circumventing this is not democratic in itself. Why should the views of 800 “randomly selected citizens” and lobbyists from interest groups trump parliamentarians elected by universal suffrage?

Even the selection of citizens that participated to the process was biased. To elicit suggestions from citizens, four so-called citizens’ panels were set up. Each panel consisted of 200 citizens from the 27 Member States in each group. The selection of panel members was made through random sampling, reflecting the diversity of the EU in terms of geographical origin (nationality and city/village), gender, age, socio-economic background and educational level. At least one female and one male national from each Member State would be included in each panel and one third of each panel would be composed of young people.

The four panels would discuss topics such as the overall values and objectives of the Union, democratic and institutional aspects, environmental and climate issues, social justice and gender equality, economy and employment, digitalisation, and security and the role of the EU in the world.

Citizens that do not want to see more centralised power in Brussels were as rare at the Conference on the Future of Europeas vegetarians at a meat buffet. Perhaps that is not surprising. Of those called by the polling company and asked to spend a year of their free time reading up on and discussing the future of the EU, a higher proportion of those who were already pro-EU probably said “yes”.

An opinion poll conducted in the Netherlands showed that voters from EU centralist parties were inclined to participate, while those voting for anti-EU parties were negative. Self-selection bias is when some are more likely to participate than others.

Furthermore, it is unclear exactly how “randomly selected” these citizens actually were. No one outside the inner conference circle around President Guy Verhofstadt was allowed to see the full contract with the polling company Kantar that selected the participants. The annex with country-specific data was censored when the contract was published. The fact that the names of those selected were not published either only increased suspicion. Rumour in Brussels has it that Kantar failed to recruit enough “random” citizens from all Member States.

Some 33% of the citizens that participated to the panels were between 16 and 24, even though this age group represents only about 11% of the population. The over-representation of young people also contributed to the bias of the citizens’ panels, as young people are generally more supportive of the EU than older people.

Biased selection of experts

In order for citizens on the panel to understand the issues and ideas to be discussed, they were provided with detailed information by experts mainly coming from EU-funded institutions and NGOs. Under the supervision and guidance of these EU officials and EU-funded interest groups, citizens could be steered in the “right” direction and persuaded to adopt proposals to which the general public might have been rather reluctant.

However, reading the so-called citizens’ proposals, one gets the impression that the authors had not been sufficiently informed about the limits of the EU’s competences under the Treaties. One explanation is that the experts did not emphasise these limits strongly enough, which may explain why citizens in many cases formulated recommendations that would require treaty change.

Critics of the process proposed to measure the so-called citizens’ recommendations against wider public opinion through opinion polls. However, this proposal was rejected by the European Parliament. One suspects that those who pushed for it did not want to know what people really thought and probably already knew what such surveys would show.

Distorting the political agenda

The conference’s approach to gathering suggestions from citizens happened in two stages.

During the first stage, ordinary citizens were invited to make suggestions through a digital multilingual platform or in national citizens’ panels from which suggestions were handpicked. As few ordinary citizens were aware of the opportunity to participate – and most would probably have opted out even if they had been aware of it – most of the suggestions came from citizens who also happened to be employed by interest groups in Brussels.

After that, the proposals were further developed in working groups where they became part of a political settlement reflecting the majority view of the European Parliament.

This two-step approach distorted citizens’ proposals from their original form and meaning.

First of all, the working groups, mainly under the influence of EP officials and parliamentarians, picked the proposals that were most suited to their world view. Secondly, the meaning of the proposals was changed as they were redrafted in the working groups.

It is no coincidence that the outcome of a supposedly genuinely citizen-driven process happens to be a wish list almost identical to the European Parliament’s recurring calls for, for example, organising elections in supranational EU constituencies, abolishing national vetoes, establishing “European armed forces”, or further increasing common debt at the EU level. Overall, there are strong reasons to question the citizen-driven nature of the conference.

Unequal participation and limited time for reflection

During the Conference on the Future of Europe itself, there was supposed to be equality between the four different categories of participants; i.e. representatives from governments, parliaments, interest groups and citizens. However, the nature of the conference and the fact that it lasted only one year favoured the MEPs and established interest groups with experienced and knowledgeable staff in Brussels.

The MEPs that participated had a structural advantage and more resources and time than those representing national parliaments. This was because the latter also had to carry out their regular duties, whereas the MEPs could – if they so wished – devote all their time to this project. Therefore, national parliamentarians were at a serious disadvantage and MEPs were better placed to promote their objectives.

The equality between the representatives of the national parliaments and citizens and those representing the bubble was therefore, in reality, a pure illusion. This was particularly evident in the working groups of the conference, where the so-called citizens’ motions were arbitrarily expanded by MEPs so that the end result would coincide with their centralist and left-liberal political agenda.

Despite considerable time spent preparing the process, CoFoE was initially characterised by a chaotic way of working, with a lack of clarity about how the processes would work in practice. For example, there was no clear selection process for citizens to participate to the panels, no clear rules on how the plenary would work and no rules on how the different parts of the conference would reach their conclusions. The lack of clarity triggered protests at various stages of the conference and resulted in delegates gradually losing interest in participating and some even leaving the conference.

Although the conference barely lasted a year, the first few months were devoted to procedural issues. MEPs disputed the format and demanded changes that would increase their ability to steer the negotiations. One result of this was the creation of the working groups. The short time for debate and reflection was shortened even more as a result of these kinds of discussions and this undermined the premise of the whole exercise. Even if the citizens’ panels met only four times – two of them remotely – and even if the working groups met a couple more times for shorter meetings, the participation of citizens was used to legitimise the conclusions.

A dictated consensus, lack of transparency and media that were bought

Instead of the open and multi-faceted discussion that was initially promised, the conference became a way to legitimise a predetermined outcome. In order to realise its purpose, the public had to be given the false impression that the vast majority of citizens agreed with the direction the EU should take in the future.

One might get the impression that no alternative visions were presented. This was far from the case. Critical voices were raised on the digital platform, during the internal processes of the citizens’ panels and working groups, and also during the plenary sessions of the conference. However, those of us wanting to strengthen national parliaments were not given the opportunity to put forward these alternative visions of Europe’s future.

Despite constant complaints from EU bodies about a lack of media freedom and state interference undermining journalistic independence, the European Parliament is constantly pouring subsidies to those supposed to scrutinise their work. In the case of the Conference on the Future of Europe, the European Parliament provided financial support to media houses to cover the conference and encourage their followers to attend. Organisations composed of EU-centralist activists also benefited from grants to encourage participation.

It is certainly nothing new for the EU institutions to hand out multi-million grants to media and activist organisations that advocate more power for Brussels. Throughout the process, my party, the Sweden Democrats, have fought for the publication of how taxpayers’ money was used and to whom it was paid.

Unfortunately, the EU institutions have completely refused to quantify the total cost of the conference or provide clear information about what these funds were used for and which companies and organisations benefited from them. In the light of these bought media and paid activists, it is extremely difficult to argue that the proceedings and recommendations of the Future Conference were accurately reflected in the public debate.

However, the conference utterly failed to capture the public’s attention despite hundreds of millions being spent on propaganda promoting the Conference on the Future of Europe under the slogan “The future is yours”. They succeeded to some extent in buying engagement in the media and among activists, but even that did not result in deeper citizen engagement.

Only fifty-eight thousand participants were registered on the digital platform and together they posted 22,000 comments over a year. Many of these came from activist citizens whose income comes from some institution or organisation in Brussels. Few events were organised in the Member States and surveys show that less than 5% of Europeans have heard of the Future Conference.

The Conference on the Future of Europe and the future

The fundamental flaw of the Conference on the Future of Europe was that its governing bodies acted to achieve a pre-determined purpose and not to truly reflect the will of the people. Throughout the process, my party, the Sweden Democrats, have fought against further transfers of power, which was unfortunately made impossible when all discussions on the return of power to the Member States were blocked by the committee that controlled the work of the conference. When, during a process of reflection on the future of the EU, there is no serious discussion about returning power to national parliaments, that should make the alarm bells ringing. Even those who want to centralise power should understand that confidence in the process is undermined if only one side is allowed to have its say.

The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) – the EP group to which we belong – participated to the work of the conference and made many suggestions for improvement, but these were almost completely ignored. The criticism of centralization of power, which after all exists in many countries and is shared by a large proportion of Europe’s voters, was not reflected at all in the final document.

The conference’s “report on the final outcome” is now being used to make demands for the abolition of veto powers over foreign affairs and to legitimise other demands that will undermine Swedish self-determination. When the European Parliament was voting on demands for treaty change after the final report was presented, of the Swedish parties, only the Green Party and the Liberals supported the demand. However, as the European Parliament has a clear centralist majority, the demand was passed with 454 votes in favour and only 170 against.

In the coming years, the final document of the Future Conference will be used to legitimise demands to transfer more power from EU Member States to the institutions in Brussels. Unfortunately, it is likely that many of the wordings in the final document will develop into concrete proposals over time. However, there is still quite a lot of resistance against the Conference on the Future of Europe’s proposals among the governments of EU Member States, and the Swedish government has been quite clear that many of the proposals are not desirable. One EU issue that the Swedish Moderates, Christian Democrats and Sweden Democrats should be able to agree upon during the Swedish election campaign is to reject the Conference on the Future of Europe’s proposals.

Originally published in Swedish by Konservativ Debatt

Disclaimer: will under no circumstance be held legally responsible or liable for the content of any article appearing on the website, as only the author of an article is legally responsible for that, also in accordance with the terms of use.