The European Union is rarely lacking in fierce debates and different viewpoints. But if you open the microphone a bit more and clearly stir the debate about Europe, does something of the shared vision emerge at the end?
This is the premise of the Conference on the Future of Europe, which asks all 446 million EU citizens what they expect from the European Union. The fact that the conversation has degenerated into a cacophony even before it began offers little hope of a painful endgame, according to critics.
The official start of the conference took place on Sunday in Strasbourg, which is supposed to start a debate on a European level about where and where the European Union is. In the coming months, Europeans will be asked to provide input on what the European Union should look like in the future, online or during physical meetings. Topics of discussion include climate change, digital transformation, and democratization. The pandemic has also put healthcare on the agenda. Should there be greater coordination – binding or not – on healthcare policy within Europe?
To say the least, the run up to its start was “rugged”. For at least a year, the various European institutions have argued with each other over who should lead the citizen dialogue. At first, former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt seemed destined to be so, but resistance against him was so great among many member states that months were spent discussing an alternative. An EU diplomat described the vote last fall, “everyone except for gay.” At the beginning of this year, it was decided to divide the leadership of the conference between institutions. As a result, nine presidents were appointed alongside an army of observers.
Read also: A crystal clear proposal for the future
Even before the conference even began, he was threatening to become a caricature of himself. Partly because it was the complex, mysterious, and small democracy situation in Brussels that led to its outbreak two years ago. In place of one of the so-called candidates Spitzen – the leaders of European parties chosen by the political families – German Minister Ursula von der Leyen appeared incomparably after the European elections to become president of the European Commission. The European Parliament was furious and promised to hold a “conference” to tackle the Union’s structural problems.
French President Emmanuel Macron had already planted the seeds, never ignoring the vision for Europe, who called for a “ European Renaissance ” in an open letter to EU citizens in early 2019. On Sunday, he was allowed to announce the opening in Strasbourg with an enthusiastic speech about How powerful the “European model” has been during the pandemic and why the biggest risk to Europe is that it allows opponents to manipulate it.
A discussion about the discussion
I heard big words in Strasbourg on Sunday anyway, about “a new beginning”, “the next generation of Europeans” and “democratic winds”. Von der Leyen spoke of an “opportunity to simplify and more”down to earth“when necessary”.
At the same time, you can already hear cautiously where the fault lines lie during very brief speeches by EU leaders on Sunday. Macron has stressed the importance of returning production to Europe – a position that is far from controversial. According to European Parliament President David Sassoli, member states in particular should have the veto power and more power should be given to the European Parliament.
It remains to be seen whether the citizens of the European Union will be heard en masse from now on. It also remains unclear exactly how all of the inputs will ultimately be processed. Could it ultimately lead to a change in the Treaty of the European Union, as France in particular would like? Recently, a fierce battle raged in Brussels over the issue, resulting in a compromise that essentially pushes the decision forward. Within a year, when the conference concludes, there is still vigorous debate around the debate.
A copy of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of May 10, 2021