Giving Europe’s Citizens a Voice 

Belgian Liberal Guy Verhoftstadt to chair conference on the future of Europe

 

The course is set: Last Wednesday the European Parliament adopted its position paper on the Conference on the Future of Europe by a large majority. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had already announced this in her political guidelines for July 2019.

Now there is no time to lose. Europe Day on 9 May 2020 has been symbolically chosen as the starting date. During the last week of last year’s session, a certain Christmas spirit still accompanied the parliamentary work in Strasbourg, which is known above all for its Christmas market. In mid-January, there was not much of this atmosphere left: a full programme awaited MEPs in the first week of the new year. On the agenda were a resolution on the European Green Deal as one of the top priorities of the new Commission, the programme of the Croatian Presidency which began on the 1st of January, the protection of (EU) citizens’ rights after Brexit, a debate on the situation in Iran and Iraq, the speech of Jordanian King Abdullah II, a debate on the progress of Article 7 procedures on the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, as well as a vote on the forthcoming conference on the future of Europe.

Spirit of Optimism in Europe

“Ten years after the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, it is time to give European citizens the opportunity to discuss and build together the future of the European Union they want to live in,” says the MEP conference resolution, which aims to break the political and institutional deadlock in the EU. The conference on the future of Europe was adopted last Wednesday by a large majority of 474 votes to 149, with 49 abstentions. This is a clear signal of the willingness of European elected representatives to reform.

There is an urgent need to readjust the EU by means of reforms: the changed framework conditions in Europe and the world, new cross-border challenges requiring European action and the accumulation of crises in recent years have repeatedly put the EU and its Member States to the test.

The demand for civic participation is the response of the European institutions, above all the European Parliament (EP) as the citizens’ representation, to the increase in voter turnout at the last European elections, which rose by more than 8 percentage points to 50.66%. On the one hand, it expresses the increasing interest of Europeans in European politics, on the other hand it also underlines their expectation of future-oriented answers to the numerous challenges within and outside the EU.

Predecessor of the Conference on the Future of Europe

A similar project was launched in the early 2000s with the aim of drafting a constitution for the EU. This was intended to deepen not only the economic but also the political component of the EU, at that time unfortunately with moderate success. Although representatives of governments, the European Commission, the European Parliament and national parliaments were involved in this large-scale process, they were not directly EU citizens. The further course of events is well known; the draft Constitution was rejected by referendum in France and the Netherlands in 2005 and thus failed. Europe’s politicians have learned from these mistakes today: Europe is made for and with its citizens.

In 2017, the European Commission presented five future scenarios in its “White Paper on the Future of Europe”, which were subsequently discussed in Europe-wide dialogues with citizens and taken up by European politicians. First and foremost, French President Emmanuel Macron with his Sorbonne speech, which was peppered with numerous reform proposals.

EU-Wide Citizens’ Forums as Central Discussion Venues

The position paper of the European Parliament focuses on the position of European citizens. It goes much further than the vague conclusions of the European Heads of State and Government of 12th December 2019, which call for an “inclusive process” and a “broad consultation of citizens” and entrust the Croatian Presidency with the preparation of a position.

The EP position paper refers to representative thematic citizens’ forums throughout Europe, accompanied by youth forums (“Youth Agoras”), open-ended discussions and online consultations, as well as the involvement of representatives from all levels of the European multi-level system in the conference process. After transnational lists failed to find a majority in the European Parliament last year and the Spitzenkandidaten process came to an abrupt end in the negotiations for top jobs after the European elections, these proposals are to be explicitly reintroduced into the discussions.

“This is the first time that the principle of civic participation, real participation, has been accepted at European level,” commented French MEP Pascal Durand (Renew Europe). He knows what he is talking about: France already conducted a similar experiment at national level in 2018 with the “Consultations Citoyennes” (Citizens’ Consultations).

Already on 9 May 2020, the 70th anniversary of the declaration of the then French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman on the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, the two-year consultation and reflection process is to begin following the EP’s propoals. A very ambitious timetable, which requires good and rapid coordination of all parties involved across national and institutional borders. In the next weeks, the European Commission, the Council and the European Parliament will need to find a consensus on the format and aim of the conference.

Belgian Verhofstadt Receives Top Position

A major role is assigned to the Belgian Liberal Guy Verhofstadt. The former Belgian Prime Minister, former leader of the ALDE Group (now Renew Europe) in the European Parliament and its chief Brexit negotiator, is now de facto President of the prestigious two-year reform process.

Verhofstadt is also a leading member of the cross-party Spinelli Group in the European Parliament, which advocates federalist impulses in European policy and is known for his pro-European, reform-oriented attitude as well as the sometimes direct, vehement debates in the Strasbourg plenary hall. He will thus – with some delay in the wake of the 2019 European elections – still be given one of the top European posts he had hoped for.

This option had already been discussed last year by Emmanuel Macron, to whom Verhofstadt is close both personally and in terms of content, but its implementation still required some negotiations among the leaders of the political groups in the European Parliament. Verhofstadt will be assisted by Manfred Weber, former EPP leading candidate, and a still open representative of the Socialist Group. After two francophone Belgian liberals of the Mouvement Réformateur, Charles Michel, President of the Council, and Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice, already held central positions, the Flemish-speaking liberals of Open VlD with Guy Verhofstadt did not leave empty-handed either. European policy is always national and regional policy, and this holds especially true for Belgium.

 

CarmenCarmen Descamps
European Affairs Manager