Goodbye to COFOE


The European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group decided to give the conference on the future of Europe, which concluded with a range of about 300 EU-federalist proposals, a fitting response, by ending their participation to it, while slamming the door on the way out.

The proposals, that involve scrapping veto powers for EU member states, more power to the European Parliament, more EU financing for EU climate action and of course an EU army, can be summarized as “more power and money for Brussels”.

Reactions were tough but fair.

Swedish ECR MEP Charlie Weimers stated:

“The Conference on the Future of Europe attracted mostly those who want to centralize more power in Brussels. Entire process plagued by self-selection bias. Critical voices ignored already at the planning stages. No consideration of repatriation of powers to Member States.”

His Dutch ECR colleague Michiel Hoogeveen MEP highlighted a new opinion poll, revealing the lack of public support for COFOE proposals in the Netherlands:

“The Conference on the Future of Europe is a failed experiment. Research by I&O commissioned by JA21 shows that there is hardly any support for the results. “Citizens have been used to the ideas of politicians”:

Italian ECR MEP Carlo Fidanza summed it all up, describing COFOE as a “farce”.

It is doubtful European citizens would disagree, in case they have even heard about COFOE.

COFOE: Shady procedures contributing to shady conclusions

While all eyes are on the war in Ukraine, attention for the “Conference on the Future of Europe” (COFOE) has fallen to record lows. Despite this, the exercise is being continued, and at one point some final conclusions will be due that will then result in some kind of recommendation to the leadership of the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission.

In order to come to this conclusion, working groups preparing the COFOE plenaries have been coming up with “reports” and “recommendations”.

To nobody’s surprise, these suggestions amount to little more than repeating the wish list of the EU – federalist usual suspects. These range from scrapping national veto powers in the Council to increased EU intervention in the Ukrainian war.

For now, it is still unclear how these recommendations are to be implemented in EU policy-making, as discussions on this are currently ongoing, with the final CoFoE meeting taking place on 9 May 2022.

Euractiv notes that in this regard, CoFoE’s plenary meetings, which are supposed to process the recommendations, are a cause for concern, as “a lack of clear follow-up procedures has also led to concerns over transparency in the addressing and implementing of recommendations.” It quotes Danish citizen Petersen Troels De Leon complaining:

“I expected that politicians would have given suggestions on how to meet our requests, instead of making general statements or trying to put topics on their agendas, which have nothing to do with our recommendations.”

He reportedly added that some MEPs explicitly said they would only work on recommendations they were interested in.

In other words, the whole procedure to come to official suggestions for the future of Europe (or rather the EU) is as shady as can be …

A testimony on how CoFoE is rigged

Writing for Euractiv, Kaspar Schultz, a citizen representative of Estonia to the Conference on the Future of Europe, explains how the whole CoFoE discussion is rigged, arguing:

“The Conference on the Future of Europe prides itself on giving as many participants as possible a chance to speak. Unfortunately, this horizontal nature of the debate eliminates meaningful discussion of Europe’s future”

He thereby describes the CoFoE plenary as “an assortment of pre-rehearsed speeches, overlapping and (self-)congratulatory statements”, noting “that is a far cry from the repeated pleas from co-chairs to discuss recommendations made by the citizens that were published before the conference and also summarized at the beginning of each debate.”

Importantly, he brings up the issue of transnational party lists, which is a top priority for EU-federalists. They are clearly very keen to use CoFoE as a vehicle to push for this.

According to Schultz, there is “no better example than transnational party lists for European Parliament elections to exemplify the dysfunction at the heart of the conference.”

He thereby writes that this idea “was just part of one recommendation made by the citizens” and laments how MEP Sandro Gozi, president of the Union of European Federalists and member of the Renew Europe group “explained his choice to focus just on the transnational lists by time limits, ignoring the fact that most politicians speaking on European democracy had somehow made the same, very specific choice.”

At the end, he sums up what CoFoE really is all about:

“Citizens have been reduced to picking a side in already existing debates to help break the deadlock on politically tense issues.”

As a member of the European democracy workgroup, I can find no better example than transnational party lists for European Parliament elections to exemplify the dysfunction at the heart of the conference.

European Parliament fails to keep COFOE spending a secret

On this blog, we have highlighted the secrecy surrounding the Conference on the Future of Europe several times in the past. For a long time, the European Commission refused to disclose how much it was spending on this. At long last, in December, European Commission vice-President Šuica finally broke the silence, telling MEPs: “As of early October 2021, the total budget contracted by Commission services under contracts specifically signed for the purpose of the Conference is EUR 17.7 million. The budget includes the preparation and implementation of the European Citizens’ Panels, together with an accompanying study (EUR 15.1 million), and the development, management, hosting and moderation of the Multilingual Digital Platform (EUR 2.6 million). (…) The information provided above covers the costs borne by Commission services and does not cover funding provided by the other institutions/co-signatories of the Joint Declaration.” The European Parliament still refuses to disclose how much it is spending. Sadly, this position is backed by a majority of MEPs, who last spring voted against “clarification as soon as possible of the conditions for financing this conference and the consequences for the institution’s budget” and against “a commitment to full transparency on the expenditure of this conference, including the keeping of separate accounts and an audit report by the European Court of Auditors for each year of functioning.” A leak now however reveals that until 31 October 2021, the EP already committed to pay 6.87 million euro for expenses incurred for the purpose of the “Conference on the Future of Europe” or “CoFoE”, while “up to EUR 10 million could be  ledged from Parliament’s 2021 budget and up to EUR 5 millon from Parliaments 2022 budget.” This is documented in a note prepared for the EP Bureau, which also reveals that the EP is busy buying media attention as well – with rather unsuccessful results as the “Parliament’s Directorate-General for Communication (DG COMM) has awarded a grant to forty media from twenty-one EU Member States”. This includes “12 main press agencies” and “28 multimedia projects”. COFOE spending by the EU Council remains a secret, but these revelations are at least one positive development.

Is a “Perpetual CoFoE” on the horizon?

Just when the « Conference on the Future of Europe » seems to be dead in the water, suffering from a lack of any proper media attention, given how it now appears clear to most what kind of a rigged exercise it has become – not that this should surprise – some are pushing for CoFoE to become … permanent.

In a speech to MEPs, Former European Council President Herman van Rompuy urged to avoid making the Conference on the Future of Europe a “one-off exercise”.

His argument?

“Democracy is in crisis, and it will not be over after the conference, so we need to continue our work together to improve democracy at all levels of power.”

Those taking part in the conference may wonder whether the conference, which is beset by questions about its legitimacy, constitutes a proper democratic exercise, but he’s not alone.

In EUObserver, a number of academics point out that French President “Emmanuel Macron is hoping to harvest its results before the French presidential election”.

They are right about that, of course, as we’ve pointed out, but they seem to fail to see the upside that if Macron is re-elected, he may no longer bother with the whole thing.

They argue that “the French presidency should open the way for the continuation of the conference.”

Get ready for a “Perpetual CoFoE”?

Talking shops fail to generate interest

More details are emerging about the failure of the “Conference on the Future of Europe” to actually represent … an actual “Conference on the Future of Europe”. For now, the name “EU talking shop” would be a more appropriate name.

This is yet more evident as according to new revelations that “over half of the online panel participants” on 5 November stated to not have seen media coverage of CoFoE, noting that interest at national level was lacking.

One CoFoE partipant testifies to Euractiv:

“I tried to speak about this to media representatives, but here in Cyprus, Europe seems like something far away”.

Another participant mentions the reason why journalists can’t be bothered to cover the event:

“There are too many topics to discuss, and there is no time at the end of group discussions to make a proper sum up. There is not enough time to speak about proposals, only keywords or general ideas.”

Of course, this doesn’t stop MEP Charles Goerens – from Luxembourg – from claiming that CoFoE is “the largest democratic reflection this continent has ever known”.

It also won’t stop the usual suspects – from French President Macron to money and power hungry MEPs – from attempting to use whatever comes out of CoFoE as a legitimate justification to further their agenda of EU centralization.  

A “Largely ignored Conference”

In a new article, Euractiv, calls the “Conference on the Future of Europe” a “Largely ignored Conference”. It mentions that outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently suggested to use the talking shop to discuss the recent ruling by the Polish supreme court on the supremacy of the EU Treaties over the Polish Constitution. Merkel said CoFoE was “actually a good place to discuss” this thing.

The backstory is that Merkel is worried to clash with Poland and Hungary, saying “it is getting harder and harder” to find compromises between European Union countries on hot-button issues like migration and the rule of law.

What better forum to basically bury the existing tensions then the CofoE talking shop, where “citizens” along with “experts” – the usual suspects – parrot statements in support of more power for the EU.

The Euractiv piece highlights how important people basically ignore the whole thing. “The first three rows should be VIPs or guests; not many of them are here,” Mark Plesko, representative of the Slovenian national panels revealed, as, according to him, the lack of high-level interest in the conference “is an excellent metaphor for the European Union.”

Also, “very few EU citizens participated via the digital platform”, Euractiv adds: only 22,500 participants, which is “relatively low”, as the platform received 3.5 million unique visitors.

One conclusion should already be clear now: the legitimacy of this thing is zero, so none of the EU-fanatic suggestions coming out of it should be dignified with any attention.

Hurting EU member states in the name of Europe

It is not exactly a secret that the whole point of the “Conference on the Future of Europe” is to serve as a PR exercise for Emmanuel Macron to be re-elected as French President next year. In effect, the “#COFOE” also ends at the time of that election.

Beyond the “pro-European” rhetoric, it really is “business as usual” for the French government. For Paris, “pro-European” means whatever is in the interest of France, even if it comes at the detriment of other EU member states.

A good example of that is an “EU minimum wage”, which would create mass unemployment if applied stringently across the EU in poorer member states where employers need to have the ability to pay lower wages so to be able to exploit their biggest asset: that people are willing to work for less.

That is of no concern at all for the French government.

At the Conference on the Future of Europe in Toulouse on Saturday, Macron’s Prime Minister blatantly stated that an EU-wide minimum wage is “necessary at all costs”, adding it is was even a “priority”.

He also said:

“I’m going to be very concrete here, on the idea of a European minimum wage because we have countries with very different labour rights. (…) We are in an open area and the countries with the most advanced social policies are penalised.”

Anyone with a slight notion of France’s social spending is aware of how bloated it is and how great the scope for efficiency savings. Obviously, Macron and his allies are very keen to avoid such reform, and if that can happen by penalising poorer EU member states, that sounds like a great deal to the current French administration.

All in the name of “Europe”, of course.

The EU variant of the French “grand débat”

“President Kagame holds bilateral talks with President of France, Emmanuel Macron | New York,18 September 2017” by Paul Kagame is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Over the weekend, 200 voters descended onto Strasbourg to join the opening panel of the so-called “Conference on the Future of Europe”, in order to take part in “citizen assemblies” to debate topics as various as climate change, migration and health policy (never mind that the EU only has very limited powers on health policy). The Financial Times reports that “after three days of consultation, participants were most interested in prioritising topics such as EU taxes, common education standards and greater access to sports.”

The idea is that this will then feed into other debates, which also involve MEPs and “civil society organisations” – or rather, supposed society organisations. This would then need to result in conclusions during the time of the French EU presidency, in Spring 2022, two months before the country’s presidential elections.

This timetable is no coincidence. The CoFoE scheme has been pushed by French president Emmanuel Macron, to “breathe new democratic life into our institutions”. The citizens’ panels are similar to Macron’s “grand débat”, whereby citizen assemblies were convened in 2018, to assist the French government in its decision-making.

The FT notes that these “ultimately ended inconclusively”, raising the question: “Whether the citizens being consulted this time around will be able to navigate the conference’s own bureaucracy — which includes a joint presidency, an executive board and a common secretariat — is another matter.”

None of that should come as a surprise. Shall the CoFoE “citizen panels” be anything different then the EU variant of the “grand débat”? There should not be a lot of doubt…

German government reveals data showing public interest for CofoE is very low

In response to a parliamentary question, the German government sheds some light on the success of the so-called “Conference on the Future of Europe”, also known as “CofoE”. And what do we learn? Surprise, surprise: “Engagement with the platform so far is low”, as a German scholar summarizes the German government’s response.

He highlights the bit that “Overall, ~170k visits were counted from Germany, the most of any country in the EU. This is less Engagement than many tweets get on here.”

Of course, low engagement by citizens is very unlikely to prevent the usual suspects from abusing the “findings” to push their agenda to grant ever more power to the EU.