Two weeks after the “official launch” of the “Conference on the Future of Europe”, which saw French President Emmanuel Macron surpassing his allotted speaking time to extoll the virtues of the European Parliament’s wasteful transfer between Brussels and Strasbourg, it is time to make up a balance of how it has been received.
The backstory is that the 9 May launch of the thing had been postponed, due to “inter-institutional wrangling about the mandate and format for the Conference”.
This ended in a compromise, according to which the conference plenary will be composed of representatives from the main EU institutions, as well as national parliamentarians, regional deputies, social partners, NGOs, plus randomly-selected citizens. Of the 433 participants, 108 will be citizens.
The idea is that any citizens’ proposals approved in the plenaries will be reflected in the final report, which is supposed to include the conclusions of the conference by spring 2022. According to EUObserver, this is “a timely date for French president Emmanuel Macron, who was a major force in pushing the idea.” There’s really not a lot of effort being made that the whole initiative is supposed to serve Macron’s re-election agenda, a rather less lofty goal than the official line that it is supposed to “strengthening citizens participation”.
According to German far left MEP Martin Schirdewan, “The Conference is threatening to degenerate into a mere talking shop”, specifying:
“The EU institutions have been arguing for over a year about what it should be and is allowed to do. What falls by the wayside is the actual goal of the Conference; namely to give citizens, trade unions, social movements and NGOs a voice in our democracy. So far, the only thing that we can agree on is the start date. The rest though has ended up looking more like a tragedy.”
At least some MEPs are doing their jobs, and are questioning the opaque financing of the conference or “#CoFoE”, as the thing is known on twitter.
Together with his Romanian ECR colleague Swedish Cristian Terheș, senior ECR MEP Charlie Weimers, questioned this, with Terhes pointing out that “the majority of MEPs have long lectured Poland and Hungary on rule of law, or Romania and Bulgaria on how to properly fight corruption but they all voted against transparency so the European people would not know how the money for this Conference is spent.”
Even EU federalists have grave misgivings about the whole thing. For example, Giles Merritt, founder of Friends of Europe, said: “The Conference launched in Strasbourg on Sunday is doomed from the start. Aiming to define a reform strategy for the European Union, it is saddled with three co-chairs, representing the Commission, Parliament and Council. This will inevitably mean deadlock on all but the most anodyne questions.”
However, there are some indications that behind the surface, the exercise is more than just a marketing gimmick to help Emmanuel Macron remain President of France. The European Parliament continues to push for working groups whereby there would be dialogues with political families, where national and European deputies can engage in discussions.
Renew Europe MEP Sandro Gozi, president of the Union of European Federalists (UEF), is actually quite open about it. He thinks his allies need “to exploit the full political potential of this unprecedented Conference”, adding that “the speeches by Costa and Von der Leyen were very cautious, especially on the possible objectives to be taken as a follow-up to the conference, for example on the revision of the treaties. We need to create a strong pressure from below. We will ask to participate in the conference as NGOs: it’s a tough battle, but we have all the requirements to ask for it”.
Also European Parliament President David Sassoli has stated that EU treaty reform “shall not be taboo”. As always, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is very much on the side of those trying to grab power from member states, as she declared last month that “In the health domain the EU needs more powers and competences and that may necessitate treaty change. That would be important and I am always open to treaty change.”
This all seems to be happening against the wishes of at least 12 EU governments that are opposed to Treaty change. Ireland is among them, but its government already seems to be folding. The country must be open to the idea of treaty change in the EU, Irish Taoiseach Micheál Martin has now made clear, as he added he had spoken to the leaders of the other Coalition parties and “all three leaders are clear that we have to open to potential treaty change”.
Ireland’s position here is important, given that Treaty change would require a referendum in Ireland.
Just like Merkel, Martin called for greater EU powers in the areas of public health and climate change.
Oddly, he mentioned that “co-operation on vaccine ordering and manufacturing” had been a “tremendous success for the European Union”. Perhaps he already forgot how the EU has been slipping behind the UK and the US in international comparisons on vaccine administration. Those catching Covid during that period may have a different opinion.
Let’s see where this is all going but what is clear is that beneath the surface, some are scheming to use this conference as a vehicle for Treaty change, to shift even more power to the EU level.