Conference on the Future of Europe: decisive renewal or missed opportunity?

As the champagne glasses clink and chime, as the inter-institutional wrangling shift-shapes into a clunky Rubik cube governance structure that no-one likes or understands, as a thousand digital platforms whir into action but with no respondents and as “reform” is embraced but “Treaty change” perhaps vetoed, Henry Kissinger might easily ask of the Conference on the Future of Europe: “What’s it for? Who’s in charge? Who do I call?” Walter Mondale might also add: “Where’s the beef?”

 Why do simple when we can do complicated? 

The “curse” of complex EU decision-making once again raises its tricephalic head and potentially calls into question the purpose of the whole exercise. When even committed pro-European commentators ask, as they do, why “this orgy of introspection” when the real point is “what the EU can actually do for its citizens”, then the EU should listen.

Well, at least in the European Parliament, some MEPs are in listening mode and “Treaty change” for a citizens’ Europe is still, hopefully, on the agenda.

Parliament and the Rule of Law – prerequisites for a citizens’ Europe

Gabriele Bischoff MEP, touted as a possible Member of the Conference Executive, has already gone on record to argue: “European legislation is made for European citizens. Therefore, it is essential to listen to citizens and to react to their expectations. This concerns policy issues and fundamental questions of democracy and decision-making processes. Treaty changes are no longer out of the question. Therefore, the argument that it is now time to confer full legislative power to the Parliament is gaining momentum.

The long-standing “democratic deficit” is indeed at the heart of the EU-citizenship credibility gap. Without a proper Parliament, how can the EU legitimately act on behalf of its citizens? “With each new treaty”, Gabriele Bischoff has declared, “the role of Parliament in legislative procedures has been expanded. Is it now time for the final step?” This means conferring to Parliament the full right of legislative initiative on a par with the Commission and independently of the intergovernmental Council. A decisive shift from unanimity towards qualified majority voting in Council is also called for as the means to unblock tangible policies for citizens within the Union in place of a single, recalcitrant government vetoing them.

 Full compliance by all Member States to the Rule of Law and respect for fundamental citizens’ rights within the Union, are also seen as a test-bed for a Europe of the Future, as highlighted in the legal ramifications and conditions linked to the EU-wide recovery programme, on which a ruling by the EU Court of Justice is expected.

In short, securing the Rule of Law and fundamental rights for all citizens throughout the Union and empowering the directly elected European Parliament with a fully-fledged

legislative function and programme, voted by citizens not vetoed by individual Member States, are two basic preconditions of a truly reforming European Union and citizens’ Europe. Rule of Law and parliamentary legislation are twin pillars that can help usher in political union, economic union, social union, health union and a citizens’ union.

It is to be hoped that the Conference on the Future of Europe will robustly and resolutely advance these causes rather than fall back on empty rhetoric and a missed opportunity.

Think back to look forward

As the Conference hopefully gears up, despite its clumsy management structure, its participants could do well to reflect on earlier historic occasions when pioneers of the European Idea found the will and the way to move decisively forward towards closer union.

Indeed, the founding fathers of a United Europe, assembled for the first time at the Congress of Europe in May 1948, still merit attention:

Just three years after the enormous sufferings and barbarities of the Second World War, this remarkable gathering of 800 eminent statesmen and international personalities – including Winston Churchill, Léon Blum, Konrad Adenauer, François Mitterrand, Altiero Spinelli and many others - set out a comprehensive peace and reconciliation agenda which laid the foundations of future European Union. Paul-Henri Spaak concluded that the Congress of Europe would become “an historic landmark in the annals of Europe.” Within just three days the Congress adopted a detailed and unprecedented programme for a future United Europe including: a (pre-constituent) European Assembly for Political Union;  an Economic Union of joint convertible currencies, coordinated budgetary and credit policy, free circulation of capital, joint industrial programming, a common agricultural development programme and a full Customs Union; a Social Union for full employment, coordinated social security, labour mobility, fair working conditions and European collective agreements; a Citizens’ Union with a European Charter of Human Rights, a Supreme Court and free movement … And so much more, all of which, step-by-step, took shape and formed the Union we know today.

Can the Conference on the Future of Europe show the same determination, foresight and sheer humanity as Europe’s founding fathers? Can the Conference overcome deep differences, as did the Congress of Europe these 73 years ago, and convincingly adopt such a compelling agenda of common development and mutual support for tomorrow’s Europe? Will the Conference listen, pool resources and leverage the means to make a positive difference in the continuing struggle for a Citizens’ Europe?

The jury is still out …

About the author:

Dr Alan Hick is a board member of New Europeans (Europe). He holds a PhD from the European University Institute on “The European Movement and the campaign for European Assembly 1947 to 1950


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