In the end of 2019, the first official proposal of the Conference on the Future of Europe was put forward by the European Commission and the European parliament, following the initial idea mentioned by the French President, Emmanuel Macron. Originally meant to be launched on the 9th of May, 2020, last week, the institutions have given it a green light. Even with a year of delay, we are happy to see progress to be made and the Conference being ready to set off on the upcoming Europe Day. The conference promised a democratic and citizen-focused approach in the efforts of shaping the European Union that is flexible and dynamic, adapted to the needs of its inhabitants. This high ambition quickly ended in a lengthy negotiation between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council, leaving us all in suspense up until only recently. At last, the institutions have issued a Joint Declaration constituting the Conference and its shape, yet after such a long time of waiting and imagining a potential structural reform, disappointment surrounds its signing.
In January 2020 Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, commented: “People need to be at the very centre of all our policies. My wish is therefore that all Europeans will actively contribute to the Conference on the Future of Europe and play a leading role in setting the European Union’s priorities. It is only together that we can build our Union of tomorrow.” We strongly supported that vision. 14 months later, we are witnessing a different scenario.
The Union of tomorrow can not be built by substantially cutting the Conference duration, from two years to just around 9 months. The EU institutions called for an inclusive, interactive and broader process. This goal is impossible to be achieved in such a short time, even without the consideration of how complicated it will be in the upcoming months to hold large-scale in-person events that are considered “an essential part of the Conference”.
The governance structure of the Conference we have been presented with seems to be unnecessarily complicated and can lead to another deadlock, especially due to the requirement of consensus for all decisions of the Executive Board. This poses a number of threats to the progress of the Conference and it’s follow up, potentially an outcome no one will be satisfied with in the end, and we cannot help but wonder if this is truly the best way to go.
Moreover, the outcomes of the Conference are still vague, which raises the concern of it being a mere exercise for the citizens, with no intended value or impact. We deeply believe the goals of the Conference, and the consequent follow up, should be clearly defined. The proposals presented during the Conference must be transformed into constructive reforms and policies and the commitment of the institutions to this process shall be clearly visible already now. Only then can the citizens commit to the cause as well. Additionally, any treaty changes should not be ruled out and proposals for these should be based on the citizens input.
These last arguments directly look at the progressive solutions that can be achieved through an ambitious Conference. Especially in these tough times, it is needed to reflect on how the Union can make its next step, even more united when called to face the current challenges (Pandemic response, economic recovery, green transition) and the future ones that might arise.
We have also witnessed how the impact of Covid19 pandemic has been massive and tragic in the European continent and beyond.
As healthcare systems remain primarily a responsibility of the Member States, the European Union has had limited space and power to act and provide unitary solutions that could support even further the response to the Pandemic. Other instruments, like Next Generation EU, are, on the contrary, leading the way for an actual spirit of solidarity, a founding pillar of the Union. It is specifically after having seen how serious and long-lasting these emergency situations can be that we can not accept a step back from the initial ambitions for the Conference.
While discussing future developments, only the current Member States will have a chance to express their concerns, put forward the ideas and engage in dialogue with the representatives of the key EU institutions. Shaping the draft of the functioning of the European Union for the upcoming ten years should also involve officials from countries, which are currently engaged in accession negotiations under the Enlargement Process.
Effective foreign policy is one of the most pressing issues to be addressed by the Conference. European Union should be an example for all countries, international institutions and other actors on how to implement laws, respect each other’s rights and freedoms, and cooperate for the common good.
Strengthening the relations between the EU and the Southern Neighbourhood and Eastern Partnership countries is needed, as well as building bridges with other Middle Eastern and African states. Those regions are in need of development assistance, guidance, COVID-19 pandemic support and, most importantly, peace initiatives. By joint efforts, we should be able to hinder terrorist activities, eliminate human trafficking, cope with the humanitarian crisis and stop the spreading of civil wars and unrests in the region. Only then we can assure peace and stability for all Europeans.
Nonetheless, we welcome the inclusion of young people in the general European citizens’ panels to be held all around Europe, as a more concrete signal of the opportunity for younger generations to shape the outcomes of the entire process. Consequently, we call on Member States to respect this principle for the national panels they have the freedom to organize, ensuring a true diversity and representation of all citizens, in terms of geographic origin, age, gender, socio-economic background. It is paramount, that the youth representation is significant in all the panels, despite their constant structural underrepresentation and that we are provided an equal chance. The EU has been attempting to strengthen their bond with the European youth since multiple years, creating and following the principles of the EU Youth Dialogue. The Conference on the Future of Europe is an exquisite chance for the institutions to follow their own words – “Europe cannot afford wasted talent, social exclusion or disengagement among its youth. Young people should not only be architects of their own life, but also contribute to positive change in society.”
The civil society, including youth organisations, in the EU but also in those countries which are candidates or potential candidates to become members of the Union, are ready to take on this challenge, to effectively ensure a bottom-up effort for the future of Europe. Yet we demand a process that is democratic, transparent and meaningful. A process where everyone is included and everyone’s voice is heard.