Yesterday France assumed the Presidency of the European Union, as planned, in time to move forward the final recommendations of the “Conference on the Future of Europe”. In mid December, 39 recommendations were made from the Democracy and the Rule of Law panel. Most surprisingly, they do not recommend changing the means by which the President of the Commission is elected/chosen and yet, they propose the establishment or repetition of the Citizens’ Assembly approach adopted by the Conference.
In the rest of this blog article, I look at how the EU got here, and comment on some surprising and positive recommendations and the one surprising absence.
How it came to be
President Macron in 2019 called for a Conference on the Future of Europe, his plan was to have it done for the French Presidency starting on 1st Jan to allow him a big fanfare and stepping stone to the French Presidential elections. The Conference’s genesis was complex but impetus was given by the shenanigans played in the appointment/election of Von der Leyen as President of the Commission. The Parliament was unhappy that the EPP Spitzenkandidat was dumped by the EPP and an alternative proposed by initially the German Govt and latterly by the European Council. Their successful candidate, Ursula von der Leyen promised a mechanism by which the spitzenkandidat process could be reviewed and strengthened. This was probably unwise as while this would have been popular with the Parliament, it was and is unlikely to win much support within the Council which represents the member states. From this unlikely genesis, there has been a significant pressure expressed in the broader consultations, and from the platform of the plenaries to introduce direct elections for the President of Commission.
In fact, there was massive manoeuvring involved in launching what became the Conference on the Future of Europe, involving deals around its presidency, composition, and terms of reference. It now has co-presidents, the presidents of the three institutions. Most excitingly the Conference includes a number of citizen jurors, chosen randomly with sample construction balancing with reserved places for young people. The question of whether the conference is authorised to recommend changes that require treaty change is unclear; it would seem there is a clear understanding from the Council or a majority of it that they will not engage in treaty change.
The physical conference has been supplemented by a reddit or bulletin board like ‘digital platform’ where citizens and civic society organisations can make proposals which are/have been considered by the citizen’s panels. The digital platform allows comments, up/down votes and endorsements, but one has to login to the platform although it accepts the usual SSO tokens.
A Citizens’ Assembly
I have been tracking the Conference, since the summer of 2021 as a member of Citizens Take over Europe coalition whose key demand has been the establishment of a Citizen’s Assembly. They have been big fans of the citizen juror component of the conference but latterly have been concerned at the lack of inclusion of underrepresented groups. Their proposal on a Citizen’s Assembly is #7692 and links to their/our manifesto.
The EU’s conspicuous democratic deficit builds on the underlying crisis of representative democracy. Far from new, citizens’ mistrust towards national and European institutions, as well as towards the political elites, persists throughout the continent. It is urgent to rethink the role of the people in Europe: in times of great uncertainty, especially, citizens’ involvement in decision-making becomes paramount to strengthening our democracies. But to overcome mistrust towards the EU and address the socio-economic and environmental challenges ahead, we need more inclusive and innovative instruments of participatory democracy beyond the nation-state.
I argue that the EU should evolve at a natural pace, not at the pace of the slowest but a treaty change that forces change that the Union is not ready for would be a mistake.
Rule of Law
My feeling is that issues pertaining to what has become known as the “rule of law”, which bundles up issues of human rights and judicial independence have become important to the EU to the extent that sanctions are being built into the expenditure programmes and are being taken up by the Conference Citizen’s panel. One of the EU’s most important achievements is its commitment, via its Charter of Fundamental Rights to the European Convention on Human Rights to democracy and equality. The EU is in dispute with the Polish and Hungarian governments over the issues of judicial independence, anti-LGBT policies and in the case of Hungary corruption. As a Brit., I need to make it clear that a number of the legislative ‘reforms’ proposed and enacted by the current Tory Parliament may well have led the UK into similar disputes and if enacted may well become barriers to re-entry.
My observing of the 2nd Plenary suggests to me that there is a large constituency calling for an expansion of social programmes aimed at improving and levelling up the social wage. The EU and its member states response to the coronavirus pandemic has also shown people that more can be done, and that inter-state co-operation is desirable. The demand for greater health provision co-ordination may well be an additional demand. Panel 2 has called for investment programmes for full employment, a regional Policy with an economic equality goal or baseline, and proposes [more] corporation tax and social expenditure, which would probably be an expansion of the EU competencies, although not much and this maybe coming.
There is a widespread recognition that macro-economic policy co-ordination is weaker than desirable. The establishment of the Euro has led to the development of a highly constrained central bank. This has disguised the fact that the EU and the Germans in particular, are wedded to a quantitative money theory of inflation management which they see as the paramount goal of macro-economic policy. The Left should be arguing for sustainable growth and for income/wealth equity. The problem being that tight money causes poverty and after 13 years of loose money, we need to recognise that the historic views of the role of monetary policy and fiscal policy leave people short of the tools they need to fight poverty. I think it unlikely that this will be easily resolved; it may be one where we need the Germans and the so-called frugal four to recognise that a growing, equitable economy is more stable and peaceful. This is a political problem of the centre-right and those of the left that seek to triangulate with them.
Three Recommendations and an absence
There are three recommendations, and one absence which I shall highlight here.
They recommend renaming the Council and the Commission. The names they propose are Senate for the Council and propose to put the word Executive in front of the Commission’s name.
To me this epitomises the at times juvenile and ill researched nature of the process. It possesses maximum offence to those states and citizens that want a slower journey to political union, and zero benefit. Even if the renaming represented the political reality, it is unnecessary. (It also to my mind is based on a misunderstanding of the role of the Commission and its President, although the monopoly on legislative initiative currently held by the Commission, might be better shared with the Parliament. This was a popular proposal on the digital platform; it’s a missed opportunity.)
The panel did not however ignore one of the most significant roadblocks to greater co-operation and recommend a greater use of qualified majority voting in the Council, and a diminution in the use of the veto. This needs to be done with sensitivity and a recognition of the sovereign integrity of the member states. Managing the veto and legislative initiative are better proposals for more effective decision making.
The big surprise to me is that there no proposals to change the way on which the President of Commission is to be appointed. It would seem that this is a disappointment to Macron and Von der Leyen, together with a number of other political party dignitaries such as Guy Verhofstat. The Commission is a collective entity, there should be no ambition to recreate the US Presidency; the EU could not survive the creation of an unrepresented minority of approaching 200m people.
The 39th and final recommendation is for the adoption of Citizen’s Assemblies. I think this is something that CTOE can get behind and while it opens the lid on issues such as intra-state subsidiarity which I believe to be necessary and the need for guarantees for stronger and more accountable regional consultations.
I recommend for more on how the EU got here, you look at Managed Expectations: EU Member States’ Views on the Conference on the Future of Europe, Minna Ålander, Nicolai von Ondarza, Sophia Russack (eds) and The Conference on the Future of Europe, Obstacles and Opportunities to a European Reform Initiative That Goes beyond Crisis Management by Nicolai von Ondarza and Minna Ålander, both of Stiftung Wissenschaft & Politik in Berlin.
 I think if non-EU resident, you have to use the SSO providers. The site offers a login ID to EU residents.