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EU determined to retool bloc through sweeping reforms

Approval by four or five citizens in 10 is considered a good result by writers of the recent survey.

By Jon Van Housen, Mariella Radaelli

Published: Wed 17 Mar 2021, 10:41 PM

Though delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and economies in freefall, the European Union is determined to follow through on an ambitious attempt to possibly retool the bloc through a sweeping initiative that was finally unveiled on March 10 as leaders signed a document and held a solemn ceremony in the EU parliament.

Perhaps emblematic of the EU, it has taken three years to organise, was preceded by and continues with battles over who’s in charge, and has formally started with yet another study, an elaborate EU-wide survey.

Termed the Conference on the Future of Europe, its first event is tentatively scheduled for May 9 in Strasbourg on Europe Day, the date in 1950 when the integration of French and West German coal and steel industries was first proposed. That cooperation would one day lead to the establishment of the EU. Events in the latest conference are expected to continue to at least until the spring of 2022.

Partly the brainchild of the Renew Europe political party and a proposal by French President Emmanuel Macron three years ago in the face of rising nationalist movements across Europe, the conference intends to involve all EU institutions, member states and citizens in discussions on what a future EU should look like.

In preparation, the European Commission conducted a survey late last year of citizens in all its 27 member countries. The slickly formatted study released on March 9 proudly announced that “almost half (47 per cent) of Europeans hold a positive image of the EU”. Around four in 10 said they have a neutral image of the bloc.

If we strip away the spin and say it a different way, the survey found that less than half of the citizens are happy with the EU. But in a region where governments rarely have a clear majority and countries are governed by coalitions with up to five parties or even more, 47 per cent could be interpreted as solid support.

Critics say the initiative has a vague mandate and will not result in true institutional reforms because it is a conference and not a convention. They claim after the ceremonies, meetings and studies are over, the results will likely be summarised in a joint declaration instead of generating any direct legislative initiatives.

So what then is the point?

“Reform of the EU is clearly something citizens want to see, and that is why we need to launch the Conference on the Future of Europe as soon as possible,” said David Sassoli, president of the European parliament. “It’s essential that this exercise lead to concrete actions, legislative changes, treaty changes — if this is desired and wished for.”

And that is a mighty tall order. Any major revisions to EU treaties need the approval of 42 parliamentary chambers and up to 17 national courts, according to a review of the voluminous governing documents by the media.

A major revision known by the unwieldy name Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe was approved in 2004 after three years of negotiations, but was rejected by French and Dutch voters in referendums. A later version, now known as the Lisbon Treaty, was finally approved in 2007.

In announcing the latest conference, the joint statement issued last week says there will be a multitude of conference events, panels and debates across the EU, as well as a multilingual digital platform on topics that range from green and digital transition to European industry competitiveness. The conference’s leadership will be a joint effort consisting of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, EU parliament head Sassoli, a representative of the rotating council presidency, and an executive board with three representatives from each institution and up to four observers.

Manfred Weber, chairman of the largest faction in the parliament, the European People’s Party, said his group wants a searching enquiry into the bloc. “For us, the ambition of the conference should not have any taboos,” said Weber.

Daniel Freund, an EU parliament member from the Green Party, wants “agoras” to allow “a truly European debate” representative of the EU’s 450 million citizens. In ancient Greece, agoras were public open spaces used for assemblies, debates and markets.

Hobbled by the pandemic, plans are still vague on what will happen, when it will happen and what is possible. Even the duration of the most important EU self-evaluation in two decades is unknown.

“We have pushed for a two-year solution to ensure true participation of all stakeholders and citizens,” said Iratxe García Pérez, leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the EU parliament. “The future challenges for the union are many and complex.”

Whatever the length of the conference, some form of tangible results must be available before the next EU elections in 2024.

The need for reform is shown in the EU’s own survey: Approval by four or five citizens in 10 is considered a good result by writers of the recent survey. These are not the marks that any worker or student would claim as a success.

Certainly leaders want to respond to the wishes of the people and are no doubt sincere in their efforts. “This conference has to go beyond Brussels,” von der Leyen said. “We want to reach what some call the silent majority.”

But with such a multitude of opinions and needs, one wonders if the EU has exceeded the critical mass that any “agora” can bear.

Yet just striving for such an ideal is admirable, especially in these days of grim statistics and lockdowns. Recent years have shown more than ever that good governance is crucial — and today far from perfected, no matter the material progress of the modern world.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan

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