The Conference on the Future of Europe: doomed to fail or give it the benefit of the doubt?
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
It all depends on Macron.
Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Image
After the European Parliament elections of 2019, there were some surprising rabbits pulled out of the EU-hat due to the election result and the outcome of the almost record breaking European Council summit (30 June – 2 July): a European Parliament (EP) with no christian-democrat EPP and social-democrat S&D majority; in some countries a remarkable comeback of the social-democratic parties; and Ursula von der Leyen (CDU/EPP) as President of the European Commission. There was one last thing however and that was something that mostly the French president, Emmanuel Macron (LREM/RE), fiercely wanted: a Conference on the Future of Europe. This was the apotheosis of the president's long running campaign even from before his presidential election up to the EP’s 2019 election. This plan has been tried before and it did not give the desired result. Will it be different this time?
Let us take a look at the previous time such a conference was proposed and executed in fact. It was in the early 2000s when the idea rose to make a ‘Constitution for Europe’, mainly to fix the cohesion and structure between the treaties of Maastricht (1992), Amsterdam (1997), and Nice (2001). The idea to organise a conference was even included in the Treaty of Nice. These treaties created a new institutional framework for the EU, but it did not satisfy the need for a coherent constitution. Naturally, this new constitution could not be made in the Brussels’ offices, so a decision was made to organise a conference with representatives of all the institutions: European Commission, European Parliament and representatives from the member states and the national parliaments. A total of 105 members, with former French president Valéry Giscard D’Estaing as chairman, quickly took up their job and proposed the first Constitution for Europe. Several member states held a referendum to give the government a mandate to accept the new treaty. Amongst those member states were, Spain, France and the Netherlands. Spain voted ‘yes’, but for the voters in France and the Netherlands, a European Constitution was a bridge too far.
Of course, one can repaint a painting within the canvas, but an entire conference just to do a repaint? Seems like a bit of an overkill, especially if you consider all the gravitas with which the idea was launched. So, if one would want to change the canvas, one has to struggle with something disquieting in Brussels: the fear of treaty change. Several attempts during the crises between 2008-2014 to make slight changes to the treaties were voted down. The EU leaders, assembled in the European Council, preferred the option of new treaties and pacts (whether or not under the EU-treaties or just with a specific group, the eurozone for example). So, why will it be different this time?
First of all, this conference is not a conference under article 48 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU). Such a conference is needed to change the treaties. This was the case for numerous treaties such as Maastricht, Nice, and the failed European Constitution. Therefore, this Conference does not have any legal status and so the outcomes are not legally binding whatsoever. Of course, politically it would be devastating for the EU and its leaders to disregard the outcomes entirely. So, hot issues like defence cooperation, migration or a European economic government can be ignored by the leaders for being too controversial. Those are obviously not too controversial for Macron, but that is another story.
Secondly, let us take a look at the mastermind behind this conference: Emmanuel Macron. Similar to former French president Charles de Gaulle who had a “certaine idée de la France”, Macron has a certain idea for Europe. He wants a “sovereign, united, and democratic Europe” as conveniently stated on the website of the French diplomatic service. A small selection of what he wants: a European Intelligence Agency, more defence cooperation, a European Asylum Office (it already exist, but maybe he wants to strengthen it), transnational lists for the EP, more convergence in tax and social policy, an active foreign policy for Africa and Asia, and he wants to make the eurozone the economic heart of the EU. In short, more EU. I have to mention that this does not necessarily mean more ‘Brussels’ in the form of more power to the Commission. Given the history of France and the personalities of their presidents, it is more likely that Macron just wants to cooperate in more policy areas on a EU-level between member states.
These ideas were launched before the idea of a Conference on the Future of Europe was even on the horizon. Macrons plans obviously were put forward for this conference, but with one big difference: Germany fully supported most ideas. When it was clear that there would be a Conference, the Germans and French published a joint Franco-German non-paper for the Conference. The subjects to discuss are exactly those of the ideas brought up by Macron. Please permit me to take you to an interesting fact. The non-paper is not full of details and specific policy proposals, but there is a rather specific timeline. Why is it interesting? If we look at the start and end date of the Conference, they conveniently coincide with the German EU Presidency at the start and the French EU Presidency at the closure of the Conference. This of course would be the perfect final act for Merkel in 2020 (her last term as Bundeskanzler) and for Macron in 2022 (the French presidential elections are in April 2022).
So, there is a conference and there are new ideas. A perfect recipe for a new Europe. However, this time it is different. As I already said, this conference is not a TEU article 48-conference, in which the European Council has the biggest say by far. For the exact roadmap of this conference, I would like to refer to this page. We can see one major difference there: the citizens play a role as well via a method Macron used in his own country and which worked surprisingly well. For the most part, he copied the policies the French people proposed in these citizens dialogues. But, will it work for Europe? The EU is not the most popular subject, so my fear is that only pro-EU and euro fanatics will register themselves in these citizens dialogues. The result will be a distorted image of the ideas of the European people for Europe. With a growing Euroscepticism, the results will not give the EU good solutions for all the people of Europe. Now, it does not only depend on the citizens. They are only one party in the conference and a small one after all; they cannot compete with the power of the member states and their leaders or the EU institutions itself. And that is where Macron comes into play. With his clear ideas, supported by the Germans, the Franco-German axis will give a clear direction to the EU and they will be welcomed once again as the main drivers for European integration.