25 Juli 2020

Addressing the right problems with the right instruments at the right time: Reflections on the Conference on the Future of Europe

The Conference on the Future of Europe is meant to bring a “new push for democracy”. But what exactly does that mean? In a series of guest articles, representatives from politics, academia and civil society present their wishes, hopes and expectations for the Conference. Today: John Erik Fossum. (To the start of the series.)

EU Balloon
“An important lesson from the Convention exercise was the need for leadership to steer a process through to its desired end when the mandate was broad and indeterminate.”
The European Union is currently getting ready to embark on a large-scale debate on its future course and direction. A key question is whether this will mainly be a more visible and up-scaled continuation of various forms of citizen engagement that have been going on for a number of years already, or if the Conference will add a qualitatively new dimension and amount to something new.

The institutions’ proposals

If we look at the mandated functions, as set out in the proposals by the three core EU institutions, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council, we see that they are very broad and encompassing. In effect, in all three institutions’ proposals there are no real limits on what could be debated. The European Parliament, but also the Commission, underline that the Conference should be a bottom-up exercise that activates and engages citizen participation, and provides a link from citizens to the EU political system, including in a decisional sense. Especially the Parliament underlines this participatory dimension, and sets out a very ambitious, comprehensive and spelled-out-in-detail exercise for directly engaging citizens in the process through Citizens’ Agoras and Youth Agoras.

Conversely, the Council proposal is much more EU-institution-focused with only vague references to how civil society is to be involved. One might be tempted to say that these institutions’ different democratic sensitivities and societal responsiveness are reflected in the proposals. After all, they have their roots in different spheres of political life: the European Parliament in the representative-participatory world and the Council in the world of interstate diplomacy.

Connecting weak and strong publics

Democratic governance consists of two core components: democratic deliberation to identify problems and discuss solutions, and based on that a process of decision-making that selects proposals, allocates resources to them, and carries them out. Ideally speaking, political systems organize this in three stages: a general or ‘weak’ public that discusses issues; parliaments and other representative bodies as ‘strong’ publics that interpret, develop and channel these deliberations into decision-making; and governments and their administrations that carry out the decisions.

The European Parliament notes that it “(c)ommits itself to a genuine follow-up of the Conference without delay, with legislative proposals, initiating treaty change or otherwise; calls on the other two institutions to make the same commitment…”. The Commission notes that “(t)he Commission is ready to take into account citizens’ feedback and proposals in the setting of its legislative agenda.” The Council notes that “(t)he outcome of the Conference should be reflected in a report to the European Council in 2022… The Conference does not fall within the scope of Article 48 TEU.”

These different envisaged outcomes suggest that the European Parliament seeks to develop as close a link as possible between weak and strong publics; the Commission is on a similar track; whereas the Council defines the Conference as a weak public or a deliberative body only. In this context, it is noteworthy that the Council’s suggested composition of the Conference is broadly speaking consisting of similar categories to the European Convention that developed the Constitution for Europe in 2003-4.

The Convention experience

The Laeken Declaration only designated the European Convention as a preparatory body. The Convention itself however managed to build up sufficient momentum to forge a constitutional proposal, a feat that few had envisaged when the Laeken Declaration was initially announced. It is difficult to attribute the subsequent rejection of the European Constitution to the European Convention.

Insofar as the Convention experience at all has figured in the proposals on the Conference, it appears that the European Parliament’s main onus is to broaden its engagement with civil society in order to build up sufficient pressure for the requisite reforms. The Council conversely seeks to close the door to a repeat Convention performance, in other words where the Conference would generate the requisite momentum to forge a treaty change.

Three key questions: problems, instruments, time-scale

In my view, an important lesson from the Convention exercise was the need for leadership to steer a process through to its desired end when the mandate was broad and indeterminate. It would be useful to know more about how the Parliament seeks to ensure this in relation to the Conference.

In the current context and since the heads of state and government do not seem willing to commit themselves to a decisional role for the Conference, leadership in the EU takes on an important sorting role. The corona pandemic has given rise to new challenges, and new urgencies of course wholly unforeseen when the idea to establish the Conference first came about. Three questions seem particularly pertinent: What are the main problems that need to be resolved? When do the problems need to be resolved? What are the requisite instruments that the EU needs for resolving these problems?

Need for leadership

The role of the Conference must be considered in relation to these three questions. There is a clear need for leadership in the sense that leaders must allocate the right problems to the right instruments within the right time-scale. The time-scale of the conference is two years; a process of treaty change will take an additional number of years. The implication is that the more engaged with actual problem-solving the Conference is supposed to be the more important it is to ensure that it is directed to address those issues and timelines that such a body can reasonably be expected to do.

In turn, other reforms and initiatives are required for dealing with pressing problems with short time-lines and problems that the Conference cannot be expected to contribute much to. Such measures would need to be tailored to bolstering the Conference’s role and prevent it from derailing.

The EU’s challenges

With regard to the first question, I will identify two basic problems that the EU is presently grappling with. This is far from an exhaustive list, but addressing these can have important knock-on effects on the EU’s ability to grapple with other problems. The first is the EU’s ‘expectations – capability gap’: a clear discrepancy between the expectations that are placed on the EU on the one hand and the resources and capabilities that member states are willing to confer on the EU on the other. The corona pandemic has not only exposed this gap; it has expanded it considerably in the sense that the pandemic has exposed the discrepancy between what the EU can do and what especially the powerful and resourceful member states can do on their own.

The second problem relates to the democratic deficit or what we may refer to as two forms of democratic disconnect: vertical (weaknesses of connectivity between institutions and citizens/civil society) and horizontal (sidelining of parliaments through the crises-driven shift in the centre of gravity towards the European Council and greater informality). The horizontal disconnect refers to how citizens’ ability to hold the executives accountable via their directly elected representatives becomes weakened when the locus of decision-making shifts towards bodies such as the European Council that are subject to weak controls, shape-shift between levels of governing and take decisions in secrecy.

The EU’s built-in biases expose a dilemma for the European Parliament: Obtaining more power to reduce the horizontal disconnect requires being cooperative and accommodating in relation to the other institutions. Exercising control and accountability brings up inter-institutional conflicts, makes incremental increases in parliamentary influence less likely and focuses attention away from citizens (vertical disconnect). One might presume that the Parliament’s approach is to use the Conference as a vehicle to mobilize public support to help it out of this straitjacket.

The question of timing

The Conference can do something to both problems, but how and with what impact hinges not only on whether the Conference’s recommendations can or will be followed up, but on a more banal question: When do the problems need to be resolved? The two problems listed above even if clearly structural have an immediate and a long-term dimension. Some problems need immediate action such as an adequate COVID-19 response; other problems can be handled at a later point in time. The recovery fund is a vital short-term response; the question for the EU’s green transition and future sustainability hinges on a further development and expansion of EU own resources.

The question of sequence is not straightforward. Solutions to some problems can unlock blockages, with bandwagon effects on the EU’s overall problem-solving ability. For instance, changes in voting rules from unanimity to some form of majority voting rule in tax and fiscal policy can remove the blocking role of a minority of veto players and set in motion a process of capacity build-up that will give the EU a very different ability to handle different types of problems.

The question of timing has a further dimension: reforming the EU from a position of strength versus reforming the EU from a position of weakness. In other words, the Conference’s work will be affected by the EU’s ability to deal with the immediate issues that the corona pandemic has brought up. The agreement on the recovery fund may have important spill-over effects on the Conference.

Expanding the EU tool-kit

Finally, we need to consider the role of the Conference in relation to the broader question: What are the requisite instruments that the EU needs for resolving its main problems? The EU’s policy style is lopsided in line with its prominent repertoire of regulatory instruments and its weak fiscal capacity.

The development of an own EU capacity would reduce this discrepancy; increase the EU’s tool-kit; narrow the expectations – capability gap; and clarify lines of accountability. Insofar as the EU is able to use the Conference as such a tool it is itself a vehicle for expanding that tool-kit.

John Erik Fossum is professor at the ARENA Centre for European Studies at the University of Oslo, Norway, and research coordinator for EU3D. His main fields of research include political theory, democracy, constitutionalism in the EU and Canada, as well as Europeanisation and transformation of the nation state. He has contributed extensively to the field of developing and applying federal and democratic theory to the EU as a distinct political system.

Expectations towards the Conference on the Future of Europe – Overview
  1. Was erwarten wir von der Konferenz über die Zukunft Europas? – Serienauftakt
  2. Die Zukunftskonferenz: drei Schwerpunkte für ein handlungsfähiges Europa ● Claudia Gamon
  3. Die Zukunft der Zukunftskonferenz, oder Der Rest ist Schweigen ● Dominik Hierlemann
  4. Eine Konferenz der BürgerInnen und Parlamente: Von der Konferenz über die Zukunft Europas zur Zukunft für Europas Konferenzen ● Axel Schäfer
  5. No Need to Hurry: A Well Designed and Inclusive Conference on the Future of Europe Should Start on 9 May 2021 [DE / EN] ● Julian Plottka
  6. Jugend, Wissenschaft, EuropaskeptikerInnen: Nur mit einer breiten Beteiligung wird die Konferenz über die Zukunft Europas zum Erfolg ● Gustav Spät
  7. Addressing the right problems with the right instruments at the right time: Reflections on the Conference on the Future of Europe [DE / EN] ● John Erik Fossum
  8. The Conference on the Future of Europe is an opportunity – also for the European Committee of the Regions [DE / EN] ● Mark Speich
  9. A new push for Democracy: The Conference on the Future of Europe [DE / EN] ● Dubravka Šuica
  10. Kompromiss mit Potenzial: Die Konferenz zur Zukunft Europas ● Oliver Schwarz
  11. Das europapolitische Quartett: Kann die Konferenz zur Zukunft Europas noch ein Erfolg werden? ● Carmen Descamps, Julian Plottka, Sophie Pornschlegel, Manuel Müller

Images: EU balloon: European External Action Service [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr; portrait John Erik Fossum: University of Oslo [all rights reserved].

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