28 August 2020

The Conference on the Future of Europe is an opportunity – also for the European Committee of the Regions

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: Mark Speich. (To the start of the series.)

Committee of the Regions building
“We need European solutions with regional responsibility. Local and regional politicians, and in particular the European Committee of the Regions, should make use of the Conference on the Future of Europe.”

The Conference on the Future of Europe is an opportunity; an opportunity to reflect in a fundamental way on the future of Europe, on its policies and processes, its institutional structure and on what we expect from Europe, what we are ready to change or even give up. It is of utmost importance for the European Union to make use of the possibilities of such a participation process. There must be no participation simulation with little tangible results and no impact. A mere listening exercise is not appropriate considering the challenges that Europe is facing. The conclusions of the conference must rather have concrete consequences for the future policy and politics of the European Union.

This requires courage, creativity and a willingness to compromise. Not only the European institutions, but also politicians at all levels and the citizens of the Union are called upon to develop concrete ideas about the European Union of the future. In recent months, the debate has progressed. It includes more and more deliberations about possible Treaty changes. This is a positive development which shows that a serious and deep discussion is under way.

Courage to change – also the European treaties

Especially within the Conference on the Future of Europe, treaty changes should not be a taboo – although there are certainly major hurdles to their political implementation. However, it would be unfortunate to cut back the agenda of the conference already at this stage for fear of treaty amendments failing in referenda or national parliaments. The European Union must remain capable of reform.

This is particularly true with regard to a phenomenon that constitutional scholars call “over-constitutionalization”. What does this mean?

Although qualifying the European Treaties as constitutional Treaties is controversial because they cannot be amended by the European institutions, but only by all member states by a unanimous decision, the systemic structure of the European Union and its Treaties can be described as “quasi-constitutional”. With the amendments and the deepening of the European treaties in the course of the development of the European Union, the quasi-constitutional foundations have been significantly changed and extended several times. They have received a significant amount.

A constitution is the basic order of a political entity which regulates the structure and activity of a community and establishes the fundamental rights of its citizens. It is usually confined to a catalogue of basic rules. The European treaties go far beyond what would be constitutional provisions in Member States. On national level, a large part of those treaty provisions would be ordinary law and would not have constitutional status. The European treaties elevate simple rules to a quasi-constitutional status.

Reduce over-constitutionalization

Eminent constitutional scholars describe this with the term “over-constitutionalization”. Over-constitutionalization manifests itself in the fact that the EU treaties have a depth and breadth of regulation that go far beyond what should be codified in a constitution. Dieter Grimm suggests a politicization of the decision-making processes, which can be achieved by scaling back the treaties to their truly constitutional elements (Grimm, The Constitution of European Democracy, OUP 2017, OUP 2017, p. 18). This should give the constitutionalized treaties the outlook of a constitution. This is to re-direct the Court’s jurisprudence. This could reduce the democratic deficit and the legitimacy gap in the European Union, which is also based on over-constitutionalization.

Constitutions deprive certain issues of political decision (ibid., p. 9). In this respect, the European Union could be reinvigorated by making certain rules, which are currently included in the Treaties with quasi-constitutional status, part of the European legislative process and thereby part of a political debate. It would be wrong to assume that those arguments are made against European integration. The contrary is true because here it is about looking for new ways to strengthen the core principles of the Union.

Active subsidiarity: European solutions with regional responsibility

A core principle of the European Union, which should be strengthened at the Conference on the Future of Europe, is subsidiarity and the federal concept inherent in subsidiarity. In the current political structure of the European Union, the elected representatives of local and regional authorities are not given an adequate say in the legislative process. However, target-oriented decisions can only be taken and an understanding for political decisions at sub-national levels can only be expected if the knowledge and experience of the local and regional levels are effectively integrated into the European legislation process.

We therefore need European solutions with regional responsibility. In future, local and regional politicians must be involved in the European legislative process to a greater extent than they have been so far. They themselves, and in particular the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) as the assembly of elected representatives of the local and regional levels, should make use of the Conference on the Future of Europe. They should advocate a working method based on the principle of “active subsidiarity”, leading to a common understanding of subsidiarity and proportionality and to greater participation and involvement of the national, regional and local levels in EU policy-making and legislation.

A redefinition of the role of the European Committee of the Regions

In order to strengthen the voice of local and regional politicians, the CoR must also be developed into a more effective representation of the sub-national level.

One possible way to increase the political impact of the CoR is to focus its resources and activities on self-selected key areas. The guiding principle here is: doing less more efficiently. In an internal analysis, the CoR could break down the relationship between effort and outcome per thematic area or political activity in order to analyse their impact and define core competencies. It is not necessary for the CoR to take a position on all European policy matters. Rather, it should focus its activities on issues that are core competences of regions and local authorities.

It is in these fields that local and regional politicians can rightly call on their expertise and in return demand a corresponding weight for their involvement in the European legislative process. In certain areas, the consultation obligation enshrined in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union could be supplemented by more specific obligations on the other institutions to take the CoR positions into account or even by co-decision rights for the CoR.

Seizing the opportunity for change

We need to reflect very fundamentally on the future order of the European Union. This also means not to close off paths in the run-up to the conference, because greater obstacles are to be expected on these than on others. It would severely damage the credibility of the European Union to initiate such a participatory process but to restrict its possible outcomes.

Apart from the European Union, there is no other model of such an association of states and societies with such a structure of interlinked cooperation. The Conference on the Future of Europe is an opportunity to reform and to strengthen the European Union.

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: Committee of the Regions: CristinaBruxelles [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons; portrait Dr. Mark Speich: Land NRW / R. Sondermann [Copyright].

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