10 Juni 2022

The Conference on the Future of Europe: A call for treaty change

What remains of the Conference on the Future of Europe? Has it set a new model of citizen participation in Europe? Should it lead to a European Convention and treaty reform? And what lessons can be learned from its shortcomings?

In this article series, experts from academia, think tanks and civil society look back at the results and forward to the follow-up of the Conference. Today: Federico Fabbrini.
Young people with an EU flag take part in an event in the European Parliament
“The outcome of a year of participatory deliberations left no doubt that European citizens called for a profound overhaul of the EU, which inevitably requires treaty change.”

On 9 May 2022 the Conference on the Future of Europe has concluded its work, presenting a thick final report that calls for a profound revision of the European Union, ultimately requiring treaty changes. This innovative yearlong process was originally envisaged by French President Emmanuel Macron in March 2019 as a way to relaunch the project of European integration in the aftermath of Brexit.

The Conference on the Future of Europe was organized as a citizen-focused, bottom-up exercise designed to gain input from citizens on the key questions facing the EU. While the Conference built on the examples of citizen assemblies convened at national and local level in some member states, it attempted to achieve something unprecedented, namely to create a forum for participatory democracy on a transnational scale. From this point of view, the Conference constituted a novel experiment for the EU, going beyond prior models of technocratic or deliberative constitutional change.

Nine broad policy areas

As I have explained elsewhere, the mission and governance structure of the Conference on the Future of Europe were outlined in a Joint Declaration, adopted in March 2021 by the three Presidents of the European Parliament, Council and Commission, which agreed to act as co-guarantors of this initiative. With regard to its remit, the Joint Declaration struck a compromise and maintained a constructive ambiguity as it stated that the Conference could focus on “what mattered to the citizens,” and reported a wide-ranging, non-exhaustive list of topics to be considered.

In practice, however, also on the basis of the input received through a multilingual digital platform, the Conference came to address a broad set of topics, which were then clustered in nine groups: (1) climate change and the environment; (2) health; (3) a stronger economy, social justice and jobs; (4) EU in the world; (5) values and rights, rule of law, security; (6) digital transformation; (7) European democracy; (8) migration; and (9) education, culture, youth and sport.

Four European citizens’ panels

In terms of organization, instead, the Conference unfolded through a multilayered structure, designed to channel and filter from the bottom up the output of the democratic deliberations. The core of the Conference was represented by four European citizens’ panels of 200 participants each, selected randomly to reflect the socio-demographic reality of the EU.

The European citizens’ panels were thematically divided along four cross-cutting clusters – focusing on (I) a stronger economy, social justice, jobs; education, youth, culture and sport; digital transformation; (II) European democracy; values and rights, rule of law, security; (III) climate change, environment; health; (IV) EU in the world; migration. In this framework, European citizens convened for three panel sessions, both in person and online, over a span of six months between September 2021 and March 2022, and – also with the support of experts invited to speak as witnesses – deliberated on the topics at hand and advanced a number of orientations for future debate.

National citizens’ panels

In addition to European citizens’ panels, moreover, member states were encouraged to also establish national citizens’ panels, again designed to facilitate deliberation and exchange. Admittedly, the national commitment proved uneven, as only six member states – including five of the six founding members of the EU, and the three largest EU countries (Germany, France and Italy) – effectively hosted national citizens’ assemblies, while the others limited themselves to organizing more traditional engagement and dissemination events.

In fact, by far the most articulate national citizens’ panel on the Future of Europe took place in France, the member state which had championed the whole initiative with President Macron. In fall 2021, the authorities organized 18 panels of randomly selected citizens, involving over 700 participants, which provided input (in the form of 101 aspirations and 1301 specific proposals) for a final Conférence Nationale de Synthèse, hosted in Paris in October 2022, which drafted a final list of 14 priority recommendations.

The Conference Plenary

The input from the European and the national citizens’ panels were then reported to the Plenary of the Conference on the Future of Europe. This large, 449-members body – which included representatives from the European Parliament, national parliaments, the Council, the Commission, as well as representatives from the European and national citizens’ panels, and delegates from the Committee of the Regions, the European Social and Economic Committee and civil society organizations and social partners – met for 7 times over a 12-months’ time-span.

To facilitate its deliberation, the Plenary structured its work in nine working groups – corresponding to the nine topics addressed by the Conference. Representatives from the European citizens’ panels were selected as chairs and spokespersons of the working groups, and with the support of the Common Secretariat (a technical body with staff from the Commission, EP and Council) they prepared elaborated proposals.

49 proposals for the future of Europe

Ultimately, at its final meeting in April 2022, the Plenary of the Conference on the Future of Europe endorsed 49 proposals with a list of 326 detailed recommendations. These proposals explicitly address the main structural weaknesses of the EU, which emerged during the past decade and which were exposed recently also in the framework of the war in Ukraine.

In particular, the recommendations call for a strengthening of the EU powers, with the expansion of EU competences in the fields of health, energy, digital and foreign affairs. Moreover, the recommendations request an overhaul of the EU decision-making system, with the overcoming of unanimity rule, particularly in the field of foreign affairs and defence. Finally, the recommendations also underline the importance of endowing the EU with the financial means to back up its actions, including by reproducing the “Next Generation EU” funding model beyond the Covid-19 pandemic. All in all, the substantive input from the Plenary plead for a more sovereign federal EU.

The final report

The Plenary’s recommendations were submitted to the Executive Board. This body, composed of three Commissioners, three MEPs from the main political groups and three representatives from the Council Presidency troika, was tasked by the Joint Declaration to steer the work of the Conference, and to “draw and publish the conclusions of the Conference Plenary.” The Executive Board accepted the input from the Plenary and in a final report published on 9 May 2022, it reaffirmed its commitment to follow-up on it.

As it stated on page 93:

“The Conference has provided a clear direction in these areas and the three EU Institutions now need to examine how to follow up on the concerns, ambitions, and ideas expressed. The next step in this process is to come up with concrete EU action building on the outcome of the Conference, contained in this final report. EU institutions will now therefore examine this report and its follow-up, each within the framework of their competences and in accordance with the Treaties.”

Calls for a revision of the Treaties

In fact, a question that quickly came to the fore concerned whether the outcome of Conference on the Future of Europe compelled EU treaty changes. In a speech delivered on the Conference’s concluding event, on 9 May 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron explicitly endorsed forming “a Convention to revise our treaties”.

This echoed the statement made a week earlier by Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who in a speech before the EP had openly argued that “we need not only a pragmatic federalism, but also a federalism of the mind. If this requires the beginning of a path that will lead to the revision of the Treaties, it should be embraced with courage and confidence.”

In fact, calls to start a new treaty revision process were also forcefully made by the EP in its resolution on the Conference’s follow-up, as well as by Commission President von der Leyen, who spoke of “using the full limits of what we can do within the Treaties, or, yes, by changing the Treaties if need be.”

Joint non paper by 13 governments

Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for this prospect was quickly chilled by a joint non paper signed also on 9 May 2022 by 13 member states: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, and Sweden. The national governments of these countries, all from Eastern and Northern Europe, indicated that they did “not support unconsidered and premature attempts to launch a process towards Treaty change.”

Admittedly, this split simply echoed the diverging member states’ preferences as they had emerged before the start of the Conference on the Future of Europe – with some countries seeing this initiative as the launching pad for a broader reform of the EU, and others instead interpreting it as a purely cosmetic exercise. In fact, as mentioned, the Joint Declaration launching the Conference had been highly ambiguous on its ultimate constitutional mission.

The challenge now is to follow-up on the recommendations

Yet, the outcome of a year of participatory deliberations left no doubt that European citizens called for a profound overhaul of the EU, which inevitably requires treaty change. So it will have to be seen how national governments will be able to sabotage this popular push. In fact, while the return of war in the European continent has prompted the EU to react, advancing cooperation in some fields, the war in Ukraine has also exposed ongoing structural weaknesses in the EU constitutional arrangements, limiting the capacity of the EU to act effectively.

The final proposals of the Conference identify these weaknesses and point towards the need to improve the EU decision-making system, removing veto powers by member states, and to strengthen the EU competences and financial means, including by reproducing the successful NGEU model in other area. The challenge for EU institutions and member states is now to fully follow-up on the Conference on the Future of Europe’s recommendations.

Portrait Federico Fabbrini

Federico Fabbrini is Full Professor of EU Law at Dublin City University and Founding Director of the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence REBUILD.

Pictures: Young people with EU flag in the European Parliament: © European Union 2018 - European Parliament [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0], via Flickr; portrait Federico Fabbrini: all rights reserved.

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