The task was never going to be easy: Collect citizen input and then reform the EU.
But even months after the effort concluded in May, the so-called Conference on the Future of Europe is still bogged down in discussion, disagreement and hand-wringing as the EU prepares to give its first official update on the project on Friday
In the run-up to the event, the Council of the EU — the body representing member states — pushed for the gathering to be delayed, according to multiple officials from each institution.
EU institutions also sparred over where to host the ceremony, which will bring together 500 citizens as well as the heads of the European Parliament, European Commission and the Council.
Initially, the Commission, the EU’s executive arm, wanted to host the follow-up event. But the European Parliament ultimately took over, with Parliament members insisting the EU’s democratically elected body should be at the fore.
It’s a likely sign of what to expect as the EU grapples with how to address the yawning gap between citizens and the institutions supposed to represent them. Brussels is keen to show responsiveness but is also hamstrung by infighting and its own member states’ disinterest in major reforms.
“I would have hoped that after this long time, that the feedback event would have been planned a bit better, involving the members of Parliament a bit more, but it was the same process, just like the conference itself — short planning time, limited information to participants,” said German center-left MEP Gabriele Bischoff, who is vice-chair of the Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee.
“On the one hand, I was not surprised because the whole process was like this, but I still hoped it would have improved,” she added.
Friday’s feedback event is the first chance for the public to assess how the EU’s three main institutions — the Commission, Council and Parliament — have responded to the recommendations that citizens made throughout the year-long project.
Their proposals — which included 300 specific measures and 49 proposals — touch on everything from better internet regulation for children to stronger environmental protections to more EU security and defense policy.
The Commission has pushed back against suggestions that Friday’s event will be just another talking shop.
EU Commissioner Dubravka Šuica, who leads the Commission’s work on the conference, told POLITICO in an interview that 75 percent of the 49 proposals are covered in the Commission’s work program for 2023.
“A lot is already in the pipeline and a lot will be done on behalf of the Commission,” Šuica said, pointing to initiatives on mental health, food waste and the digital agenda. “We are always on the side of those who want to change Europe, of those who want to make Europe be more efficient, faster.”
But in reality, many of the initiatives that emerged from the Conference on the Future of Europe were already part of the Commission’s agenda.
The elephant in the room, as always, will be the thorny issue of treaty change.
Most of the more substantive measures citizens proposed, like expanding EU membership or making the bloc a greater military power, would require the EU to rewrite its underlying treaties — an unlikely prospect. Nearly 14 years after the last contentious treaty rewrite, which strengthened the EU’s power, there is little appetite in national capitals to restart such massive debates about the Union’s future.
Such reluctance to seriously countenance treaty change has left many participants in the Conference on the Future of Europe fuming at what they see as Brussels’ half-hearted embrace of the bloc’s own initiative.
“Ever since the conference concluded and the recommendations were adopted, the Council has been generally dragging its feet,” said Petros Fassoulas, who participated in the conference as secretary general of European Movement International, a group promoting European integration.
“It published a report saying it took note of the findings,” he added, “but ultimately it has carried on as normal.”
The Council has pushed back, insisting it remains engaged — even if member states have shown disinterest in more reform-minded suggestions, like a proposal for pan-EU lists for European Parliament elections.
“The Council is fully committed to ensure the best possible follow-up to the conference proposals,” a Council official said, noting EU affairs ministers from each country regularly discuss follow-up to the conference when they gather.
Šuica, the EU commissioner, argued the Commission is also not opposed to treaty change — just that it’s an issue for countries to decide.
“The Commission is very clear on this,” she said, highlighting the Commission’s prior support for abolishing unanimity rules on issues like sanctions and defense, which have allowed countries like Hungary to hold up major decisions.
Yet Friday’s event alone is unlikely to make much headway toward treaty change. The next step would be convening a formal convention, and that appears far off for the moment.
But, as is always the case with the EU, a conversation — and then another, and another — is the first place to start.