Why Macron is banking on the Conference on the Future of Europe
The EU’s bid for greater citizen participation in the political future of the bloc is set to take centre stage on Sunday with the launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe, but certain member states remain sceptical of a project largely conceived from the mind of French President Macron, and his broader political ambitions.
The idea behind the Conference on the Future of Europe is to garner insights from citizens across the EU on the bloc’s long-term objectives and direction. This includes perspectives being submitted on a multilingual digital platform, a series of events, European citizens’ panels, and most importantly, a Conference plenary where findings will be discussed.
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Conclusions, which are due to come in Spring 2022 – coinciding with the French Presidency – will be drawn up by the project’s Executive Board – co-chaired by Renew MEP and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, Ana Paula Zacarias, Secretary of State for EU Affairs for the Portuguese Council Presidency, and Dubravka Šuica, Commission Vice-President for Democracy and Demography.
But even before the grand opening of the initiative this weekend, divisions have beset both the initial objectives as well as the notion that the Conference could lead to some sort of an impactful EU institutional reform.
At the crux of the matter is essentially a political schism between European federalists who want to infuse more of a democratic legitimacy in how the bloc is run, and some EU member states who believe that their own authority could be diluted by fostering greater involvement from those on the furthest-reaches of the policy-making process: i.e., the citizens themselves.
However, it was a November 2019 paper signed by the French and the Germans that had originally pitched the idea of bridging political and social divides that had been stymieing a more ‘united and sovereign Europe’ as well as a Europe that had a greater influence in international affairs – particularly across security and defence issues, climate change and digitalization.
The paper was driven by the French and had come not long after President Macron’s now ill-famed statement that the NATO alliance was ‘brain-dead’ and Western allies could no longer rely on the US for sufficient support. While Trump has departed the international geopolitical stage since then, Macron is no doubt fearful that a Biden administration – although closer in proximity to European values – still posits the EU at the behest of the Washington decision-making process.
In this vein, the Conference is indeed being presented as the most tangible emblem of the EU’s bid for a sense of strategic autonomy so far.
And for Macron, this is personal. The French President has been an advocate for the idea of greater participation from citizens in the policymaking process, particularly since finding himself at the mercy of isolated pockets of communities across the French countryside in 2018, eventually mutating into the mouvement des gilets jaunes. With this in mind, together with the fact that France is facing Presidential elections next year, Macron has a renewed interested in galvanising public support.
But it’s not just in France where Macron wants to be seen as leading the charge for more citizen participation in policy. Germany’s federal elections in September will signal the end of Chancellor Merkel’s 16-year tenure, leaving in their wake a vacuum for European leadership that will need to be filled by someone. The bloc will require a new ‘Lady of Europe.’ Perhaps Macron could indeed be that Lady.
In this vein, there is a lot that rests on Macon’s support for the Conference on the Future of Europe, and more so when considering that while European federalists and liberals are some of the most ardent supporters of the project, some national governments remain unconvinced as to the ambitions of the undertaking.
The original spirit of the Franco-German effort could have paved the way for potential treaty change to be pitched as part of the conclusions on the Conference on the Future of Europe. We could have seen recommendations being proposed as to how the President of the Commission is elected or even the possibility for cross-border candidate lists for European elections being suggested.
However, discussions in the Council between EU nations repudiated the level of influence of the Conference conclusions, with a contingent of member states including the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden opposing such measures, arguing that treaty change falls outside the scope of the project.
In this vein, Macron’s bid to invoke genuine citizen-led EU institutional reform by way of the Conference fell flat on its face, and along with it, risked resigning the project to yet another compendium of Brussels initiatives pandering to the Europhile crowd – and in so doing, merely preaching to the converted.
This Sunday afternoon, President Macron himself has been drafted in for the grand opening of the Conference. The success of the project could make or break his ambitious endeavour to fill the leadership void left by Merkel when she departs the European political stage in September.
In this regard, Macron’s triumph largely depends on you – the public – and your willingness to be part of a new Europe fashioned in a more democratic and inclusive mould. The Conference on the Future of Europe could very well be the EU’s – and Macron’s – starting point.
BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.