The Conference on the Future of Europe
LUKE URIBE-ETXEBARRIA APALATEGI Senator de EAJ/PNV
The European Union has learned that it cannot take steps forward or strengthen itself to face the challenges without the explicit approval of the citizens and peoples of Europe.
On 9 May, Europe Day, in commemoration of the 1950 Schuman Declaration, the Conference on the Future of Europe will officially begin. It was originally intended to have started last year. However, the global pandemic crisis we are experiencing has led to its delay.
The idea for the Conference was put forward in 2019 by Ursula von der Leyen during her investiture in the European Parliament as President of the European Commission. It aims to discuss, debate and exchange ideas and proposals on what we want the European Union of the present and the future to look like to meet the challenges it faces, both internally and externally. The centre of gravity of the Conference must be the citizens, who are the main protagonists of this process, together with the institutions at all levels which must accompany them and facilitate their deliberations and proposals.
This is not the first time that Europe is preparing to reflect on its future. We could say that it has always been doing so, with more or less success. Jean Monnet already said that “Europe will not be made all at once, nor in a comprehensive work; it will be made through concrete achievements, creating first and foremost a de facto solidarity”. In other words, step by step, but with undisguised political ambition.
Monnet also stated, “People only accept change when they are faced with a need, and only recognise necessity when they are beset by crisis”. And it is clear that for more than ten years in Europe, we have been living through a succession of crises, or a polycrisis, as the former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, put it. From the financial crisis of 2008, we moved on to a sovereign debt crisis that shook the foundations of the European Union, the euro and the principle of solidarity. From this, we moved on to a migration crisis and, finally, to a crisis caused by the global pandemic of COVID-19, with geostrategic, economic, social and health consequences. And all this without forgetting Brexit and the fact that for years now, for many reasons, Europe has been losing relevance in a rivalry at all levels between the United States and China, which may be pushing our continent dangerously down the slope of decline.
But there are also lessons to be learned from crises. One must learn, I would say. And react. Every crisis, if faced properly, can be an opportunity to take a step forward, to transform and move forward. And the current crisis underlines precisely the urgent need for the European Union to become more effective, more democratic, more geopolitical, more economically and socially strong, more resilient and closer to its citizens.
In the history of the last 70 years of the EU’s relationship with its citizens, two distinct stages can be identified. In the first period, from its beginnings until the early 1990s, European integration was solely the work of senior politicians and civil servants, probably because of the politically and legally novel, original, technically complex and unique nature of the European enterprise. The aim was to create an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe by pooling diverse interests and needs, through the principle of “supranationality” and the creation of common institutions with a life of their own, creating common rights and obligations, which were superior to domestic law, and all based on principles and values such as peace, democracy, human rights, freedom, respect, mutual recognition among European peoples, and economic and social development.
Citizens’ legitimacy towards this Europe came from the positive results it achieved. It was the legitimacy of results. Hardly anyone questioned the positive aspects of Community action. Europe was a strong pole of attraction for many peoples and states because it represented freedom, democracy and social and economic progress. It was only in 1979, with the election of the European Parliament by universal, secret and direct suffrage, that citizens began to have a direct, albeit limited, say in the European institutions.
However, from the 1980s onwards, there was clear talk of the need to strengthen Europe’s “democratic legitimacy”, proof that there was a significant gap. It was even pointed out, half-jokingly and half-seriously, that if the European Community itself were to apply to join the European Community, its candidacy would be rejected because it did not meet the minimum democratic standards required acceding candidates.
The second phase and we have been going on for 30 years now, can be traced back to the Maastricht Treaty of 1993. A Treaty that represented a fundamental leap forward in the construction of the Community and which significantly developed Political Union, with the Common Foreign and Security Policy, as the heir to European Political Cooperation, and with cooperation in justice and home affairs; and Economic and Monetary Union with the euro.
However, despite all this progress, the alarm bell rang loudly with Denmark’s initial rejection of the Treaty in a popular referendum. And we all remember, too, the abortive European Constitution of 2005, which was cut short because citizens in certain states, for many and various reasons, did not see it as acceptable. Since 1993, the Member States have shown that they know how to draft treaties but can hardly get them accepted or ratified by the citizens of the different Member States.
The European Union has learned that it cannot move forward or strengthen itself to meet the challenges it faces without the explicit approval of Europe’s citizens and peoples. Complex and often unintelligible dialogues, negotiations and agreements between European political representatives are no longer enough. Citizens demand participation, clarity, honest explanations and the preservation of their right to decide. It is therefore not surprising that this Conference is being considered.
The Conference should be a new public forum for an open, plural, inclusive, transparent and structured debate with citizens on a series of priorities and fundamental challenges. The Basque language is also taken into account. And to attend to the wishes expressed by citizens, with special attention to young people.
Association with the Conference of Stateless Nations or Constitutional Regions with legislative powers, as is the case of the Basque Country, is also unavoidable. Firstly, because the action of the European Union affects us in our sphere of competence and, secondly, because we are democratic political institutions that are close to the citizens and “at street level”. Consequently, if Europe really wants to reach out to the citizens, it is essential to count on us. And that, likewise, realities such as ours find an adequate reflection for our direct and effective participation in the European institutional architecture itself, following our national and political nature and personality.
Because it is curious that, when the EU and the Member States need us to bring the European reality to the citizens, we are called upon, only to be marginalised or prevented from forming part of the Community institutional framework when making decisions. Trying to dilute our Basque national and pro-European reality and will with phenomena such as cities or consultative bodies such as the Committee of the Regions is neither fair nor appropriate.
We shall see whether the Conference responds to a Pygmalion effect or whether it runs the risk of “lighting up a mouse” that does not meet the announced expectations.