Europe is ready for the future. Or at least ready to hold a conference about it. Almost.
Ambassadors representing the EU’s member countries are poised to agree on a common position on the Conference on the Future of Europe, meant to revamp the bloc and bring it closer to its citizens.
However, the text also seeks to temper more ambitious ideas, such as that the conference should lead to changes to the bloc’s fundamental treaties. And it leaves one key question wide open: who should be in charge.
The text, discussed by the ambassadors on Monday and obtained by POLITICO, foresees the conference as an “inclusive platform bringing together different voices engaging in a wide reflection and debate on the challenges Europe is facing.”
The ambassadors, meeting in the Coreper II committee that forms part of the Council of the EU, are set to officially approve the document this week, officials said. They said only a few countries still had to sign off.
The text says the conference should begin “as soon as the conditions allow in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic” and its conclusions “should be reflected in a report to the European Council in 2022.”
But what is meant to happen in between is still the subject of much debate, and will have to be ironed out between member countries, the European Parliament and the European Commission.
French President Emmanuel Macron came up with the idea for the conference in 2019, arguing it should “propose all the necessary changes to our political project, without any taboos, not even treaty revision.”
It has since been taken up by various governments and institutions with varying degrees of enthusiasm.
The European Parliament has been a keen supporter of the project. The legislature set out its view as early as January and adopted another resolution last week, declaring the “time is ripe for a reappraisal of the Union” and calling for the conference to start “as soon as possible in autumn 2020.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has made the conference one of her priorities and said it could lead to “legislative action and proposals for treaty change if appropriate.”
But one EU diplomat summed up the apathetic view of a number of governments: “We have neither a negative nor positive answer on this conference,” the diplomat said. “It is essentially something that France wants.”
Paris and Berlin, meanwhile, have not always been on the same page. One MEP spoke of “Germany and France pointing fingers at each other instead of working on a common solution.”
However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to have warmed to the conference, as long as it sticks to a few key themes. She suggested last week it could focus on developing the border-free Schengen zone, modernizing competition law, digitalization and globalization, Europe-wide preparations for pandemics and the creation of a European Security Council.
The question of who should preside over the conference remains to be settled. Some diplomats have expressed disquiet about the Parliament’s push to give the job to Guy Verhofstadt, the liberal MEP and former Belgian prime minister, given his federalist views. The document set to be approved by ambassadors states that the conference should be led by an “eminent European personality as its independent and single chair.”
The text also makes clear the conference itself should not be able to trigger treaty change. It says the conference does not “fall within the scope” of Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union which governs amendments to the key EU treaties.
But Gabriele Bischoff, a German social democrat MEP closely involved in work on the conference, said even if the Council only wants the conference to produce a report, that document could still form the basis for negotiations between the EU institutions on major changes. She said the conference should be “a meaningful dialogue with concrete policy recommendations without excluding proposals for treaty changes.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting
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