At the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe last May, the three European institutions had promised to follow-up on the 49 proposals, including 325 concrete measures put forward by citizens to shape their desired Europe. A total of 530 citizens gathered in the Brussels hemicycle of the European parliament on December 2nd, 2022, to hear from representatives of the European institutions on how the Conference has helped them with their work. Here are 5 key take-aways from our side.
The European Commission is launching a new series of Citizens’ Panels at the European level
The Citizens’ Panels were a central piece of the Conference on the Future of Europe: they will now become a regular feature of the EU democratic life. The European Commission, represented during the event by the former Conference Co-Chair and Vice-President of the European Commission for Democracy and Demography Dubravka Suica, is launching a new series of European Citizens’ Panels, starting this December, which will address the issues of food waste, virtual worlds and learning mobility. “The Citizens’ Panels will now be a part of EU democracy, as a sign of innovation at EU level. This is the first time that such an approach has been embedded at such a level.” Early December, the recruitment for all three upcoming citizens’ panels was already ongoing. Like during the Conference on the Future of Europe, participants will be randomly selected using sortition. “Citizens will make proposals before legislative initiative” stated Vice-President Suica. According to the European Policy Center, “it has the potential to mitigate shortcomings in the existing institutional consultation process” and “the new generation of European Citizens’ Panels could improve the quality of legislative proposals from the EU Commission.” They will add citizens’ perspectives to stakeholders and policy experts’ views.
The principle of unanimity was strongly challenged not only by the panelists but also by the three institutions themselves
The principle of unanimity, per which all EU Member States have to agree in order to take a decision in the Council on some political issues (i.e. external affairs, general affairs) challenges the implementation of some of Conference proposals. But this principle was challenged strongly by many actors. First, in the words of Vice-President Suica: “Unanimity needs to be achieved to trigger change”. Guy Verhofstadt, European MEP, argued “proposals on migration and foreign policy for example, can simply not be implemented because of the unanimity problem in the EU”. (…) “Most proposals need reforms of the EU decision-making process, with more majority and less unanimity and more competences like education and health.” As an example, Verhofstadt spoke of the urgent financial aid to Ukraine, “blocked” at the beginning of December due to a lack of unanimity from all Members States, hence preventing it from taking effect. “Let’s get rid of unanimity so that the will of the people can be implemented”. According to Mikulas Bek, Minister for European Affairs of Czech-republic, the Czech presidency at the Council of the European Union has initiated for the first time a discussion on the possibility for the Council to change its unanimity rule for decision making on all topics. “This is a very complicated and intense discussion which will probably take time to be solved, but we are actively working on it, with 27 voices.”
Panelists and the Council addressed the importance of treaty change
One panelist openly asked the institutions “When can we expect a convention to discuss Treaty Changes?”. To this, Mikalus Bek replied “a limited number of proposals need a change in the treaties. The Council has taken note of these elements. The European parliament has already proposed two resolutions calling for treaty changes to the Council, which the Council is currently analyzing. At the moment, priority needs to be given to the majority of proposals which can be implemented without treaty changes. Once the European Parliament has completed its work, the Council will be able to take action.” He announced an upcoming joint declaration between the three institutions on legislative priorities for the next year, to be based on the Conference proposals, and the launch of a discussion, within the 27 Member States, to move away from unanimity on a range of key topics. He warned that those discussions will not be easy and will take time, as the Council is also analyzing the resolution by the European Parliament for treaty changes. He stressed however, that priority should be given to most proposals that can be implemented without treaty changes. “There are Member States that are strongly in favor of treaty change and there is a majority that isn’t”. He went on by saying that “there is unanimity within the Council on the timing: this winter is not a good time to start a debate on treaty change. When Spring comes, there is a good chance to continue this discussion especially with the Spanish presidency.”
The European Parliament put forth the idea of permanent participation in the EU
The European Parliament, represented by the former Conference Co-Chair and current Member of Parliament (MEP) Guy Verhofstadt, welcomed the Commission’s next Citizens’ Panels but stated they “should go further: we need a permanent citizen participation in the EU, we should repeat this exercise every 5 years around European elections.” MEP Alin Mituta went further and stated “We need to reform the European Union. Not only a citizens’ consultation that would happen every five, or ten years, but every year. (…) We in the European Parliament are your allies to create such a mechanism on a permanent basis.
Guy Verhofstadt also put forth the idea of having another follow-up event next year and making it coincide with the 75th Hague Convention as “it will be a good time to look at the reform of the treaties”.
Several proposals are crystallized in the European Commission’s budget framework
Margaratis Schinas, Vice-President of the European Commission for Promoting our European Way of Life, coordinating the Commission’s work on a New Pact on Migration and Asylum, acknowledged the Commission’s efforts to align its actions with the Conference proposals: “It is the first time ever that we have the normal 7-year EU budget with 3 trillion euros, and we now have the EU recovery fund with 750 billion euros. We have the parameter for a solid economic framework. 80% of the conference’s proposals are crystallized in the budget framework. The 2023 Commission Work Program is driven by the vision that was laid out in the conclusions of the Conference on the Future of Europe.” The initiatives cover subjects ranging from mental health to animal welfare, and from critical raw materials to financial services. To the comment “European Union is dependent on the West”, Maroš Šefčovič Vice-President of the European Commission for Interinstitutional Relations and Foresight, responsible for inter-institutional relations and better policymaking, replied: “we now know what has been the price of dependance with the war in Ukraine. That is why we will work strongly on EU’s independence in the energy sector, especially renewable, with the objective of 35 % of renewable energy, produced in the EU, by 2025. This is a lot, this is substantial, and this will allow us to develop new energy sources (hydrogen for example)”.
“We have made progress on a number of issues like climate change or social causes. But we have not made progress on security and defense, immigration policy and education because it’s not the competence of the EU” stated Verhofstadt. He incited panelists to put pressure on their national governments. Margaritis Shinas, urged citizens to “take this debate out of Brussels. (…) You are now the catalysts, the ambassadors, the ones that will take the debate on Europe where you live, in society, in your professional and personal surroundings”.