On Europe Day, EU kicks off ‘conference’ on its future

A Strasbourg ceremony inaugurates a yearlong conversation with citizens that could lead to treaty changes.,

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Top EU leaders on Sunday presided over an inaugural ceremony for the Conference on the Future of Europe, kicking off a much-ballyhooed, yearlong, gabfest on the trajectory of the European Union that may, or may not, lead to revisions of the Union’s organizing treaties.

The inaugural event, held symbolically on Europe Day, in the hemicycle of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, was titled “The Future is In Your Hands” — a reference to leaders’ hopes that the conference will gather the views and opinions of European citizens.

But on Sunday, the festivities were mostly in the hands of French President Emmanuel Macron, who used the ceremony to defend Strasbourg as the Parliament’s formal seat, and to deliver a long, meandering speech on sovereignty and Europe’s place among superpowers, including Russia, China and the United States.

In his remarks, Macron described Europe as an unfinished project, but superior to its largest rivals and allies, especially authoritarian regimes that stifle freedom. “They don’t have the same solidarity system,” he said, adding: “The criticism, the challenging, the fights, quarrels disagreements is what defines us, and it’s also what makes us more effective. It allows us to express criticism democratically.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged that the conference focus on real-life concerns and that participants remain open-minded, and welcoming of all views. “We must ensure it is not an intellectual policy exercise or a closed political compromise,” von der Leyen said. “We should be honest that the conference is not a panacea or a solution to every problem. And we must listen to all voices — whether critical or complimentary — and ensure that we properly follow up on whatever is agreed.”

Parliament President David Sassoli seized the chance to make an institutional power-play, and used his speech to urge that the Conference on the Future of Europe consider granting MEPs their long-sought right of legislative initiative, a power now wielded only by the Commission.

Sassoli also said the conference should not be afraid of pushing toward treaty changes, and that he hoped the conference would revisit the process by which the EU chooses its top officials, and endorse the “lead candidate” or Spitzenkandidat process, which EU heads of state and government cast aside in 2019 when they chose von der Leyen, then Germany’s defense minister, for the EU’s top job.

“We should also increase the transparency of our elections and allow citizens to indicate their preferences for the presidency of the Commission,” Sassoli said. “I hope that the conference will also address the question of the Spitzenkandidat, because I am convinced that this will contribute to the needs of citizens to be more involved in their European project and the better functioning of our institutions.”

Many EU leaders have voiced apprehension at the prospect of making changes to the EU treaties, viewing it as a potentially fraught undertaking that could leave the EU bogged down in internal administrative wrangling. But Sassoli said there should be no fear.

“If all these reflections and those of our citizens involve an update of the treaties, we are courageous, we must not be afraid of them,” he said, adding: “Today we cannot afford to have taboos. We must face this exercise freely and confidently through democratic debate.”

Last-minute save

In a sign of the EU’s many contradictions and paradoxes, the Conference on the Future of Europe last week nearly collapsed before it even started with senior officials involved in the project squabbling over how they would take any concluding decisions.

At virtually the last minute, Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chair on the conference’s executive board, proclaimed a tentative deal had been reached “after three rounds of very intensive negotiations.” The inaugural, in the end, would not be a funeral.

But, in the end, it also wouldn’t start on time.

After preliminary proceedings that included the VIPs signing the Parliament’s “golden book,” and white-gloved ushers directing participants to seats in a waiting room, there was an unexplained interregnum. The ceremony started at 2:20 p.m., 20 minutes late.

In any case, the ceremony offered a display of high-brow, cultural sophistication — classical music performances, and ample quotations of poetry — that have long served as hallmarks of the EU.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, said that amid the terrible health and economic consequences of the pandemic, the start of the conference should be viewed as a sign of the EU’s strength.

“This official launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe is a message of confidence in the future that we want to convey to all citizens,” Costa said.

In a speech built around the interpretation of a poem by Luis de Camoes, Costa urged a focus on social issues, including reducing youth unemployment, and protecting senior citizens, and he said that while Europe could reach for the Moon or Mars, it should prioritize the oceans.

“The EU must change to keep pace with the world,” he said. “The strategic autonomy that we must pursue must be the autonomy of a Europe open to the world.

“We must take the lead in the major causes of humanity in our century,” he added. “If Europe wants to be global, it cannot be confined to its continental dimension. The Portuguese presidency will propose that we work within the European Union on a global agenda for the oceans.”

Costa also took a moment to praise the EU’s existing treaty, named after his capital, Lisbon, and urged that the conference hear the voices of the people. “To build a future together with unity and natural diversity,” he said. “This Conference should therefore focus on the debate on the plural will of Europe’s citizens and not on negotiations between countries. This is a conference of citizens, by citizens and for citizens.”

Von der Leyen, who quoted the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery in her speech in Strasbourg on Sunday, also said the conference should be viewed as an opportunity to bring the EU’s institutions and politicians closer to the people they serve.

“We should also not underestimate the power of good that it could do — for people individually and for society as a whole,” von der Leyen said. “The point is that the EU must be whatever Europeans want it to be.”

Macron’s moment

A conference on the EU’s future was Macron’s idea originally, and he clearly hoped to use Sunday’s festivities to promote Strasbourg. But his participation also highlighted the city’s strange role.

Unlike Costa, who represented the Council of the EU, Macron currently does not hold a formal EU position. And his presence, as leader of the “host country,” was akin to Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo leading a ceremony at the Commission, or German Chancellor Angela Merkel claiming a role at a ceremony held at the European Central Bank.

Still, Macron inisted that Strasbourg was key to the EU’s past and would be key to its future as well.

“Here we are gathered in Strasbourg on the 9th of May, which tells us a great deal about who we are, how we are going to work to shape ourselves,” he said. “Strasbourg is the city of reconciliation after all, it is the living symbol of this Europe that said no to war, to build peace, to replace occupation with cooperation, to lift the worries of looking towards the borders, to breathe new confidence and friendship into European souls, that’s what Strasbourg is all about.”

Aitor Hernandez-Morales contributed reporting.

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