The European Union’s latest effort at engaging its citizens, touted as a riposte to Brexit and a grassroots experiment in direct democracy, has descended into bureaucratic farce.
There is precious little that Brussels’ federalists and eurosceptics agree on. But, in a rare sign of unity in the EU’s capital, they are joined in apathy about the Conference on the Future of Europe.
Emmanuel Macron, the French president, had called for EU-wide citizens debates on the bloc’s future in 2019. But the idea quickly became mired in inter-institutional squabbling, which has meant the overdue event ended up with no fewer than six presidents, rather than the single one originally planned.
“The idea only made sense if its job was straightforward and simple,” said Andrew Duff, a former Liberal Democrat MEP and former chair of the Spinelli group of federalists.
“What we have is a mess of pottage. There’s no agreement within the institutions let alone between them about what the Conference is for – or its organisation, leadership, or budget.”
“I believe this would be only one another eurofederalist exercise. No other outcome than “more Europe” expected,” said Jan Zahradil, a Czech MEP and the former president of the European Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament.
An EU diplomat said, “With so many presidents the Future of Europe looks more like the supreme Soviet than the liberal open society it’s meant to embody.”
Guy Verhofstadt , the European Parliament’s former Brexit coordinator, was expected to get the job leading the conference but, amid fears in Europe’s capitals that he is too federalist, the appointment was blocked.
In the end, a bizarre compromise was found between MEPs, EU member states and the European Commission. The conference will be led by the presidents of the commission, council and parliament.
It will also have an executive board made up of three representatives, led by another president, and four observers from each of the three EU institutions.
Despite Mr Verhofstadt branding the conference a “bureaucratic circus”, he will lead the parliament’s delegation, which has not been confirmed because it is not gender balanced. .
Enthusiasm for a pan-EU series of citizens’ assemblies has also been dimmed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s odd to have a carnival of navel gazing at the moment Europe is swamped by the British variant,” the diplomat said.
On Wednesday, a deliberately low key signing ceremony of the joint declaration for the conference was held by the presidents of the three EU institutions in Brussels.
Divisions remain over the level of ambition for the conference with the European Parliament insisting that EU treaty change should be on the table, despite there being no appetite among many member states for the torturous negotiations that would involve.
A European Commission spokesman said the conference would reach beyond the “Brussels bubble” and reach the “silent majority” of EU citizens.
“The Executive Board is only the governance part of the Conference. The Conference itself is primarily citizen-led,” he said.
Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at the HEC business school in Paris, said the conference could still imbue the bloc with more democratic legitimacy and showed “boldness”.
“Instead of obsessing with the Conference’s leadership and management, let’s recognise that this is the first attempt ever made to embrace a radical democratic innovation, such as citizen assemblies, into the EU decision-making,” he said.