Conference on the Future of Europe: a real chance for reform, or just a guide for policy-making?


The EU is undeniably crying out for fundamental reforms. The Conference on the Future of Europe, launching on 9 May 2021, is meant to create the first-ever genuine public space between European citizens of all Member States and enable encounters beyond national frameworks. Unlikely to deliver major reform plans, though, this platform still has the potential to provide important impulses to crucial issues for Europe’s future.

This article is part of our dossier about the Conference on the Future of Europe. Check it out!

On 16 July 2019, Ursula von der Leyen, then still President-elect of the European Commission, outlined her political guidelines at the European Parliament with a project that attracted much attention: “I want citizens to have their say at a Conference on the Future of Europe, to start in 2020 and run for 2 years”. She stressed that she was prepared to pursue what was agreed at the conference and was thus also open to treaty change.

With this initiative, Ursula von der Leyen made a suggestion very similar to the one expressed by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, on 4 Match 2019 in the framework of an open letter published in 28 European daily newspapers.

The great need for fundamental reform

The EU is undeniably crying out for fundamental reforms. The financial crisis of 2008 laid bare the structural weaknesses of the architecture of the monetary union. However, more than one reform to deepen economic and monetary union has failed since then. The difference in the economic power of the EU Member States between North and South is growing ever larger and the Covid-19 crisis may well widen the gap even further. The millennium climate change emergency will call for massive investments, but the EU budget for the period 2021-2027 remains massively adrift of expectations. In the field of the social security systems, the disparities between EU Member States are still striking. The EU is frequently forced into compromises in foreign and security policy, because the principle of unanimity in the European Council makes decisive foreign policy action extremely difficult. A European Defence Union continues to be a distant prospect as 27 Member States continue to maintain 27 armies with a wide range of salaries, ranks, standards and weapon systems.

Reform initiatives so often run aground at the European Council

Even before the idea of a Conference on the Future of Europe, there was no shortage of initiatives for root-and-branch reforms of the EU. Two of these initiatives originated in the EU institutions themselves. In the face of Brexit, the European Parliament proposed remarkable decisions on fundamental EU reforms in February 2017. The reforms would have been feasible even without changing the European Treaties. The European Parliament called for a reform of the decision-making process in the European Council, proposing that the principle of unanimity, which is required for matters such as joint foreign and security policy or the multi-annual budget, be suspended in favour of qualified majority decision-making. The so-called passerelle clause in the EU treaties (Art. 48 paragraph 7, Treaty on European Union), which allows the European Council to decide unanimously that qualified majority voting be used in all political areas, makes this a possibility already. It may also allow a greater involvement of the European Parliament. Amongst other things, the European Parliament has proposed a system of genuine own resources and a European Defence Union. The latter was developed by the Juncker Commission, also in response to Brexit. In March 2017, the European Commission set out five scenarios for the future of Europe in a White Paper, followed by five reflection papers. The Juncker Commission call for a broad debate, attempting even at that stage to get the citizens involved via an online portal and arranging citizens’ dialogues in the Member States. The European Commission’s papers were flanked by communications talking of moving from unanimity to qualified-majority voting in tax, energy and climate, social and foreign and security policy. Taken as a whole, the proposals of the Juncker Commission would also have resulted in an ambitious reform programme, which would have been feasible without a revolutionary change of the European Treaties, but would have signified a real evolution to a stronger EU with greater power to act.

But both initiatives died in the European Council. The EU heads of state or government did not even see a need to take position on the initiatives. This clearly shows that efforts in favour of thoroughgoing EU reforms currently founder in the European Council. Berlin law professor Prof. Christian Calliess, who served, amongst other things, as adviser to the Juncker Commission, sums up the attitude in the European Council as follows: “they want to enjoy the economic benefits of the single market, the euro and the freedom of movement of their own nationals within the Schengen zone, but they do not want to shoulder the related burdens and responsibilities set out in the rules of the treaty for the ‘European common good’, as imparted through the procedural dimension of the European principle of solidarity”.

Ready for a giant leap?

After tough negotiations, during which the European Council in particular voted against more ambitious proposals of the European Parliament and the European Commission, and which was held at deadlock for a long time owing to a dispute over the chairmanship of the Conference, the three institutions published a joint declaration in March 2021, concerning the procedures, themes and principles of the Conference. In this declaration, the EU institutions undertook to “listen to Europeans and to follow up on the recommendations made by the Conference, in full respect of our competences and the subsidiarity and proportionality principles enshrined in the EU Treaties”. The key tools for this “listening to Europeans” are a digital platform, European citizens’ fora and their optional counterparts at national level. The digital platform provides automatic translation of all input, thereby attempting to get round language barriers. The European citizens’ fora aim to create a genuine mini-European public space and have been designed to be representative of geographical origin, gender, age, socio-economic background and/or level of education.

The contributions of these citizens’ platforms will be discussed ”grouped by themes” at a Conference plenary, to be made up of representatives of the European Parliament, European Council and European Commission, as well as representatives of all national parliaments and citizens, all on an equal footing. However, decisions may be made at this plenary against any of the three pillars – European Parliament, European Council and national parliaments. This effectively gives the institutions a veto.

The themes listed in the joint declaration have been explicitly borrowed from the political guidelines of the European Council and of the European Commission for the current legislative period (2019-2024): “building a healthy continent, the fight against climate change and environmental challenges, an economy that works for people, social fairness, equality and intergenerational solidarity, Europe’s digital transformation, European rights and values including the Rule of Law, migration challenges, security, the EU’s role in the world, the Union’s democratic foundations and how to strengthen democratic processes governing the European Union”. The citizens, furthermore, should themselves have the opportunity to discuss the issues that matter to them.

Conspicuous by their absence are many questions from previous reform initiatives: do we want a genuine European Defence Union with a European army? Should the European Council make decisions by qualified majority in the future, rather than unanimously? Do we want a proper fiscal and economic union? Do we want dedicated EU taxes to finance the EU budget? Judging by the reams of topics in the joint declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe, the questions raised by the EP and the Juncker Commission up to the end of the legislative period 2019 seem particularly pertinent. It should be noted that the impulses of the European Parliament and the European Commission for the last legislative period were by no means revolutionary and entirely within the bounds of the existing treaties. Even the institutional questions concerning a system of Spitzenkandidaten or cross-border electoral lists for the EP elections, originally raised in the von der Leyen Commission’s declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe, did not make it onto the thematic list of the joint declaration.

Don’t hold your breath for root-and-branch reforms or anything at all revolutionary

At this point, one might note that the citizens will raise these questions themselves and also answer them in the framework of the thematic discussions – as long as they consider them important enough. But that would require a sensitive and expert moderation, making the citizens clearly aware of these options within the fora and enabling an honest discussion of them. Unfortunately for the prospects of this honest discussion, the joint declaration announces discussions of the themes “reflecting the Strategic Agenda of the European Council [and] the 2019-2024 Political Guidelines of the European Commission”. Neither of these documents provides for any fundamental or even institutional reforms. It is also unclear whether calls for fundamental reforms would find majority support even in the conference plenary, as no decisions can be made against the EU Member States and their national parliaments. Additionally, the declaration makes it clear right from the start that any suggestions will be followed up only “in full respect of [the] competences” of the EU institutions. In the negotiations on the joint declaration, the European Council decided to interpret this as ruling out any change of the European treaties within the meaning of article 48 TEU.

The Conference is unlikely to be the foundation stone of in-depth institutional reforms and certainly not of treaty change. It is not to be confused with a Constitutional Convention. Furthermore, the time schedule is by no means on its side. According to the joint declaration of the EU institutions, the Conference should present its conclusions as early as spring 2022 – not enough time to overcome the existing logjams.

Real citizens’ involvement can provide important impulses for policy-making

In all of the progress it has made, the history of the constitutional reforms of the EU has always been one of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. For instance, the constitutional treaty drawn up under the leadership of Altiero Spinelli and approved by the European Parliament in 1984 was defeated by the Member States. But its ideas informed all following treaties, up to and including the Treaty of Lisbon. Similarly, the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe prepared and submitted in 2003 was also defeated. And yet its substance was cut and pasted into the Treaty of Lisbon and continues to shape the institutional structure of the EU to this day. The Conference on the Future of Europe may be unlikely to deliver major reform plans, but it still has the potential to provide important impulses.

At the launch of the digital platform on the Conference on the Future of the EU on 19 April 2021, the European Commission described the results of the Conference as helping to “guide the EU’s future direction and policy-making”. There was, quite frankly, no more mention of any bold ideas such as treaty change. But it is precisely in its calmer tones and honest pledges to listen that the potential of the Conference lies. It offers the opportunity to become a lesson in deliberative democracy. It could create the first-ever genuine public space between European citizens of all Member States and enable encounters beyond national frameworks. With a representative selection of citizens, as set out in the joint declaration of the EU institutions, everything is properly in place. The most important thing is that the contributions of the digital platform are prepared with the greatest expertise. The discussions in the citizens’ fora also require balanced, factual input. The citizens taking part in them should be given knowledgeable and sensitive moderation, clearly structuring the discussions but not dominating them.

Healthy expectation management will be vital

With its “policy of being listened to”, the Green-led German federal state of Baden-Württemberg has gathered a great deal of experience of citizens’ involvement over two legislative periods, selecting respondents randomly. Along with a European dialogue on the future of the European Union, this involved a broad process of participation with citizens’ dialogues, culminating in  the State Government of Baden-Württemberg’s Guiding Principles on Europe . Nevertheless, it was always clear that the “policy of being listened to” does not necessarily mean that all suggestions of the citizens will be automatically implemented. Citizens’ dialogues cannot supplant decisions made by elected governments and parliaments. This must also be the case for the Conference on the Future of Europe. And this must be made crystal clear, to avoid disappointment. It is therefore vital that the political players do not raise inflated expectations of the results of the Conference.

It is clear that at the moment, particularly in the European Council, there is no political majority for anything approaching a fundamental reform of the EU. But there is probably a readiness to go much further in a number of political areas than would have been possible just five years ago. With the Recovery and Resilience Facility, in the framework of which the EU can for the first time take on debt to a limited extent, constitutes a serious attempt to ensure that the Covid-19 crisis does not economically distance the South of the EU even further from the wealthier North. A tax on plastic packaging waste will in future be paid directly into the EU budget, in a first step towards proper EU own resources. And in the field of climate protection, environment and biodiversity, the European Commission is currently displaying a level of ambition that allows us to hope for a new approach.

The Conference on the Future of Europe can make the most useful contributions by giving politicians in EU Member States and in the EU institutions important impulses in individual political areas. It can provide information as to how far the EU citizens are prepared to support even the most ambitious of decisions, including those that will rein in accustomed patterns of consumption.