Strasbourg (dpa) – It is another attempt at comprehensive reform of the European Union. The annual conference on the future of Europe started with a ceremony in Strasbourg on Sunday.
The symbolism was strong. Start on Europe Day 9 May. Dozens of citizens engaged on huge screens in the European Parliament. A spicy Portuguese version of the European national anthem at the end. But it also became clear: expectations are vastly different, the outcome of the ambitious experiment is open.
How does the EU become more democratic? Closer to the citizen? More efficient? More powerful? Greener? More modern? At least since the UK referendum on Brexit in 2016, the debate about fundamental reform has flared up again and again. In 2017, newly elected President of France Emmanuel Macron formulated perhaps the most far-reaching vision of a completely renewed Europe in the Sorbonne in Paris, albeit with a bit of granite, from Chancellor Angela Merkel among others.
As a result, Macron was now also allowed to set the tone in Strasbourg. Actually only for ten minutes, but that probably wasn’t realistic from the start. Macron spoke twice as long, withdrew far from extensively praising the EU project in need of reform.
“We stayed together in the crisis,” Macron emphasized. The EU has shown solidarity, put the protection of human life at the center, helped financially and strengthened health systems. The vaccination campaign was also successfully organized together. “We should be proud of that, it was not a matter of course,” said the president. “European cooperation has saved lives.”
But now you have to think about what the EU should look like in ten years’ time. It is a model that protects European values. Research and investment need to be strengthened. Macron criticized the long lead time of the corona aid. The US could orient itself towards the solidarity model of Europe, but Europe must also adopt the American will to break new ground. Big dreams and ambitions are important. The youth is mainly challenged, but must also be supported.
The thread was picked up by Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, who spoke about her first meeting with her little granddaughter a few weeks ago. What will your world look like? «« Will there still be forests or wildlife, not just in books or movies? What is her career like, her profession, the technology she needs? “And Europe, united or divided? This is exactly why the future conference begins now,” said von der Leyen.
Despite the visionary speeches and the harmony in the beginning, there is a lot of explosion in the project, which should come with concrete proposals by the spring of 2022. Citizen participation is emphatically desirable. To this end, an online platform was activated a few weeks ago where all Europeans can contribute their ideas. There should also be citizen forums. But how do the many ideas become reality and who decides on the selection?
The central body is the so-called plenary assembly, to which 433 people belong, in addition to politicians from the EU countries, the national parliaments and the European Parliament, as well as randomly selected normal people. But the role of this meeting has been discussed at length behind the scenes in recent days, so violently that MEPs sometimes threatened to cancel the opening. Behind this lies the fundamental question: what should the conference bring? How much change is really wanted?
Since 2019, the European Parliament has been pushing for a greater role in the power struggle of the EU institutions. From the point of view of MEPs, only top candidates in European elections should be able to be elected to the top of the European Commission, Parliament President David Sassoli insisted again on Sunday. The group leader of the European People’s Party, Manfred Weber, wants only one EU president in the future – instead of the separate offices of commissioner and president of the Council.
However, such plans go way too far for many Member States. They shy away from drastic corrections that would require changes to the EU treaties. In some countries there would have to be referendums, which sometimes failed in the past. Moreover, the EU states fear a shift of power to Brussels – away from the member states and towards the European Commission and Parliament. So behind the scenes you hear that as little as possible should come out of the conference.
“I am aware that there is always skepticism and cynicism when Europe debates its future or launches such a project,” said von der Leyen. You have to be honest: the conference is not a panacea. But the head of the committee saw the glass as half full. “We should not underestimate the power of the good it can bring.”