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RevDem Podcast with Alberto Alemanno on the Future of Europe

The RevDem, an online journal of the CEU Democracy Institute, presents a podcast interview with Professor Alberto Alemanno (HEC, Paris) and the founder of Good Lobby about the upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe, interviewed by RevDem editor Michal Matlak. 

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Conference on the Future of Europe: The process is more important than the outcome

Interview with Alberto Alemanno*

The Conference on the Future of Europe, due to start in 2021, is supposed to be a bottom-up exercise, but until now the Conference has been concocted among the three institutions despite being, at least on paper, the largest consultative process ever imagined. There’s been no consultation on how to design this exercise, Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor in European Union Law & Policy at HEC Paris, one of the leading voices on the democratization of the European Union said in an interview with Michał Matlak.

Michał Matlak: Ursula von der Leyen announced the Conference on the Future of Europe already in her first speech as Commission President in July 2019. Could you tell us why the conference hasn’t started yet, what is the state of play, and when can we expect the launch of the conference? 

Alberto Alemanno: The Conference on the Future of Europe was supposed to kick off on May 9th last year, but as of early January 2021 it hasn’t been launched yet. The institutional narrative is that this significant delay was largely due to Covid-19 but we all know that there have been major political reasons explaining such delay; the battle among the three main institutions about what this Conference should be about, what should be the format, the aims, but also the limited political appetite. This remains a French idea which has not necessarily found its way within the European Council itself at the moment. 

As of today, there is very little clarity on the actual goal, the scope and the format that the Conference on the Future of Europe will actually follow. Two proposals were put on the table; first by the European Parliament, potentially the most ambitious one, that entails participation of transnational citizens’ assemblies that would feed into a plenary made mainly of the representatives of the European Parliament. There has also been another proposal by the Commission which seems to be slightly less creative and more top-down by entailing the participation of major political leaders and having dialogues in a very same way that we had in the last few years proceeding European elections in 2019 all across Europe. 

What we need today is a joint declaration among three institutions including the Council setting basically the aims and the rules of the game 

and this might actually occur anytime soon but we all know that there is a major stumbling block. 

Michał Matlak: What are the institutions quarreling about?

Alberto Alemanno: Most of the institutional wrangling had to do with the choice of the chair of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Many voices including mine suggested that perhaps we don’t even need a chair, perhaps a few co-chairs and those don’t necessarily have to come from the political space, they could actually be coming from civil society, they might be coming from different communities. This would already render this Conference on the Future of Europe slightly less institutional and top-down as it might look like for the time being. 

Michał Matlak: What names are on the table to be Chair of this conference?

Alberto Alemanno: Well, several political leaders’ names have been mentioned over the last few months, by now even more than a year, the former Prime Minister of Belgium Guy Verhofstadt, a strenuous federalist, has been the first name made for the very simple reason that Guy Verhofstadt didn’t manage to get any top position in the EU as the result of the European election, so in a way he kind of claimed that this should have been his post. However, there’s no political support for a federalist like him, in particular from some of the Visegrad 4 countries, but in general there is no majority for him. So, at the moment, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark seems to be the name in town but yet there is no agreement, the name of the former prime minister of Italy Enrico Letta has also been mentioned. However, I would say that at the time 

there is not really one name that has gathered enough consensus 

and this is certainly one of the major stumbling blocks on the publication of the joint declaration and the launch of the conference itself. 

Michał Matlak: You mentioned the two concepts of the conference, one coming from the Parliament, the other coming from the Commission. The one coming from the Commission reminds me of the old Convention led by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, around 20 years ago. That Convention proposed after a couple of years of work  the Constitutional Treaty. I wanted to ask you about the lessons from this previous convention, what the EU should learn from it, because, at the end of the day, the last one failed. What are the lessons we should learn and try to change when it comes to this idea?

Alberto Alemanno: Yes, the forthcoming Conference on the Future of Europe seems reminiscent of the ill-fated 2003 Convention on the Future of Europe which drafted the European never-ratified constitution. However, it is very important to remember that 2021 conference will be a very different exercise than the one occurring in 2003. The reason for that is, first of all, legal – the Conference on the Future of Europe of 2021 won’t be an intergovernmental conference tasked to revise the Treaties under the article 48, but it will simply be a preparatory process that could lead the European Council, meaning the leaders of the 27 governments, to initiate a treaty change. So, we place ourselves in a much earlier stage than a treaty change process as foreseen in the treaty. We are just preparing for the process to occur, perhaps, with a big question mark. 

There are many other differences. Unlike the 2003 convention, this time the conference is supposed to be a bottom-up exercise, where European citizens are somehow playing a role, we don’t know which one yet, but they are supposed to be there. So, it won’t necessarily be a mere institutional setting where a few elected individuals will be discussing a European future, but it would be mainly driven by the input from citizens. The third difference, I would say, is very much temporal. Twenty years passed, the role of participation in our democracy and political cultures of participation have changed considerably,  including within the EU, and as a result of that we see now each institution, not only the Commission or the Parliament, to be committed to the conference and to make sure that this would be as inclusive as possible

Having said so and despite all these distinguishing features, I think 

the EU and the European leaders have a lot to learn from the 2003-2005 experience which has been a terrible disaster. 

Probably one of the major original seeds of the European integration, meaning that a lot of the dynamics that were triggered in that particular convention, have been in shaping the future steps of Europe. At the end of the day, we need to remember that 95% of the Lisbon Treaty are basically a copy-paste of that Convention. We simply set aside some of the symbolic elements of the Convention, and despite the fact that we had two referenda that tried to catch up and to legitimize ex post factum all that the Convention had sanctioned at the time.  This time it is clear that there is some awareness at least that it is possible to include citizens’ input earlier in the process. The major benchmark against which the success of the new conference may be established will have to do with the ability of the  conference to allow some form of co-design, some forms of bottom-up input before, during and after the process.  

Michał Matlak: What are the results that the conference could and should bring? Should there be a new constitution at the end of the way? Alternatively, maybe we should start with the modest modification of the existing treaties?

Alberto Alemanno: The conference will be relevant because of the process that it might trigger. 

When we step back and look at the genesis of this conference, we all know that it is there in order to fix Ursula von der Leyen’s original sin; the fact that she ended up as the President of the European Commission without even running for the European Parliament, without presenting a political program during elections and certainly not being the spitzenkandidat chosen by her own party, So let’s say the genesis of the Conference on the Future of Europe is a way to potentially define and clarify the institutional rules that allow to transform the electoral outcome into new political leadership. 

It is a paradox that until now the Conference on the Future of Europe has been concocted among the three institutions despite being, at least on paper, the largest consultative process ever imagined. There has been no consultation on how to design this exercise. 

It might be too early to say where the conference might lead to, but my sense is that the Conference on the Future of Europe, if it gets started as I am describing it, as a relatively open consultative process without the predetermined agenda, 

might generate an entirely new process, something never seen in the European integration 

that might blend citizens’ input, civil society input with some political representatives’ agendas. This might in turn lend itself to generate new forms of claims, expectations, and even public pressure on the European institutional apparatus in the very same Member States. 

In other words, it will be impossible for Member States’ new governments, which might be changing, as in 2021 we will see a lot of elections, to turn a blind eye to the conversations which this conference will be generating. In a way you could be looking at the Conference on the Future of Europe as a sort of Pandora’s box that political leaders are about to open, and they are not necessarily in full control and this is exactly the beauty of the conference. That’s why despite all the limitations both methodologically and politically around it, I still believe that this conference could make sense in 2021 and be a major catalyst in defining the sense and the direction for European integration in a very particular historical moment.

Many citizens look at Europe first time as the potential source of fixing problems, but at the same time they also look at the weaknesses of Europe. 

There is a big question about the extent to which this Covid moment is highlighting the strength, or rather the weakness, of interdependence. Is interdependence still a source of prosperity, safety and security for citizens or it is a source of complexity? I think this is a legitimate question that we should ask ourselves. 

So, regardless of the outcome of the conference, I think this democratic exercise will generate a new process. 

Cooperation: Teodora Miljojković, Karen Culver, Robert Nemeth

*Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet Professor in European Union Law & Policy at the HEC in Paris and one of the leading voices on the democratization of the European Union. He holds LL.M. from Harvard Law School and College of Europe, as well as a PhD in International Economic Law from Bocconi University. He is also the founder of the Good Lobby, a non-profit civic start up committed to equalizing access to power for more plural, inclusive and democratic society.