After a delay of almost a year, the EU’s grand exercise in democratic renewal might finally be getting off the ground.
The Conference on the Future of Europe has been envisaged as a chance to bring the EU’s distant institutions closer to its citizens. For supporters such as France’s president Emmanuel Macron and many MEPs, the onset of the pandemic has supercharged the importance of the planned conference, which is designed to ask voters for their input on the direction of EU policymaking in unprecedented times.
But the conference has yet to materialise. Its launch has been beset by delays over such parochial issues as who should run it. Over the past months, the grandiose attempt at direct democracy has descended into a fight about top jobs. A host of names — including former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, ex-chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and the European parliament’s Guy Verhofstadt — have all been rumoured and shot down as neither the parliament nor member states could agree on a candidate.
To break the deadlock, the idea of a single president looks to be abandoned in favour of a system where all three EU institutions run the show. The Portuguese presidency of the EU is expected to propose this “collegiate” structure to member states in the coming weeks for approval. The EP is already on board, officials said, leading to hopes that a joint agreement over the conference could be thrashed out soon. A notional launch date of May 9 — “Europe Day” for the EU institutions — has been earmarked.
But will the “tripartite” solution actually work? Having no single figure in charge might placate Brussels’ rival institutions for now, but might also end up creating constant struggles between the council and parliament over the direction of the conference once it is up and running. Mr Verhofstadt, a federalist and former Belgian prime minister, is likely to be the parliament’s main representative, an appointment that will no doubt irk member states that spent the past year making sure he didn’t get the top job.
Ironically, institutional infighting might become the upshot of the conference, says Alberto Alemanno, a professor at HEC Paris. “Citizens will be able to see which of the three institutions appear the least keen on following up on their proposals,” says Mr Alemanno. He thinks that the three-headed solution “might favour a more accountable process” if voters can really see the inner workings of Brussels sausage-making.
“The [three-way governance] renders the Conference on the Future of Europe extraordinary as the three EU institutions might actually lose control”, he said.
Sterling is proving an unlikely beneficiary of the UK’s vaccine rollout, hitting its highest level against the dollar in three years after almost 5m Brits had their first dose of the Covid-19 jab. (chart via FT) Still, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said it remains “too early” to envisage the end of lockdown measures by the spring. (BBC)
Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meets Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on Friday. The minister held talks with the EU’s top diplomat on Thursday, with Josep Borrell noting an “improvement in the overall atmosphere” in relations with Ankara after renewed tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.
The commission will publish the text of the EU-China investment agreement on Friday. A group of MEPs have argued the deal risks damaging Europe’s commitment to defending human rights. (Guardian)