What’s cooking in Brussels?

By Claire Stam
Schwarz-weiß Portrait von Claire Stam

Mario Draghi is in favor. Will Emmanuel Macron also support a revision of the EU treaties, with the aim of burying the unanimity rule in particular? We will get the answer – perhaps – on May 9 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where the French president will speak at the closing ceremony of the Conference on the Future of Europe.

Over the past twelve months, 800 randomly selected citizens have debated digitally submitted ideas as well as inputs from national events and citizens’ forums in the conference plenary (also known as CoFoE in EU jargon). The result of this process is 49 reform proposals integrating over 300 measures in nine thematic areas: Environment, Health, Economy/Social Justice, Europe in the World, Values/Rule of Law, Digital Transformation, European Democracy, Migration, and Education/Youth/Sport.

These recommendations are part of the final report, which will be handed over to Ursula von der Leyen, EU Parliament President Roberta Metsola and Emmanuel Macron at a ceremony in Strasbourg on May 9. France holds the rotating EU Council presidency until June 30. The French president plans to give a speech on Europe there – on the same day that he will meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on his first official state visit after his re-election. Will there be a second Sorbonne speech?

In Brussels, MEP Pascal Durand (Renew), a member of the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs, is looking into just that. He exchanges views with Clément Beaune, Secretary of State for European Affairs in Paris, on Macron’s speech on May 9.

Conference of strategic importance

Durand does not want to reveal the content of the speech in an interview with Europe.Table, but he dampens expectations: One should “not confuse the roles” – that of Emmanuel Macron as President of the Council, and that of the President of the French Republic. “As president of the member state that currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, it is difficult for him to make a difference,” he explains.

For the MEP, however, the conference itself has opened a new path “linking representative and participatory democracy.” It is of strategic importance, in his opinion, because the conference takes place at a time when citizens have a “complex” relationship with participatory democracy. However, it is also because of the Covid crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which have painfully brought the necessary reform of EU institutions back into the spotlight. Brussels is now looking for its magic potion to join forces.

According to Pascal Durand, one of the big criticisms from citizens is the unanimity principle in the Council. After all, he said, “no democracy works with the unanimity rule.” As a reminder, the Council must vote unanimously in a number of areas that member states consider sensitive. For example, in the Common Foreign and Security Policy, EU enlargement, budget issues or the granting of new rights to EU citizens.

For Italian Prime Minister Draghi, the European Union must be reformed so that the project can meet the current challenges. He urged the member states before the European Parliament on Tuesday to consider a recasting of the treaties so that the common project has the political weapons to influence the international stage.

Comprehensive EU reform

“If this requires the start of a path that will lead to the revision of the treaties, this should be embraced with courage and confidence,” Draghi stressed – taking particular aim at the unanimity principle. Negotiations on the sixth sanctions package proposed by the Commission this week are a good example of institutional deadlock. EU diplomats are meeting today to possibly give the green light to the new package against Russia. But there is opposition, especially from Hungary and Slovakia, to an oil embargo, despite long transition periods.

Ambitions have to be lowered again and again in order to find a compromise among governments. That irritates many in Brussels. “Officially, the Council is made up of 27 member states, but you can tell it’s really 28 or 29,” says an EU official who regularly attends EU summits. After all, “China and Russia also invite themselves to Council meetings.” That’s aimed at Hungary.

Where do we go from here? “The question is whether the 49 recommendations will not disappear into an institutional drawer,” says Pascal Durand. If the representatives of the three EU institutions did not follow up on the recommendations formulated by the citizens, “then this conference will be a failure.” The European Parliament is pushing the pace. On Wednesday, MEPs adopted a declaration aimed at ensuring that the results of the citizens’ dialogue are implemented. MEPs want to launch a constitutional convention for a comprehensive reform of the European Union.

This includes, for example, the demands to abandon the principle of unanimity in almost all policy areas (yes, again), furthermore to grant the European Parliament a right of initiative for legislative proposals as well as for significantly more EU competencies in the areas of health and social policy.

This requires amendments to the EU treaties. They can be amended by a constitutional convention in which representatives of the national parliaments and governments, as well as the European Parliament and the Commission, participate. The last far-reaching reform of the European Union took place in 2007 with the signing and subsequent implementation of the Lisbon Treaty. That was a long time ago.

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