Europe: A New Beginning? European conference goes to the final

What should the European Union of tomorrow look like? Citizens and politicians have been debating it for a year. Some discovered their European identity in the process.

The major conference on the future of Europe is about to end after about a year. On Saturday in Strasbourg, a total of 325 proposals were accepted at the last plenary session of the unprecedented Citizens’ Dialogue. They are now to be handed over to top representatives of the EU on May 9th.

Specifically, according to the wishes of the participants, politicians should set minimum standards for the quality of food, ensure fast internet connections and examine lowering the voting age in EU elections from 18 to 16 years. In addition, it is proposed to abandon the unanimity principle in almost all policy areas. This would allow the EU to act faster and become more powerful.

This is also a major concern of the initiator of the conference, who sees himself as a pro-European: French President Emmanuel Macron. The 44-year-old has been campaigning for a restart of the confederation for years. «Never since the Second World War has Europe been so important. And yet Europe has never been in such great danger, »he wrote back in 2019. At that time he also brought the European Conference into play.

Discussion about citizen-closer EU

The starting signal was May 9, 2021 – Europe Day, on which French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed the production community for coal and steel in 1950, a precursor to the EU. Since then, discussions have been going on about a better EU that is closer to its citizens. There were regional and national discussions, online and offline, with top and local politicians. And there was the heart of the conference: the plenary. Members of the European Parliament and the national parliaments, representatives of the EU governments and the EU Commission met with randomly selected citizens seven times. They worked in nine groups on topics such as climate change and the environment, health, migration and democracy.

One of these citizens is Antonia Kieper. The 22-year-old lives in Cologne, is studying law – and hadn’t dealt with the EU too much until the European Conference. Open borders and the euro as a means of payment, she was not aware of how she would benefit from the EU, says Kieper of the German Press Agency. Your image has changed. “You have so many rights and opportunities in the EU that you don’t have anywhere else.” She could decide to work in Spain from now on – and it wouldn’t be a problem. In recent months she has learned that she has a European identity alongside her German identity.

Citizens should have a voice

One point was particularly important for Kieper before the conference: she wanted “that we listen to citizens and give them a voice”. So far, she has had a rather negative image of politics. In the general election, she considered which party was “the least evil”. Your feeling: Politics is too far away from the citizens. At the Future Conference, she worked on “Democracy in the EU”.

Just like Wiktoria Tyszka Ulężałka, who lives in Poznan, Poland, less than 200 kilometers from the German border. She lives with her husband, her son is out of the house, says the 63-year-old teacher at the Technical University in Poznań. Actually, she is already retired, but she continues to work at the university. She is always open to new ideas – and has therefore agreed to take part in the European conference.

She was already interested in the EU, mainly because of the political situation in her home country. “When I see what’s happening in my country, I really suffer,” says Tyszka Ulężałka. She points out that the independent judiciary is being completely destroyed by the governing parties and that women’s rights are being restricted. And then there’s the talk of Polexit. Her son lives in Manchester with his Polish wife and grandchild. They probably wouldn’t come back to Poland. As a result, she also followed the negative consequences of Brexit more closely. And she herself is old enough to know what it was like in Poland before it joined the EU in 2004 – and how much the country benefits from EU membership.

Everyone with personal motivation

Every citizen probably had a personal motivation to get involved in a different Europe. The forces of inertia in the governments of the 27 EU countries were sometimes greater. After all, the really big changes would require changes to the EU treaties, for example to abolish unanimous decision-making in foreign policy or tax matters. Tyszka Ulężałka is aware that implementing the ideas will sometimes be difficult. “But even if only a few suggestions become reality, that would change something.”

So was the whole thing just nice self-occupation? For the Green MEP Daniel Freund, the positive outweighs the negative: Far too few citizens found out about the conference and the governments of the EU countries would have slowed down where it was possible. But Freund raves about a “participation process that has never existed before”. He sees preparatory work in the past year. Based on the conference, the process for a new constitution with ambitious reforms will now begin. Freund mentions the abolition of unanimity and the right for the European Parliament to initiate new laws.

Will a new reform process follow?

The final declaration of the European conference is not binding for any of the EU institutions. But the EU Parliament could initiate the procedure for amending the EU treaties. If the majority of the EU states agree, a new reform process may follow. An important step could already be taken in the coming days: then the plenary session of the European Parliament should approve a resolution that calls for such a constitutional convention and thus puts pressure on the EU states.

The head of the Christian Democratic EPP Group, Manfred Weber, is basically: “This is not a theoretical debate,” he says to the dpa. “Our way of life is being fundamentally challenged by extremists in our own countries and by Russia and China abroad.” If you want to save Europe from being among the losers of the 21st century, you have to think bigger and act faster. “We must reform Europe.”

On Europe Day on Monday in a week’s time, the final declaration of the conference is to be handed over to Macron, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and EU Parliament President Roberta Metsola. “The process of transforming Europe cannot end on May 9th, it should begin on May 9th,” demands Weber.


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