The EU wants its citizens to shape its future. And fend off a euroskeptic surge

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures during the Europe Day 2021 and the Conference on the Future of Europe, on May 9, 2021 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.


LONDON — In the face of rising anti-EU sentiment, French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 called for a new citizen-led vision for the region.

Two years on, Brussels is making good on Macron’s idea.

The EU launched Sunday the Conference on the Future of Europe — a platform where any EU citizen can make suggestions on how the political bloc should change. The initiative also includes public discussions across the 27 member nations and a citizens’ panels — where participants are chosen randomly, organized by the EU institutions.

Critics argue that the project doesn’t go far enough, whereas supporters describe it as a brave act of institutional reform.

“Some people are challenging what we are about, who we are, and just forgetting everything we built up. That’s what’s at stake today, that’s the risk to just giving up, not knowing what to do rather than to build,” Macron said at the event launch on Sunday. 

Why it is happening?

Anti-EU lawmakers strengthened their support following the sovereign debt and migration crises of the last decade. Although, this seems to have now diminished somewhat.

An opinion poll published in January showed that the desire among EU citizens to leave the European Union has decreased in recent years. The study conducted by YouGov looked at data since June 2016 — when the U.K. voted to leave the political bloc — and January 2020.

In addition, citizens surveyed in Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden and Finland also became more optimistic about the future of the bloc during that time.

Nonetheless, the presence of anti-EU parties across the region is still very much a reality. This is evident in the upcoming presidential election in France, where far-right leader Marine le Pen is currently polling neck-a-neck with the incumbent Macron. 

There are also unanswered questions about how the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic crisis will shape sentiment among voters.

Luis Garicano, a liberal member of the European Parliament, told CNBC that the EU is facing “two huge tests,” citing the Covid-19 vaccination campaign and the fiscal stimulus that aims to combat the economic crisis.

“And the jury is still out,” he said, on how voters will assess the importance of the EU in these two areas.

At elections in 2019, the majority of the seats in the European Parliament remained pro-EU despite a surge for populist lawmakers. But the chamber became a lot more divided, with the usual center-right and center-left blocs falling well short of a majority and needing other pro-EU parties to pass legislation.

With the next EU election due in 2024, Garicano said the “the EU is really on trial” and that “it could be difficult” to keep the pro-EU majority in Parliament at the next election, if there are issues with the distribution of the coronavirus stimulus.

What can it achieve?

The Conference on the Future of Europe is due to be concluded by spring 2022, with its proposals expected to then guide the work of the European institutions in the coming years.

Some experts argue that ultimately the goal should be to update European laws in what’s referred to as treaty change. However, this is a very complex exercise and requires consensus among the 27 nations.

“Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Conference’s success should not be measured against its ability to prompt Treaty change. Rather, its success will depend on its ability to mainstream new substantive policy ideas and institutionalize democratic innovations, such as citizen’s assemblies, and to do so at the transnational level,” Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at H.E.C. Business School, told CNBC.

“Once the genie will be out, it will be difficult to put him back into the bottle,” he said, expecting more citizen participation going forward.

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