EU ‘agrees to relegate national parliaments to rank of observers’ risking eurosceptic fury

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This week, the European Parliament and member states have given the green light to the joint declaration on the Conference of the Future of Europe, negotiated under the aegis of Portugal’s presidency of the Council of the EU. The proposed declaration, a four-page document presented on Monday to the ambassadors of the 27 member states in Brussels, was agreed yesterday at a meeting of the Permanent Representatives Committee (Coreper), before being discussed today by the European Parliament’s Conference of Presidents. After a long impasse regarding the holding of this event aimed at EU citizens, which was originally meant to start in May 2020 but was postponed due to coronavirus and the different positions taken by the EU institutions, the Portuguese presidency came up with a new format.

The conference will now begin in May under the joint presidency of Ursula von der Leyen, David Sasssoli and António Costa as President-in-office of the EU Council until the end of June, when he would be replaced by the Prime Minister of Slovenia, which succeeds Portugal as holder of the presidency on July 1.

The Conference on the Future of Europe is a proposal of the European Commission and the European Parliament, announced in 2019 and spearheaded by French President Emmanuel Macron.

Its objective is to look at the medium to long term future of the EU and what reforms should be made to its policies and institutions.

It is intended that the Conference should involve citizens, including a significant role for young people, civil society, and European institutions as equal partners and last for two years.

However, in a recent report, political scientists Dr Karolina Borońska-Hryniewiecka and Guillaume Sacriste argued the declaration actually raises doubts as to the truly democratic and inclusive character of the forthcoming event.

The two experts believe the Conference could actually prove to be counter-productive for the EU, fostering nationalist narrative hostile to further EU integration.

They explained: “In its original position on the CoFoE from June 24, 2020, the Council foresaw setting up of ‘a steering group composed of representatives of each institution on an equal footing, as well as the current and incoming COSAC rotating presidencies’.

“COSAC (Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union) is the most important transnational forum of cooperation among national parliaments in the EU, which brings together representatives of parliamentary committees specialised in European affairs.

“The inclusion of national MPs into the steering group of the CoFoE has been a sensible and right decision due to the fact that national parliaments constitute the second most important – next to the European Parliament – strand of democratic representation in the EU’s multi-level political system.

“They also play a critical role in ensuring ownership and implementation of European policies at the national level.”

Yet, the authors noted, in its newly revised position, the Council has now decided to relegate COSAC from a full member of the conference “steering group” to a mere observer affiliated by the renamed “executive board”.

They added: “Substituting ‘the single chair’ by a collective authority of the three EU presidents, whose political agendas are already fully packed, implies that it will be the lower-level ‘executive board’ who will take actual responsibility for the management of the Conference.

“Pursuing this upward delegation process further results in an ever increasing democratic deficit of EU governance that can be only compensated by the direct and meaningful involvement of national parliaments – as legitimacy intermediaries – in the EU policy-making, as well as in transformative debates such as the CoFoE.

“In this context, there might have been fears voiced by EU institutions that the involvement of additional representatives of national parliaments might unnecessarily complicate smooth steering of the CoFoE.

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“In this context, there might have been fears voiced by EU institutions that the involvement of additional representatives of national parliaments might unnecessarily complicate smooth steering of the CoFoE.

“In other words, after consulting with the Parliament and the Commission, the Council has agreed to relegate national parliaments to the rank of observers to keep them at a ‘safe distance’ from influencing the course of the event.

“Yet, from a normative and functional point of view, such a decision is a mistake.”

They concluded in their piece of the EUObserver: “Further hollowing-out of this crucial representative dimension within the EU realm will prove counterproductive for the EU-level legitimacy, fostering nationalist narrative hostile to further EU integration.”

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Brussels correspondent Mehreen Khan echoed the political scientists’ claims, arguing the Conference risks becoming a “vote-free zone dominated by bureaucrats” as member states and MEPs fight about who should run it — or, more pertinently, who should not.

She added in her piece for the Financial Times: “The [declaration] has been met with derision from observers who think the Conference should be an opportunity to create a genuine grassroots forum for democratic debate rather than a job creation scheme.

“‘Brussels has out Brussels-ed itself’, said one official.”

Ms Khan added: “Diplomats and officials admit that the byzantine management is largely by design.

“The Conference has become an unwanted nuisance for governments that have spent the past year fighting the pandemic.

“Cheerleaders such as France’s Emmanuel Macron have also seemingly abandoned the idea, leaving the Conference as an orphan political project.”

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