The starting gun has now been officially fired on setting up a “Conference on the Future of Europe”. Or rather, to set up the opening phase of a second one. The last one was so spectacularly calamitous they have had to wait 18 years to repeat the experience.
You might recall what happened. On the back of the EU repeatedly losing referendums, heads of government decided in what was styled the Laeken Declaration to organise a conclave for discussing why the EU wasn’t so popular. It would review what the EU needed to do better, but also what it needed to do less of, and recommend changes.
Yet the net result was a text that meant the EU lost more referendums – and I would argue ultimately the UK as well. The Convention demonstrated that the EU could never be multilaterally reformed to suit UK needs. The Cameron talks in 2015 subsequently proved that there was no prospect of bilateral reform either. Even for the most reticent Eurosceptic, the only option remaining after that was Brexit.
The Convention failed because it recruited badly. An overwhelming majority of the delegates were in favour of adding more powers to the EU. Almost everybody sent by the EU institutions had a professional vested interest in so doing.
Delegates from the applicant states mostly wanted to show they were ‘good Europeans’, particularly if they wanted a job there. And in general terms, the process tended to be self-selecting. People were sent to the talks if they knew the Brussels scene or had connections there, and that implied they were pro-EU. Some also volunteered because they had pet projects they wanted to push at EU level: these naturally aggregated into a large list of requests for the EU to have more powers.
Away from the main talks, there were also sessions dedicated to ‘European youth’ (best remembered for the attempt to appoint a thirty-something year old ‘youth’ to run it), and to European lobby groups. If anything, the lack of representation in these conclaves was even worse, largely seen as a boondoggle for European Movement-style student groups, and as a lobby opportunity for various Brussels insiders. Whence the cutting critique made by David Heathcoat-Amory of it merely being “Brussels talking to Brussels”, an echo chamber of vested interests.
During the first week of the talks, it genuinely did look as if some badly-managed EU powers might be restored to national control. Even the Commission delegates’ early speeches offered it. But the numbers swiftly showed that no such concessions were required at all. As the tiny Eurosceptic minority group noted at the end of the Convention, the Laeken mission statement had been thoroughly betrayed.
The text on the table did nothing to address that the EU was “behaving too bureaucratically”. It neglected the demand that “the Union must be brought closer to its citizens”. It failed to ensure that “the division of competences be made more transparent”. It did the reverse than deliver on the objective for “European institutions to be less unwieldy and rigid”.
Transparency, simplification, substantive inclusion of national parliaments were all forgotten. And while Laeken suggested, “The question ultimately arises as to whether this simplification and reorganisation might not lead in the long run to the adoption of a constitutional text of the Union”, those running the show took this as a mandate to write one straight away.
These failures sprang readily to mind at the press launch this week to announce the new Conference. The instant David Sassoli from the European Parliament offered up the prospect of more powers going to the EU, it became the new mandate. It was one guaranteed by the choice to lean away from selecting people with genuine democratic and local links, and into the body of Brussels insiders, activists, and axe grinders. Worse, this time round there’s previous little surviving of the original Laeken Mandate to focus minds or generate a rearguard around, or for that matter betray.
Why call it a “Conference” and not a “Convention”? Process.
There was a system set up to formally accommodate the new Convention mechanism in the Lisbon Treaty. Article 48 stipulates that the standard process of treaty reform involves a Convention being made up of representatives of the national parliaments, of the heads of state or government of the member states, of the European Parliament and of the Commission – in other words like the original Convention. Last time round, the lobby bodies called in for outreach were given just one week to feed into the system, after the Convention had already been underway for many months. Their credibility was then completely ruined by Eurosceptics exploring who they were, and they were ignored.
This time though the sequencing has changed. Article 48 has not yet been triggered, meaning this ‘Conference’ is not the real deal of a ‘Convention’ but merely a precursor. However, adapting the process means that these campaigners get to frame the initial debate while also providing a fake popular mandate for centralising more powers in Brussels, expanding more budgets, going firmer on an EU military structure or an EU health mechanism or anything else that’s the flavour of the month.
Whatever text comes out of its deliberations can then be picked up by the Commission, MEPs or a national government and presented as the formal submission for review in 2022 via the A48 mechanism. So it is, in short, a Shadow Convention, and one yet again that has no obvious basis in the EU treaties – the legal justifications for its budget will need to be inventive.
Meanwhile, the sequencing will make it harder for less integrationist Governments to try to block the formal summoning of a Convention later. Moreover, framing the terms of the debate in advance reduces the prospect of the real Convention reviewing whether powers should be handed back to national control, which Article 48 specifically allows to be put on the agenda.
What’s happening is that an in-house talking shop is being established to pre-empt what the real Convention would discuss. Even if it turns out that a Convention is ultimately blocked, then it still shapes what a default intergovernmental summit discusses in terms of reforms. So, in practical effect, a fake convention is being set up that will hamstring democratic representatives on the real one.
This sort of ‘reform’ process at its most charitable might be described as Krushchevian. Those who witnessed it last time round might be less generous in their choice of terms.