When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in 2019 that a two-year Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) will launch on Europe Day, 9 May 2020, there was a sense of excitement and intrigue in the air. For years, the words “treaty change” were never dared to be uttered by the institutions and considered it a Pandora’s Box of bureaucratic, procedural, and legal hell. That changed overnight when the EU’s top chief said treaty change was on the table at the CoFoE, where citizens would be brought into the EU policy-drafting process using randomly-selected citizens’ assemblies.
Fast forward to today, and Europe finds itself at the epicentre of one of the biggest health, economic, and social crises of our time. Its incompetence to act together as a union, instead of separately as 28 Member States, to find solutions to the Coronavirus and ease the burden on the hardest-hit communities proves that the EU is limited in acting together when taking action together is what is needed now.
Regardless of the fact that the Lisbon Treaty has been long criticized for not going far enough in giving citizens enough say, the Treaty has been exposed for underdelivering actions needed to be taken. Safety concerns in public health, for example, is a shared competence between the EU and the Member States, but in practice, EU Member States exercise their own competence and have been taking their own individual measures to combat the corona crisis. And how is the EU allowing some Member States to get away with gross violations of citizens’ rights, the rule of law, and democracy in the name of corona?
This is not to say one of the richest and powerful regions in the world does not have the resources to act, rather it does not have the legal or political competence to do so, thanks to the limitations of the current Treaty. This makes the now-postponed CoFoE even more critical if the EU is to recover from challenges against its legitimacy.
Civil society is not waiting any longer for the institutional freeze, led by the EU Council’s indecisiveness, to launch a much-needed Europe-wide debate on the direction of our Union. Democracy International is one of 15 organizations in the movement CITIZENS TAKEOVER OF EUROPE, a series of events leading to a self-organized CoFoE. When institutions do not take the initiative to run the citizens-led conference we need, then we will happily lead by example.