The Covid-19 pandemic has forced indoor gatherings everywhere to move online instead of big conference centres. Is this is posing a particular challenge for the EU’s plans for reforming its democratic structures or is it an opportunity? Juuso Järviniemi explains.

Back in January this year, the European Commission had big plans for Europe Day, taking place on 9 May. The Commission proposed an event held in Dubrovnik, Croatia to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the start of a ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’.

Then, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the continent.

Aspiring to bring citizens and the main EU institutions together to discuss the Union’s priorities, and reforming the EU’s democratic structures, the Conference is meant to be a grand two-year debate on reforming the EU. But now with the corona crisis, Europe has switched to the here and now, placing any debate on the future firmly on the back burner.

The launch date of the Conference is now in limbo, postponed to an unknown date. Before the launch, the Commission, European Parliament and the Council want to mutually agree on the set-up of the initiative. However, the member states in the Council have not presented their position yet, and now it is other issues that are dominating the EU Council’s agendas.

Moving the debate online

In short, the precise concept of the Conference is still unknown. Nonetheless, the Commission believes that the pandemic will highlight the importance of an online platform dedicated to its presentation.

“Of course the corona crisis has an enormous impact on how you organise the Conference”, a Commission spokesperson says. Plans for a website where citizens can share their ideas were a part of the Commission’s plans from the outset, but “one impact of the crisis will be that we invest more in this part of the Conference”, the spokesperson continued.

The Commission hopes that digital debates can reach more citizens than mere physical events. In any case, truly involving European citizenry will be a challenge.

In February, three high-profile academics, Niccolo Milanese, Kalypso Nicolaidis and Alberto Alamarro wrote an open letter warning against turning the Conference into a top-down exercise. Among other criticisms, they wrote that it’s unclear how the planned “citizens’ agoras” feed into the final conclusions of the Conference, and that civil society organisations have mainly not been invited to participate. Whether the EU institutions can turn the newly imposed reliance on digital discussions into an asset remains to be seen.

High stakes, running short on time

The stakes for the Conference are high. The crisis has made European countries slam their borders shut, re-exposed the old North-South conflicts in the EU’s economic management, and given cover for authoritarian-minded leaders to tighten their rule. Once Europe slowly emerges back from the lockdown, the circumstances will offer ample inspiration for discussing where to go from here.

The Commission spokesperson says that even more people will likely see the need to discuss the future of Europe after the coronavirus, but emphasises that the Conference was sorely needed already before the outbreak.

Indeed, as the incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced her plans for the Conference last summer, she hoped that the initiative would help settle the institutional quarrels that shook Brussels after last year’s European elections. The symposium is intended to offer solutions to the question of Spitzenkandidaten’, of creating an EU-wide constituency for European Parliament elections, as well as other issues.

While deliberations about ‘what the EU can do for its citizens’ are perpetually necessary, there is a clear deadline for the institutional questions to be answered – namely, the 2024 European elections. In a ‘non-paper’ released last November, France and Germany even spoke about reaching conclusions on these questions by this summer. Needless to say, Europe is falling well behind this schedule.

Though the Commission has expressed its will to ensure proper follow-up for the Conference, it isn’t committing to tabling legislative proposals based on the Conference’s conclusions. “We don’t want to pre-empt this debate by saying we will make this or that proposal, or that we won’t make this or that proposal”, the Commission spokesperson says.

For now, we are just waiting for the debate to begin.

Juuso Järviniemi
Juuso Järviniemi studies International Relations at the University of Edinburgh. A member of the Young European Federalists, he has been the Editor-in-Chief of The New Federalist in 2017–2019. Juuso is also a former President of the British JEF section.

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