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Conference on the Future of Europe

With the handover of the final report to the presidents of the EU institutions, the Conference on the Future of Europe (COFE) came to an end in Strasbourg at the beginning of May 2022. The report contains numerous proposals for action, including in industry-relevant areas such as climate, environment, health, economics, digital transformation, and Europe's role in the world. But a crucial question remains unanswered: What influence will the stimuli of the conference have on the EU's political agenda?

The COFE showed that there is no shortage of proposals for the continued development of the EU. In fact, thousands of reform ideas were discussed in three fora. Firstly, in European and national citizens' panels where randomly selected citizens deliberated. Secondly, in nine working groups with representatives of national parliaments and governments, the European Parliament, the EU Commission, the regions, the European social partners, and many more. And thirdly, on a multilingual online platform where interested citizens submitted almost 19,000 ideas.

Final report with bright spots and dark shadows

The final report of the conference contains 326 selected proposals for action with various proposals. Many of which have the potential to strengthen the EU economically and politically. For example, a competitiveness check is to be introduced for new EU initiatives, greater consideration is to be given to SMEs, the administrative burden is to be reduced, and the internal market is to be better protected. In addition, decisions on EU foreign and security policy are to be taken by qualified majority voting in the future, thus increasing Europe's ability to act internationally. However, at the same time, the report takes up well-known proposals in tax, environmental, legal, and trade policy areas that would impose considerable burdens on businesses and paralyse Europe.

The problem is that the vast majority of the conference proposals are not new at all – but have been part of the EU Commission's agenda for a while. The Commission has analysed the reform ideas and grouped them into four categories: firstly, impulses that are already part of legislative proposals, or have been passed and implemented, secondly, proposals that the MEPs and the member states are already discussing in the legislative process, thirdly, suggestions that the EU Commission has in the pipeline but are not yet legislative proposals, and, fourthly, those that are actually new ideas – for example in health policy.

Thousands of ideas for the future - what now?

Even after the end of the conference, it is unclear how the EU institutions intend to deal with the ideas for the future. A clear majority of Members of the European Parliament have called on the EU member states to initiate a convention to amend the EU treaties in order to implement the reform proposals. They want the abolition of unanimity decisions in the Council, for example in EU foreign or tax policy. They also advocate for more EU competencies in health, energy, defence, economic and social policy areas, as well as demand the right for the European Parliament to initiate EU legislative procedures.

In order to launch a convention to amend the treaties, a simple majority of member states is needed, i.e. at least 14 of the 27 EU member states would have to support this step. Strong opposition to an opening of the treaties comes from thirteen countries, mainly from Northern and Eastern Europe, which have positioned themselves in an open letter against premature treaty changes. They claim that the EU's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian war of aggression has shown how capable the EU is of acting within the existing treaty framework. The EU's political focus, therefore, must be on dealing with the major challenges and geopolitical changes – not on debating treaty amendments, according to the member states that signed the letter. On the other hand, however, seven countries – including Germany and France – are open to treaty changes.

Overall, no member state has much appetite for a lengthy treaty negotiation process. That is why the European Council Meeting at the end of June did not respond to the European Parliament's call for the establishment of a convention for treaty changes. Meanwhile, the Commission President von der Leyen has already announced that she will take up the conference recommendations in her State of the Union address in September. In addition, the European Commission intends to organise dialogue events with selected – especially young – citizens in the run-up to particularly weighty Commission initiatives in order to receive feedback on its plans at an early stage. This approach must not devalue the Better Regulation process, which provides for consultation of all stakeholders and a thorough assessment of economic, environmental, and social impacts in the run-up to EU legislative initiatives.