This Sunday was Europe Day. This annual event, celebrated since 1964, marks the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration that kicked off the whole European project back in 1950. That initial union was known as the European Coal and Steel Community. This year’s celebration fell one day after the 76th anniversary of VE (Victory in Europe) Day.
Europe Day is not exactly Bastille Day or the Fourth of July. It cannot boast a passionate following. It lacks sacred status across the EU. Don’t say it in the corridors of Brussels, but most Europeans pay little attention to it.
Nevertheless, Europe does have much to celebrate if you consider how peaceful the continent has been over the last 71 years and how dictatorships, while not quite yet eradicated, have largely been consigned to the continent’s history books. Whatever the legions of skeptics say, that is some achievement.
This year’s Europe Day marked the official opening of the Conference on the Future of Europe. It is an intriguing proposition; the initial salvo of a year-long series of debates and discussions among Europeans about the future of the EU. Of course, the pandemic means all this has to occur online, for the time being at least. All the conclusions from the process will be presented in the second quarter of 2022.
What a glorious idea. Or is it? This will give “space and more power to its citizens,” claimed David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament. “The conference is for the people, for ordinary people.” Ah yes, the ordinary people — the elites are willing to listen to us ordinary folks. Let us hope that this project will be imbued with a less elitist spirit in practice. Is this the Brussels bubble being well and truly punctured? Well, as ever, there will be plenty of hot air.
Will this work? Opinions are divided. It all depends on how people see it. In one corner are those who view this as an innovative, 21st-century grassroots citizenship experiment. They see it bringing European citizenry closer to the corridors of power in Brussels, as well as vice versa, taking Brussels out to every corner of Europe. It gives millions a chance to have their say on this extraordinary union of more than 440 million people in 27 states.
In the opposite corner are those who see this as not just a pointless talking shop, but an overcrowded talking mall on steroids. They argue that EU leaders and the European Commission will manage the whole process and sift out any points of view that do not chime with their vision of ever closer union. If, for example, these great virtual citizen gatherings determine that the EU should go into reverse gear, ditch the euro and bring back internal borders, who believes the powers that be will actually change anything? One thing EU leaders clearly do not want is any drive toward a new treaty, after all the traumas getting agreement on the Lisbon Treaty.
Many also fear that such a format is a ready-made echo chamber for populist loudmouths and sloganeering. It will be another arena where expertise is frowned upon and those who scream loudest will get the biggest audience. This will most likely be the case on hot-button topics like immigration. Yet one wonders whether, for example, European citizens could have a more nuanced conversation on issues such as climate change.
In between is where the hopes for this ambitious exercise lie. Overselling this as a great democratic exercise does not cut it, but it has the potential to at least trigger a serious debate at a key moment in the EU’s trajectory. For years, the bloc has been in crisis management mode, forced to battle economic recession, challenges to its borders, the growth of the far right, the departure of one its largest and most significant members in the UK and, lately of course, the coronavirus disease pandemic.
This has left little space for serious thought about what the EU should become and where it is heading. Is ever closer union desirable? How many more states should be allowed to join and on what terms? Should that include Turkey? How should the EU manage its relations with the major powers, notably the US, China and Russia? How can the EU be made more democratic and accountable? Should there be, as some believe, transnational lists at European elections, building on the model of Volt Europa, the pan-European party.
Should the dreams of the federalists be realized? Would their vision include a European army and security services, where the nation state effectively becomes no more than a federal component of a grand European superstate? The skeptical pragmatists take a less ideological approach that prioritizes function. What can 27 states do more effectively together than member states can do on their own?
The ardent, die-hard Euroskeptics are, for the moment, on the wane. Brexit was not a great advert for member states wanting to go it alone. Even Marine Le Pen in France has backed away from a potential “Frexit.” The skeptics would like to see the EU more in the service of their national aspirations; to reform it from within.
What is being seen is, in fact, a more productive debate on the vision for Europe, not one that is bitterly polarized into pro and anti-EU factions. This is to be embraced, particularly if it can lead to sensible debate about competing visions for the continent.
It is an intriguing exercise.
Modern technology can assist in driving it, not least in overcoming the tricky issue of 24 official languages. More citizens than ever before can contribute, although a more efficient organizing mechanism may be required. What would make the whole process more effective would be a better interchange between EU institutions and a truly transnational European civil society.
On this, the conference remains weak. One wonders, therefore, if such a mechanism could be rolled out elsewhere if it is successful. This is an intriguing thought. How might a conference on the future of the US pan out? Could improved access for the US citizenry bring Washington closer to its population? It will take some time to evaluate whether this exercise in European citizenry was truly worth the effort, but any success could well be imitated elsewhere.
Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries.