The Time is Now - 1/2021

1. Introduction

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) is a European Union (EU) initiative aimed at reforming its policies and institutions, following large-scale consultations across the continent. Initially presented by President Emmanuel Macron in March 2019, the proposal was subsequently taken up by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who included it in her vision for the European Commission's (EC) mandate for the 2019-2024 period.

The European Council referred to the Conference in December 2019, stressing that it should be held between 2020-2022 and deliver concrete results to citizens.

In January 2020, the European Parliament adopted its position on the Conference, calling for it to be an open forum without a predetermined outcome and for its recommendations to be turned into actions, including a possible amendment of the EU Treaties.

Also in January 2020, the EC proposed May 9, 2020 as the start date for the Conference and two years as the total duration. The EC concept included two parallel work streams for the CoFoE, one focused on EU priorities in different areas such as climate change, the economy, equality, digitalization, European values, the EU's global role and democratic foundations; while the second related to democratic and institutional processes, such as the system of leading candidates (known as Spitzenkandidaten) or transnational lists for European elections.

In June 2020, the EU Council adopted its position on the Conference, calling for an inclusive process, but stating that its results should not necessarily imply changing the Treaties.

2. Current Status

After an initial deadlock due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing public health crisis, the Conference suffered another major hurdle: the appointment of the Conference President. This was because the Council rejected the candidacy of the federalist MEP and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, proposed by the European Parliament, without offering any alternative. For several months under the German Presidency of the Council of the EU (July-December 2020), the message coming from the institutions was that a Joint Declaration - a document defining the objectives, scope, structure and timing of the Conference - was almost ready and that only agreement on the leadership of the Presidency was needed for the CoFoE to get underway.

However, it was not until February 3 of this year, during the Portuguese Presidency of the EU Council (January-June 2021), that EU ambassadors reiterated the Council's previous position, but this time calling for an imminent launch of the CoFoE. They proposed, on the other hand, a joint presidency of the EP, EC and Council presidents. 

Finally, the presidents of the EP, the EC and the Council adopted a Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe on March 4. The Joint Declaration was signed by the three institutions on March 10, 2021.

With this Declaration, the CoFoE will be officially launched on May 9, Europe Day, and will end, in theory, in the spring of 2022 with the French Presidency of the Council of the EU (January-June 2022). The objectives, principles, governance and methodology of the Conference are described in the Joint Declaration.

3. What will the Conference consist of and where will it take place?

The CoFoE will not consist of a single Conference or event, but of a series of physical and digital meetings, panels and debates involving European citizens.

Both physical and online events may be organized at different transnational, national and regional levels. At the European level, the institutions will be in charge of organizing the citizens' panels, which will be broadcast. All events will be conducted in collaboration with civil society and stakeholders. 

4. The digital platform

In addition, all contributions from the events will be collected, discussed and published on a multilingual digital platform that will be officially launched on April 19. The platform will allow European citizens to contribute with their views on any topic they consider important for the future of the EU. According to the European Commission, the platform has been developed with the threat of disinformation in mind and will be monitored by a team of moderators. Thus, the platform will allow citizens to put forward their ideas and also to comment on those of others, as well as to create and participate in events. Citizens will need to sign up to a charter of EU values and principles in an effort to avoid hate speech and disinformation on the site. The proposals will be discussed at the Conference Plenary, composed of representatives of EU institutions, national parliaments and citizens. 

5. Which citizens will be able to participate? 

Any citizen will be able to take part in the events. The Declaration ensures that there will be an equitable distribution of representatives in terms of several factors: geography, gender, age, socioeconomic background and/or level of education. In addition, young people will play an essential role through events especially dedicated to them, as the role of this sector of the population is essential for the lasting impact of the Conference. 

6. Who will chair the Conference?

The Conference has a triple joint presidency, composed of the Presidents of the EC, the EP and the rotating Presidency of the Council, namely Ursula von der LEYEN, David SASSOLI and Antonio COSTA.

The Executive Board, which will take decisions by consensus and will be assisted by a Joint Secretariat, will oversee the work of the Conference and prepare the plenary meetings of the Conference, including the follow-up of citizens' contributions. The President of the European Parliament and the leaders of the political groups approved on 17 March the composition of this board: first of all, Guy VERHOFSTADT (Renew Europe, BE), Manfred WEBER (EPP, DE) and Iratxe GARCÍA PÉREZ (S&D, ES). The following MEPs will have observer roles: Gerolf ANNEMANS (ID, BE), Daniel FREUND (Greens/EFA, DE), Zdzisław KRASNODĘBSKI (ECR, PL) and Helmut SCHOLZ (The Left, DE).

The Joint Secretariat is composed of Ana Paula ZACARIAS, representing the Council, Commissioner Dubravka ŠUICA, representing the Commission and MEP Guy VERHOFSTADT representing the Parliament. 

The Plenary Assembly of the Conference, whose composition is not yet known, will meet every six months to ensure that citizens' proposals are discussed in the forum.  

7. What topics will be discussed?

Proposed areas of discussion include: 

  • Building a healthy continent. 
  • The fight against climate change and environmental challenges, 
  • An economy that works for people, social justice, equality and intergenerational solidarity, 
  • Digital transformation, 
  • Rights and values, including the rule of law, 
  • Migration, 
  • Security, 
  • The role of the EU in the world, 
  • The democratic foundations of the Union, 
  • The strengthening of the democratic processes governing the EU, 
  • Possible cross-cutting issues related to better regulation, application of subsidiarity and proportionality, implementation and enforcement of the acquis and transparency. 
  • In addition, citizens will be free to raise additional issues beyond these proposals, as long as they are on areas where the EU has the capacity to act or where action would have benefits for European citizens.

Given this last statement in the Joint Declaration, we are faced with the question of the reform of the Treaties. Reform of the Treaties yes or reform of the Treaties no? It is difficult to say for sure at this stage. While the EP has clearly opted for this, the Council has been more than reticent on this issue and the EC has not expressed itself in any way. The Council's initial position made it clear that this was not a possibility at all. However, in the final Declaration there is no mention of this condition, which was previously sine qua non for the Council to approve the launching of the Conference, nor is there any explicit veto of this idea. Moreover, it seems that the statement that "citizens will be free to raise additional issues" reflects that the door is open. 

8. What happens after the Conference and what can we expect from the results obtained? 

The Plenary will prepare a series of recommendations for the EU to follow up the Conference. The Presidents of the EP, the Council and the EC have committed themselves to follow up the recommendations of the Conference within their competences and respecting the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality. 


Official documents:

Research and academic papers: