Future of Europe: What is not forbidden is allowed. RevDem Interview with Guy Verhofstadt

Last week three RevDem editors interviewed Guy Verhofstadt, co-chair of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Below you can read the edited transcript of this conversation.

Michał Matlak: Mr. Verhofstadt, what is the purpose of the Conference on the Future of Europe? We hear two alternatives: one is to render more legitimacy for the European project in order to address the infamous democratic deficit of the EU. The other one is that it would provide a certain new vision of Europe. What is your take, as you are one of the most powerful people in this conference?

Guy Verhofstadt: The Conference needs to establish a new vision of the future of Europe, as it is written in its title.

I think it is the right time to do so because, let’s be honest, if you look at the European Union of today, we see a union that is not fit for purpose, and not fit for the 21st century to be relevant in a world dominated by the US and China and their political and economic models.

Secondly, the Conference is unique in the way that we want to involve citizens fully in discussing and establishing this vision for the future of the European Union. So it is also an extraordinary process in the sense that, for the first time, the three institutions together will organize this Conference. In the past, there would always be an initiative of one of the three institutions to which the others were invited. This time, it is a unique experience in which we want to involve citizens fully, individually and collectively, through citizens’ panels. And we want to develop a vision on the future of Europe that can be supported by all institutions, so that this vision can really be made into a reality.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, migration crisis, Brexit, and the health crisis we need to move forward. Everything points in the direction that there is a need to rethink fundamentally a number of policies and institutional issues in the Union.

Ferenc Laczo: The Conference clearly has bottom-up aspects which make it an unprecedented undertaking for the European Union. One may also argue that it has top-down components. How do you view the relationship between these two dimensions?

It starts, in fact, as a bottom-up exercise through the digital platform, plus the citizens’ panels. These citizens’ panels will formulate proposals, desires, and recommendations for the representatives of European democracy, who are not only the European Parliament, but also national parliaments, the Commission and the Council.

What the citizens’ panels are doing is providing the input and there are elected representatives to define the output.

So, it is a two-way exercise where we try to combine participatory democracy with representative democracy. Such experiences have already been had in Ireland, for example, and also in a certain way in France. But it is the first time that we have done this transnationally on the European level. The purpose is that the Conference formulates concrete proposals for reform based on the recommendations and the wishes of the citizens.

And even when this governance – with three institutions plus the national parliaments involved – is very complex, the advantage of this governance is that, at the end of the process, all institutions on the European level will be involved, and will be engaged.

It will be difficult, for example, for the Council to say to the Commission, or for the European Parliament to say: “Oh, this is the conclusion of the Conference, we are not bound by it because we were not present, now this cannot happen.”

Kasia Krzyżanowska: The idea to invite citizens to debate the future shape of the EU is clearly needed. Do you think that such citizens’ assemblies might become a more permanent feature of the EU institutional design?

They could be, why not? The real start will take place when the citizens’ panels start their work. And the citizens’ panels, as you know, are 200 people chosen randomly four times with young people between 18 and 25 years old. And these people will debate, formulate their recommendations, and then come to the plenary, as they already did once in Strasbourg, to propose and explain their proposals. Then the political world – or I should say the representative democracy – needs to react to it and say “OK, to realize your wish or recommendation on this or that topic, we first need to do this and that”. So that is the whole experience that we will try to build in the coming weeks.

Michał Matlak: Would you be able to tell us a little bit more about how these citizens were selected?

The panels start in mid-August, and it is a professional organization, Kantar, who is organizing that. The European Commission has a contract with them for the Eurobarometer. This has been done purely for reasons of logistics and timing. The selection is done randomly – that means that these two hundred people will come from the four corners of Europe. Also, in terms of their socio-economic background, and in terms of their age, there will only be an overrepresentation of people younger than 25.

The citizens panels will meet several times – three or four times –  and at least two times also physically for more than one day. And the purpose is to organize this last and most important gathering of the citizens’ panels in four cities in Europe. So that everything is not concentrated only in Strasbourg and in Brussels, there will also be panels in Florence in cooperation with the European University Institute, in Natolin in cooperation with the College of Europe, in Maastricht in cooperation with the European Institute for Public Administration, and in Dublin, in cooperation with the Dublin City University.

Michał Matlak: In one of our previous debates that we organized one day after the launch of the Conference in Strasbourg  the key question was: what would happen if the outcomes of the citizens’ panels were that in some areas citizens believe we need less Europe. What would you say?

If that is the wish then I think that we need to act accordingly. Personally, what we have seen the last months is naturally the opposite with COVID and a health crisis. Health is not a competence of the European Union. And what we have seen is public opinion requesting that Europe should coordinate health in Europe. But if people are saying massively that we do not need to be active in in this or that area, then we need to act consequently. For me, effectively the basis for the whole debate in the Conference is the proposals of citizens.

Ferenc Laczo: We do know that the majority of citizens in the EU are in favor of “more Europe.” However, the question concerns something else. If in certain area citizens were to require less Europe, how could the EU institutions actually take this up and implement it? How would they deal with such popular input?

The problem with Europe for citizens is the way the European Union is working. Actually, the problem is the way it is not working; the way it is ineffective, and the way it is slow in acting.

That is the problem that people have, at least if you read Eurobarometer. And that is the case in all countries of the European Union, and I think they are right in their criticism. If citizens say, “OK let’s do it on the European level” but it does not happen then why not? And if it happens, why does it do so in such an ineffective way? Take, for example, migration. Migration, in principle, has already been a European competence since 1999. But nothing has been realized to make it a real European competence. It is still managed mainly by Member States.

People are not stupid –  they see that the Americans and Chinese can decide immediately, and that we do not have the means or the instruments to do so likewise. That was certainly the case after the financial crisis if you compare, for example, the way the Americans reacted to the financial crisis, and the way we did not react to the financial crisis for nearly a decade. This shows very well what the problem is. Or, for example, in foreign policy, there is a problem if you are not capable of reacting immediately when something is happening in your neighbourhood, and it takes months before you can introduce sanctions, or before you can take a position or if it is even impossible to take a position.

Kasia Krzyżanowska: Recent studies indicate that the deterioration in the quality of deliberation is actually the essence of democratic backsliding in some Member States. In this context, do you think that the complex design of the Conference might actually help to improve the quality of deliberation, or will it rather hinder the development of this quality? More generally, do you see the Conference as a way to address the burning issues of democratic decline in the Member States?

What we need to address in the Conference is what do we need to change to force Member States to apply the rule of law, liberal democracy, human rights, respect for minorities, and so on. And then the second big issue in this chapter of European democracy will be how to make our European institutions more democratic and how to give citizens an effective possibility to decide upon that. And there is the whole discussion about the Spitzenkandidat procedure, and about transnational lists that need to be established. All this will also be discussed. And it is already being discussed, because if you open an account on the digital platform that has been launched more or less two months ago, you can already follow all these debates. What we are going to do in the next plenary is have the first open debate between all participants about the first conclusions we can draw based on the discussions that are currently being held on the digital platform.

Michał Matlak: On the more technical aspects and promotion of this event,  you are probably aware that the launch event of the Conference was not really very popular. It was watched probably by 100 times less people than your speeches in the plenary. Do you think that there is a problem with the promotion of this Conference, but also the promotion of the EU? One would think that an organization with the EU’s budget could really have amazing PR, but it does not seem to be the case? Do you think that this is a problem?

Well, for the moment on the platform, there are more or less 20,000 people who have made registered. There are more or less 1300 events running on the platform. The number of events is not bad, but you could say that the number of accounts is not sufficient.

Michal Matlak: You personally have 100,000 followers on Facebook, for example, so isn’t that only  20% of your followers who have made an account for the Conference?

It is true that we need to increase the number of participants, and we have now established a plan that will roll out from the beginning of July. The digital platform that we have created is more or less the social medium of the conference, where you can find information about where you can debate when we have organized activities. And so what we are going to do is let it be known on social media, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tik Tok, on LinkedIn and so on. There we need the publicity, so that people who are interested can open an account, and that is what is going to happen in the coming weeks.

Ferenc Laczo: Could I ask you about your hopes and fears related to this Conference? What would be the best possible outcome that you can imagine by the spring of 2022? What are your greatest fears? What would be the worst thing that could happen as a result of this Conference?

I have a whole list of things that I hope will enter into the conclusions of the Conference. One of the big obstacles is the unanimity rule in so many fields that is, for the moment, blocking policies on the European level, but that is only one issue. Another example is the whole issue of the  recovery fund that we have now – for the first time we launch Eurobonds, and the money is used to invest in our economies to counter the economic fallout of the COVID crisis. We do that now. We did not do that after the financial crisis. The question is, will there be a permanent instrument or not? Or is this only one shot?

Then there is the whole issue of defense. President Biden is saying today, “look, Europe has to organize its European defense”. And he is right. So it is a very new sound coming from the other side of the Atlantic. But they are aware, and they see what we do not see. They see that we are spending nearly four times more than the Russians on defense. They see that we spend together with the UK more than China on defense in Europe, and that we spent nearly 40% of the Americans on defense, but we can only do 10% of the operations of the American army. And if the Russians come this way, into Europe, we are not capable of defending ourselves. Nevertheless, our expenses are four times bigger than the expenses of Russia. So something is not going well.

Michał Matlak: As a more philosophical question, Is this fashion for citizens’ conferences a sign that the trust in parliamentary democracy is lower now? Should this not be a job in general for the European Parliament?

I think that there is no contradiction in trying to find the balance between one and the other. And as I said, in many countries this exists already, for example through referendums.

Kasia Krzyżanowska: My question regards precisely national parliaments because they are scarcely mentioned in the Conference design. Do you see ways for national parliaments to engage in the Conference?

Yes, in a way they have full representation. We secured that there would be representation of the national parliaments equal to the European Parliament. And that provides the possibility for every national parliament to send four delegates to the conference. There are nine working groups in the plenary, and two of them will be chaired by representatives of the national parliaments. And we have with the European Parliament a direct contact, a permanent link, with the national parliaments to prepare proposal and so on, because we think that it is in the interaction between European democracy and national democracy that we have to find the bold proposals we absolutely need. So that is something we are especially working on and looking for.

Michał Matlak: Do you think there is a possibility of treaty change, if citizens present an ambitious vision? Do you think that there will be a way to convince the Council to move forward? Because all Member States will have to agree.

Or you need to change the way you decide on treaty changes, that could also be a topic discussed at the conference. We did not put anything on treaty change in the Joint Declaration, nor in the rules of procedure for a reason. Why? Because we think that the first question to answer is what are the reforms we need, and then what policies do we need.

The second question is – how are we going to achieve this? And if the conclusion is that we cannot do this inside the current treaty framework, then we need to change it.

The fact that there is nothing written about treaty changes in the common declaration and in the rules of procedure is a good thing. And if it is not firmly forbidden, you can do it. That is a rule in politics.

So it is good that there is nothing foreseen, and that it is not forbidden in the declaration nor the rules on procedure. And if the citizens are asking for it, because it is the only way to fulfill some of their key demands and requests during this whole experiment, then we need to consider it. Again, ultimately the discussion on how we do that can also be on the table, as happened in 1785 in Philadelphia, during another conference – not the Conference on the future of Europe, but the conference on the future of the United States more than 200 years ago.

Ferenc Laczo: We have talked about the highest expectations and the worst fears already, so let me ask you about the minimal expectations. What would be the minimum goal that has to be reached to consider this conference a success? In other words, what is your definition of success as a benchmark?

I think it is a little bit early to talk about that. Let’s first organize the citizens’ panels and then we can see what the minimum is that we have to achieve. It depends a lot on what the conclusions are, and what the requests of the citizens’ panels are. Only then, I think, can we decide what a minimum for success is. I do not think that the citizens will not ask anything at all and are very pleased with the way that the Union is today. We can answer that question only next year, when the citizens’ panels have already done their work, concluded debates and formulated their conclusions.

Michał Matlak: The final question concerns the fate of European federalism. You are seen as the last federalist. Is this tradition still alive?

I am certainly not the last one because there is a whole Spinelli group in the European Parliament.

I do not use the term federalism because there are many people who do not understand it. Federalism, in fact, means that you do on the European level only the work that is of value on the European level, and all the rest is based on subsidiarity – it is for the competences of the local, regional and certainly national authorities.

In a certain way, the proposal by Emmanuel Macron presented in his famous Sorbonne speech two years ago is a federalist proposal, although I am not sure he would like to hear that. Enemies of the European Union are always saying – “look, these federalists want to make a superstate out of the EU”. That is completely wrong because the EU has a budget of 1% of the European GDP. Americans have a federal state which is represented in 25% of their GDP, and even Switzerland as a confederal state has 15% of the Swiss GDP. All the rest can be done better on the local, regional and national level and we need to stick to this rule.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner and Teodora Miljojkovic

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