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  • Writer's pictureStefano Mallia

The Conference on the Future of Europe cannot fail

The Conference on the Future of Europe has made an uncertain start, but it cannot be allowed to fail. Stefano Mallia writes that the window of opportunity to engage with citizens could close quickly.

Stefano Mallia is the President of the Employers’ Group at the European Economic and Social Committee

The Conference on the Future of Europe was designed and launched to set the EU on a path for the future designed by its citizens. Eight months from the launch of this initiative which in fact is much more than just a conference, one cannot but wonder whether this ‘unique’ initiative will deliver a genuine outcome for future generations, one that will be able to set a new course for the future of our continent.

So far, the fickle political investment and the lukewarm participation from citizens-at-large do not augur a successful recognition. The ideas that will ultimately come out of the process might lack the legitimacy of a democratic process.

The numbers are telling. To date 179,513 people created 10,001 ideas, 16,828 comments, and organised 3,899 events. In parallel, 800 citizens, chosen through random selection, participate in four panels, developing recommendations to present to MEPs between December and January.

The uncertainty surrounding the process of the Conference itself and what will follow once the Conference comes to an end is certainly not helping matters either. Neither was the actual launching of this initiative a good omen for the future, given that a divisive interinstitutional battle marred it.

Despite all this, employers across Europe are engaging and participating as best they can in this exercise which comes amid a very uncertain present, still in the clutches of a pandemic that is far from over.

We hardly have any other choice. In recent years, we have witnessed growing support for populist sentiment across Europe and in other parts of the Western world, even though German elections have shown a clear pattern of rebuttal for radical right parties.

This is why the Conference on the Future of Europe cannot fail. The window of opportunity to reengage with EU citizens before the next European elections might close rapidly if we don’t restore confidence and prosperity to preserve European peace and democracy, particularly in this uncertain Covid conjuncture.

European employers are engaging earnestly in this democratic exercise so that the Conference ultimately creates a structured and virtuous participation mechanism around Recovery, Reform and Resilience.

The economic and social polarisation which came with the financial and the euro crises, coupled with the EU’s inner divisions following the influx of refugees in 2015 and, more recently, the pandemic, continue to have long-term destructive effects which cannot be repeated.

Proper spending of funds comes with strengthening the single market, which has boosted the resilience of EU member states during the pandemic. It is about time to achieve its full potential by securing economic gains with the full implementation and enforcement of existing legislation. Infringement procedures should be accelerated and applied more often. Further removal of barriers to the free movement of goods and services can only benefit all –customers, workers and businesses.

If we accept that the EU will remain in a permacrisis, we must also accept that we need more effective steering instruments that are flexible and agile to make us act faster, allowing the EU not only to survive but also to act powerfully as a global leader.

A major obstacle to the capacity to act is the continued use of unanimity in key policy areas. If we want the EU to speak with a strong, united voice, the passerelle clause envisaged by the current treaties should be used by default to take qualified majority decisions in foreign and security policy.

Equally, if we agree to the principle of ‘surrendering’ national sovereignty in specific policy areas, there must also be a culture of ‘restraint’ on the part of the Commission in exercising the right to propose legislation. That means that the Commission should take subsidiarity and proportionality seriously.

On another note, migration continues to be one of the biggest and most dangerous wedges dividing the EU. The asylum system must be reformed immediately, with solidarity and human values being the key words. We have said this all too often, yet we are still far from finding optimal solutions. We cannot invoke European values and at the same time be unable to provide humane conditions in hot spot regions with large scale refugee camps or to save people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea or the English Channel. In all Member States, political forces very successfully benefit from these contradictions and politically exploit the fear of irregular migration.

The Conference on the Future of Europe should deliver innovative proposals, but it should also pave the way for better implementation of what is already there. The concept of the ‘cost of non-Europe´ was the leitmotif of the landmark Cecchini Report in April 1988, which helped provide a powerful economic rationale for the programme to complete the Single Market by the end of 1992. It is a concept that is even more relevant today as policy-makers must better align the new strategies – Industrial strategy, the European Data Strategy and the European Green Deal – with the future challenges awaiting us.

European employers are putting forward their ideas for the future of Europe in the innovative digital platform that has been purposely set up. However, we lack any kind of visibility as to what and how (if at all) our proposals will be taken on board.

The current climate is already difficult enough as it is for enterprises to navigate. Europe, its citizens, and its enterprises need and deserve a stronger effort and commitment.

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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