Emmanuel Macron has said national divisions during the Covid-19 pandemic have highlighted the need to “beef up” EU powers, as he opened a consultation on Europe’s future at an event that was almost cancelled due to internal squabbling.
Speaking from a TV studio set up in the middle of the hemicycle of the European parliament in Strasbourg, the French president said he hoped the Future of Europe conference, a rolling series of events and online public opinion surveys, would strengthen EU level decision-making.
Macron avoided mentioning treaty change to shift competences to EU institutions from national governments, something vehemently opposed by a large number of member state governments who might be forced to trigger referendums in response.
He instead spoke in broad terms of the difficulties experienced during the pandemic in coordinating efforts due to a lack of central powers in the field of health and the problem of decision-making being “strangled in our procedures”. The most common form of EU decision-making, including in foreign policy, is done by a “qualified majority” of support among the 27 member states.
“We were divided in the beginning, for some time, when it came to purchasing masks or shutting our borders at times, even for the recovery [fund],” Macron said. “The European Central Bank was up to the task and suspended the budgetary and competition rules which allowed us to state our desire to get the economy going again but in many areas the European Union doesn’t have the same competence or the same will, and sometimes it really has very little to work with in the field of health and that’s still the case today.
“This weakness explained the difficulties in coordination,” Macron said. “Therefore, we need to learn the lessons given this major shock of the pandemic; we need to beef up our common capacity because it is at the European level that we’ll come up with the relevant response.
“And finally, we’ve noted, oftentimes, that Europe wasn’t moving forward quickly enough, was lacking ambition,” he added. “Our European democracy is one of compromise of striking a balance, and that’s something that we need to protect like a treasure, because it avoids any hegemony. It is also a weakness when we are strangled in our own procedures … We need to find an effective way forward with ambition to get through the crises and to avoid not taking decisions.”
Macron said the Conference on the Future of Europe, first proposed three years ago, was an opportunity to decide what the EU would like in 10 to 15 years.
It had, however, risked getting off to the worst possible start due to a row between those who wanted to keep the final decisions on reforms to a small executive board and the demand expressed by Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s representative on the body, for a plenary involving MEPs, citizens and government ministers, to have a bigger say.
The row, which had threatened to end in a humiliating cancellation of the launch, is a symptom of the division between those who want the process to lead to the first change to the EU’s founding treaties since the Lisbon treaty in 2007 and those intent on stymying anything so radical.
Ahead of its launch – held on Europe Day celebrating Robert Schuman’s proposal to pool German and French steel and coal 71 years ago – a text circulated by 12 countries had called for commitments to “safeguarding the inter-institutional balance, including the division of competencies”. “It should not create legal obligations, nor should it duplicate or unduly interfere with the established legislative processes,” the note said.
The compromise struck will involve the regularly assembled plenary consisting of 433 participants, including 108 MEPs and 108 from national parliaments, plus representatives of the European commission and governments, providing input and giving approval to a final report from by the executive board next spring. The issues to be discussed will be determined by citizens’ panels and input gathered from an online notice board.
In a sign of in inter-institutional debate ahead, David Sassoli, the European parliament’s president, a role similar to that of the UK’s speaker of the House of Commons, said he hoped the process would lead to greater powers for the directly elected chamber, including that of initiating legislation, a role monopolised by the European Commission.