It is gratifying that the EU Member States have convened a conference on the Future of Europe which held its first plenary meeting on 19 June, more than twenty years after the Convention on the Future of Europe which led to a future Constitutional Treaty, aborted as we know following the
negative votes of Dutch and French citizens.
But the reality is that since this failure, the EU has been accumulating negative votes, as we have seen with the referendums in Ireland, Denmark, Greece or the Netherlands, but especially with the unexpected vote in favour of BREXIT.
The BREXIT marks the first departure of a major state in the construction of Europe, the United Kingdom, a country to which Jean Monnet was so attached that he was the one who drew up a project for a merger with France during the debacle of June 1940. It was not until the departure of General De Gaulle from the French political scene that the United Kingdom, reluctant to accept any idea of pooling European resources, finally rallied behind the star-spangled banner of Europe. Jean Monnet was publicly delighted!
Learn from our failures:
The departure of the United Kingdom, following a popular vote, is a trauma from which we must learn. The classic Brussels explanation of the manipulation of public opinion in England by populists and an anti-European press is not enough to explain this result. It is also very disturbing to note that it was the working classes, the less well-off neighbourhoods and cities that voted to leave the EU, the very people that Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman wanted to mobilise in favour of European construction that would bring them peace, prosperity and social progress!
The lesson we can learn from this fiasco is that the distance between the institutions and the people, and in particular the poorest people, is dramatic.
It is therefore essential that, at this conference on the future of Europe, we draw the right and real lessons from the BREXIT, not the ones that please us and suit us!
We must therefore regain the confidence of citizens, and in particular that of working-class people.
It is positive that the Members of the Executive Committee of the Conference have announced that they will pay the greatest attention to the opinions that citizens and civil society will express, both through a platform open to suggestions from all and through citizens' panels.
However, I would stress that the citizens' panels must reflect the full diversity of European opinions and, above all, not be limited to the usual suspects, English-speaking people who are used to the corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg. The first indications we have in this respect are not very encouraging!
It will also be fundamental that the views, suggestions and opinions presented on the platform and by the citizens' panels should not be treated in an anecdotal way but seriously considered by the Conference.
It would also be desirable if there were no sectarianism in the consideration of citizens' opinions. All criticism should not be rejected on principle, as the Brussels Commission unfortunately too often does. If whole sections of our societies have distanced themselves not from the European idea, but from the European institutions, it is because the idea of a Brussels that only looks after the interests of the wealthy and the elite has developed.
We must show that we will listen to the people!
This unique opportunity to consult public opinion should not be considered as a gimmick: the expected results of the Conference, in spring 2022, should reflect the expectations of the European people, and not only the projections of the Institutions or the elites living in the European microcosm!
The work of the Conference should focus on two main questions: what kind of Europe do we want and what new common policies should Europe have?
On the first question, "What kind of Europe do we want?", I would like to refer to a famous quote from Jean Monnet, in his Memoirs, who said: "We are not uniting states, we are uniting people"..
This sentence is highly symbolic of the Founders' thinking, haunted as they were by the risk of a return of national egoisms. It is clear that, for almost thirty years, the construction of Europe has been slowly sliding towards a board of coalised states! One example is the growing number of meetings of the European Council, an institution that did not exist at the outset and which has become omnipresent in recent years. There have been 17 European Councils since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, 19 of which were devoted mainly or exclusively to this subject. At the time of its creation in 1974, which Jean Monnet had welcomed, three European Councils were to be held "to deepen political cooperation", then four according to the Treaty of "Lisbon", ... today there are more than ten Councils per year, often with agendas that go well beyond the impetus and definition of general political orientations and priorities as provided for in Article 15 of the Treaty...
If the European Councils were supposed to set the course, they have become the place where decisions are taken on practically everything, from budgetary decisions to group purchases of vaccines, from trade agreements with third countries to relations with authoritarian regimes in Turkey, Russia or China. Is it right
By multiplying the meetings of heads of state and government, where alliances and coalitions are formed and where national logics clash, that we are going to "unite women and men"? The European Council has thus become a board of coalised states!
On the contrary, we believe that, in order for the impetus to come more from the people, the European Parliament, which represents them through its Members, must exercise more clearly the political control functions assigned to it by the Treaty and must be more involved in initiating laws and action programmes.
We also believe that the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) mechanism should be better framed and deepened in order to make it a permanent instrument to give the people the possibility to play a concrete role, alongside the Parliament, in giving impetus to the Union's actions.
Without giving the people the opportunity to participate in the European project, a kind of denial of democracy, we are in fact weakening the foundations of our Union! It is wrong to believe that only a well-informed elite can guide the European project. In French we rightly speak of "bon sens populaire"!
Uniting Women and Men
The Conference on the Future of Europe should be well aware that it is the projects that most directly affect the daily lives of Europeans, such as the ERASMUS student exchange programme, that have the greatest support among European citizens: Eurobarometer surveys show this to be true. These programmes are also unanimously supported by the political forces.
We believe that the issue of uniting women and men should once again become the Union's number one priority, by developing youth exchanges beyond students, towards secondary school students, apprentices, young job seekers, young people in difficulty, and senior citizens!
The EU could also reinvest in the abandoned field of twinning between European cities, neighbourhoods, associations, workers' or professionals' unions, traders' associations, etc. We have forgotten that Franco-German reconciliation was achieved just as much through visits by folk groups, brass bands and bowls associations as in the courtyard of the Elysée Palace!
Return to the Monnet method
On the second question of the Conference, "what new policies to pursue together", it should be recalled that the Community method, also known as the "Monnet method", has led Europe to its current successes, on the internal market or agricultural policy, whereas all the other methods that have been tried since then, from the purely intergovernmental to the mixed formulas and the "open method of coordination", have only met with mixed successes or patent failures.
Adapting the "Monnet method" to our times is feasible: it means 1° identifying a common good or a common challenge to be addressed together, 2° analysing well the ways and means to better succeed together in meeting the challenges and making the necessary transfers of sovereignty to the European level, 3° entrusting the implementation to an independent and competent team, under the control of the states and the citizens (through the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament). This independent and competent team should not be permanently confronted with national interests and political pressures, as is the case today.
A key idea of Monnet's, together with that of his famous method, was that of concrete achievements.
Finally, and above all, we must identify concrete achievements that will make citizens, especially those in rural areas and neighbourhoods in difficulty, feel more aware of what Europe can bring them, and we will thus be able to develop a European identity which, today, apart from a few privileged people such as ERASMUS students, only exists in a very diffuse manner among the majority of citizens.
Let's think about concrete topics related to current events!
Why not imagine today, for example, after the catastrophic fires that ravaged Greece this summer, the setting up by the summer of 2022 or 2023 of a real European civil protection corps against fires with its own command and resources (2000 women/men at least) with, in particular, a European naval air fleet? The current European coordination system is very inadequate and deficient. It took three days for the Italian Canadairs based in Pisa to reach Corsica on fire in 2018, 80 km away, and they arrived far too late to save houses, sheepfolds, herds and hundreds of hectares of beautiful Mediterranean forest! Indeed, the current system provides for consultation with national governments, the Brussels Commission and the Permanent Representations of the States! 3 days lost and teams unaccustomed to working together despite the rare joint exercises!
Almost 10 years ago, Michel Barnier had already made a proposal in this sense to the then President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso! The principle was also proposed in an opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee at the same time. The reports have remained in the wardrobe!
Faced with all these new challenges facing European societies, and in particular climate change and new health risks, the use of the Monnet method and concrete achievements will speak more to citizens than fine speeches on geopolitics or philosophy!
A modernised Monnet method, applied to areas that touch the lives of citizens and where it will be easy to demonstrate their effectiveness, will be able to coexist perfectly with the institutionalisation of the European Council to deal with more complex issues such as defence and foreign policy.
However, the question of the definition and scope of the "independent and competent team" will also have to be addressed, because over the years the European Commission has become much more politicised, numerous agencies have been created, mixing the Community and intergovernmental methods without much clarity, and the role of external consultants has increased considerably, with the risk of causing conflicts of interest. The result is great confusion for citizens and the impression that "an opaque and bureaucratic structure governs in Brussels".
The role of the lobbies present in Brussels, particularly those of the multinationals, is often and rightly denounced. The Conference on the Future of Europe must not divert attention from this real problem!
I have always protested, particularly in my capacity as President of the European civil society institution, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), against the dangers of bureaucratisation and an overly elitist Europe!
It is time to rediscover the roots of the European project, which lie in the support of the people for very simple ideas and very concrete achievements!
If the Conference on the Future of Europe addresses these points and sends us a draft, it will make a real contribution to the future of our Union. If it remains superficial, technical, nonsensical, legal and incomprehensible to the average person, it will be another "shot in the dark".
Jean Monnet, who had not been able to pass the baccalaureate and had left school at the age of 16, used to make his driver read out all the texts written by his collaborators for his European project. If the driver did not understand the meaning, he would ask him to rewrite them in a language that everyone could understand!
This is the path we want to follow in the Jean Monnet Association: to give back to the European project its popular dimension in order to build a United States of Europe!
YUST ACADEMY NEWSLETTER No. 8 September 2021