Geoff Meade / May 2021
Photo: European Union, 2021
In a spirit of post-Brexit positivity about the future of the European Union, I declare that from now on it is the duty of EU citizens everywhere to always look on the bright side of strife.
As we emerge, gingerly, from the menacing dark clouds of covid-19, our collective European vision requires nothing less than the constant use of words such as bold, united, strategic, ambitious, far-reaching and foresight, as we forge a path towards a forward-looking, sustainable and resilient future.
Using this approach, the result will be a European Union not just for tomorrow, but also for the day after that.
It will become the most must-have, go-to Union in the world, a rose-tinted spectacle built on the bedrock of a blue economy wrapped in the warm glow of a green deal, tied in ribbons fashioned from a discarded White Paper.
This is my response to Europe’s leaders and policymakers, who have called upon us all to make our voices heard in the year-long exercise in participatory democracy called the Conference on the Future of Europe.
But first we must stop the petty squabbling among insiders about who sits where and with what job title on which multilingual digital platform of the Conference’s burgeoning organogramme .
For instance, according to fairly reliable sources close to someone familiar with the inner workings of the conference a significant amount of time has already been spent arguing about whether the letter C in “co”, as in “Co-chair”, should have a capital letter.
And if it does, does the Chair bit also have a capital letter?
Both answers on this central issue appear to be yes, although we should not pre-judge the final outcome until the views of a series of “Citizens’ Panels” have been considered.
But why are we the people being asked to get so involved at all? Whatever happened to the tried and tested principle of “too-may-cooks-spoil-the-broth”?
Surely the combined existing participatory democratic efforts of the European Parliament, the European Economic and Social Committee, and the Committee of the Regions constitute sufficient grass roots consultation, with their ranks of elected and selected representatives of organised as well as disorganised civil society.
Having said that, it seemed churlish not to respond to the call after so many years when the best the big cheeses have come up with on EU advancement amounts to “Do less but do it better”, or “More Europe”, or “A Federal Future” or “Bonfire of the Directives”, or , my favourite, “Just Do Less”.
To hear from a few of the current crop of pretty big cheeses I tuned in to the official Future of Europe Conference launch event and was shocked to see a trio of dark-suited men on stage with the European Commission President – was Ursula von der Leyen about to be humiliated again?
Only three weeks earlier she publicly spoke of feeling “hurt and alone as a woman and a European” , after being sidelined on a sofa in a palace in Istanbul while Turkish President Erdogan and EU Council President Charles Michel bloke-ishly took pride of place in two pole-position armchairs for top-level talks..
This time, though, someone managed to count the right number of identical chairs for the right number of four VIP bottoms.
There were grandiose speeches from French President Macron, President David Sassoli of the European Parliament, Prime Minister Antonio Costa of Portugal and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in that order – not because Ursula had been once more downgraded as a woman, but because of the institutional pecking order.
In any case, Ursula used the event to announce that she had just become a grandmum for the first time, stealing the rhetorical thunder from the three chaps who urged the EU to “ find an effective way forward with ambition and to avoid not taking decisions.”(Macron); to “build a stronger, more resilient, more democratic and more united Europe”.(Sassoli); and to “address the key issues if we want to be successful.” (Costa).
But where was Ursula’s nemesis Charles Michel? Had granny banished him from her presence after the Istanbul fiasco?.
She’d love to, but no: Michel was not there because, for the purposes of the Future of Europe Conference, presidential precedence in the Council of Ministers goes not to the president of the European Council but to the rotating president-in-office of the Council of Ministers: Charles Michel does not rotate: Antonio Costa does - as one EU expert delightfully put it: “The president of the European Council isn’t involved in the future of Europe.”
But before I rush off to send my thoughts on the future of Europe to whoever it is who is actually in charge of this impressive new democratic engagement with we the people, let me highlight the very last words in the speech on Europe’s future from the only granny on the VIP platform.
Ursula started her address by commending a 1939 book called The Earth of Men by French author and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as containing all the aspirations of peace, harmony and goodwill the EU should follow in the quest for its future.
And she finished by quoting directly from the work: ““The most beautiful profession a man can have is that of bringing men together.”
Ursula, glowing with grandmotherly pride and beaming beatifically from the podium, and with no hint of sarcasm, added: It’s up to us to keep on doing that”.