The Conference on the Future of Europe opened on the 9th of April. After a decade crippled with crises, European leadership proved it did not intend to dwell on the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the coming years, the European Union’s political order will have to act on three evolutions: the green transition, the digital transition, the convergence of Member States on a European foreign policy. The pandemic interrupted a momentum set on rejuvenating European Integration, after the UK’s vote to leave the community. As such, the Conference is meant to finally propel the European project into the next decade.
Just before the 9th of April, Ursula von der Leyen inaugurated the 10th anniversary of the Conference on the State of the Union and shared her decisive vision for the future of the Union. “La storia d’Europa è una storia di Rinascimenti”, the story of Europe is a story of new beginnings, pledged the President of the European Commission.
Defiant commentators may argue: since 2008, the story of Europe has been one of a lack of coherence and last-minute rescues. At best, the story of Europe is a story of resilience. EU’s leaders - reaffirming their stance after two systemic crises, the sovereign debt debacle and the pandemic, in midst of Russian aggressions at the Eastern borders, a refugee crisis prodding at the robustness of its values, Brexit, the American disengagement, swelling populisms, assert that crises lead to new convergences.
Yet, the coronavirus outbreak evidenced the lack of acknowledgment of a legitimacy crisis intensifying since the Greek Debt debacle. In April 2020, European solidarity was crippled by a country-first reflex, eroding the hard-earned transition towards federalist governance, when member-states endorsed export-bans on medical products. Put under quarantine, the European project and its values were forced into an arena where they competed against authoritarian regimes’ promptness in dealing with the virus. As Giorgio Agamben or Slavoj Žižek, many dusted their old copy of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, feeding anxieties over the birth of surveillance states in the heart of the Union. A little more than one year after the start of the pandemic, the Conference on the Future of Europe assumes that the European Project came out of the crisis, and perhaps even stronger. It seems the Union does not need to reflect much longer on what went wrong but instead go forth into the world to come. Such eagerness culminated on the 7th of April. Ursula Von der Leyen inaugurated the European Renaissance.
The Renaissance (14th - 17th c.) was a period of feverish innovations in art, culture, economy, politics, and law leading Europe out of the Middle Age and toward the modern-day, enlightened, civilizations. The transition built upon recycled precepts occulted by the Middle Ages, such as classical philosophy, arts, or medicine. The Renaissance was ignited by the humanist philosophy’s rebirth in Florence, a value that became the tenet of the period’s Zeitgeist. A renaissance is a process bridging an era of great troubles to one of economic, political, artistic, scientific, and societal prosperity. Ursula Von der Leyen’s use of the concept plays on many similarities, one of which is the advent of pandemics: the Black Death, in 1346, and the Coronavirus.
Why is the Renaissance of the European Union needed? The theme underpinning the Conference on the Future of Europe with a sense of urgency: Europe in a changing world. In a letter addressed to European citizens on the eve of the 2019 European elections, French President Emmanuel Macron already incanted for a European Renaissance. Emphasizing the irony of a crossroad where the Union was both the safeguard of democratic values and fragilized as such, Emmanuel Macron argued that the Union had not been able to answer the people’s needs in the contemporary world. Unable to isolate the phenomenon, he hinted at the European Union’s legitimacy crisis.
In Florence, Ursula Von der Leyen loosely confessed its identification to justify her Renaissance. Praising the cohesion of European democracies, she implicitly references Hungary and Poland’s violation of the rule of law, while participating in the Commission’s lenience on the matter. If the Union does not address such challenge to the rule of law heads-on, the cohesion of the community, the legitimacy of its political order may crumble.
An institutional argument explains the Renaissance’s dynamic: in the years leading up to 2021, governmental changes redefined the leadership and political stance of the Union. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron, that of Ursula Von der Leyen at the head of the Commission, Christine Lagarde’s arrival at the Central Bank, and finally, Charles Michel’s Presidency of the Council. The advent of the COVID-19 proved to be a tipping point: the leaders seized an opportunity to dictate the European project’s new chapter.
Enterprises need objectives, where must the Renaissance guide the community? Ursula Von der Leyen is rather pragmatic: Europe must deliver for its citizens and avoid further frustration. That this endeavor is announced as the pandemic is better monitored may reveal a volition to sweep governance failures under the rug. What it does more surely is highlighting the complex relationship chaining the European Project and Union to crises. All began with Jean Monnet: “ Europe will be forged in crises and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises”. If the witticism is perceptive, it is also sclerotic. What can be said of a political order if it only appears legitimate and relevant during crises? What can be said of a political order if it can only be regenerated by crises? Must the Union await interruptions to be set into motion? European leaders struggle with formulating objectives rather than crisis responses and recovery policies. The European Union needs projects for the plateaus.
In the context of multiplying initiatives to build back better, an additional question must be dealt with: If a renaissance is Europe’s rejuvenation, what must be allowed to be born again? What ought to be improved?
In his letter, Emmanuel Macron outlines three pillars: liberty, protection, and progress. There are to be the values solving an identity crisis “ Faced with the great shocks of the world, citizens often ask us: Where is Europe? What is Europe doing? In their eyes, it has become a soulless market”. Likewise, Ursula Von der Leyen drafts a Renaissance strong of the convergence on values. “Europe has demonstrated that a union of democracies can deliver in times of crisis. For its own citizens. And for the rest of the world. Under huge pressure, we Europeans stood by our values”.
The EU values are common to the EU countries in a society in which inclusion, tolerance, justice, solidarity, and non-discrimination prevail. These values are an integral part of our European way of life:
Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected, protected, and constitutes the real basis of fundamental rights.
Freedom of movement gives citizens the right to move and reside freely within the Union. Individual freedoms such as respect for private life, freedom of thought, religion, assembly, expression, and information are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The functioning of the EU is founded on representative democracy. Being a European citizen also means enjoying political rights. Every adult EU citizen has the right to stand as a candidate and to vote in elections to the European Parliament. EU citizens have the right to stand as candidates and to vote in their country of residence, or in their country of origin.
Equality is about equal rights for all citizens before the law. The principle of equality between women and men underpins all European policies and is the basis for European integration. It applies in all areas. The principle of equal pay for equal work became part of the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Although inequalities still exist, the EU has made significant progress.
Rule of law
The EU is based on the rule of law. Everything the EU does is founded on treaties, voluntarily and democratically agreed by its EU countries. Law and justice are upheld by an independent judiciary. The EU countries gave final jurisdiction to the European Court of Justice which judgments have to be respected by all.
Human rights are protected by the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. These cover the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation, the right to the protection of your personal data, and the right to get access to justice.
– From The EU in brief, the European Union
Claire Busse, Rafael Loss, Jana Puglierin, and Pawel Zerka, for The European Council on Foreign Relations, conclude: the EU has been surprisingly able to cope with the 2010s and its crises, through reforms, adaptations, or integration. “Crises no longer pose existential threats to the EU as a political order”.
However, the EU is slow to address a setback brewing in its flanks. More damaging than the Coronavirus Crisis, events such as the hijacking of the Ryanair Flight 4978 departing from Greece by Belarus may aggravate the fragmentation of the European project's legitimacy if EU Institutions fail to respond. When it comes to its sovereignty and values, the Union can not afford to "fail forward”. A worrying development is Ursula Von der Leyen’s closing remark: the community emerged from the pandemic with a newfound purpose. Values have been the purpose of the Union since the ratification of its first treaties…
The erosion of democratic principles in the Union is a threat the Commission must tackle in the pursuit of its legitimacy. Values are not debated theology but an imperative to act. Otherwise, the Renaissance will fail to be anything but one more incantation. NextGenerationEU and its €750 Billion recovery package, the largest in Europe since the Marshall Plan, is a first achievement. A social European Union is being established, nevertheless, the Commission and the Union must strengthen the EU’s stance when its values of democracy, rule of law, and human dignity are being negated.