The future of Europe: “citizens with real experience” and the European Political Community

By Pedro Madeira Froufe (Editor) and Tiago Sérgio Cabral (Managing Editor)

1. The expression “citizens with real experience”, was used by President Emmanuel Macron in his speech on 9 May 2022 at the European Parliament.[1] 

This speech was delivered at the European Parliament’s traditional Europe Day session. This year, this session also marked the closing of the Conference on the Future of Europe. In fact, President Macron used that expression, addressing all those who were involved in the work of the Conference, highlighting the democratic exercise that meant the active participation of citizens, concretised in several proposals. According to Macron, these proposals are creative, as indeed the times we live in in Europe require.

2. The first striking feature of this speech has to do directly with the temporal contextualisation of President Macron’s programmatic ideas. A time of war. A time of war that effectively demands “creative efforts” in the search for European responses to the crisis that, from the outset, erupted because of the war. “Creative efforts’ which, undoubtedly and according to Macron, are more necessary today than they were in the past.

Now, this speech of 9 May 2022 reminds us of another, also given by Emannuel Macron, on 26 September 2017, at Sorbonne. And understanding the current proposals is perhaps best achieved by thinking back to that earlier 2017 speech – and, above all, in its different context. Times, indeed, are different today, posing problems to European integration not foreseen until a few months ago, now requiring structural and disruptive responses. Answers that match the need for European political (and even civilisational) survival.

3. Indeed, in 2017 – shortly after being elected President of the French Republic – Macron’s focus was on the need to strengthen the European economy and, at the same time, the need to bring citizens closer to the European Union by making it more present in the daily lives of those European citizens. In 2017 we were beginning to become aware of the emergence of populisms asserting themselves through the normal functioning of democratic processes. Formal democracy was serving as a “gateway” to populist movements of various types and configurations which, in common, had one objective: the exercise of power in an anti-democratic way. Basically, we were facing a relative novelty in several states, including European ones: the negation of democracy and the democratic rule of law, such negation being legitimised through the (formal) exercise of democracy itself. We were becoming aware of the erosion of democracies and their fragilities – perhaps most impressively after the election of Donald Trump and the results in the Brexit referendum. After the ‘sovereign debt’ crisis, 2016 was a milestone in the realisation of the risks that European democracy could face. Correlatively, a narrative of political-constitutional reaction to this state of affairs and to such paradoxically “democratic-populist” advances was being constructed. To a large extent, this narrative was based on the so-called “democratic gap” of the European institutions – manifested, according to some, in the distance between the actions of the institutions and European citizens…

4. Of course, such a gap existed and still exists. This “gap” has always been present in the construction of Europe. The Union is, from a political and institutional operating point of view, a complex and innovative reality (an UPO or “Unidentified Political Object”, as Jacques Delors put it). Inevitably, especially when we are inheritors of the mental framework of the modern State, we have some difficulty in immediately understanding the complex political-institutional functioning of the Union. It is based on a permanent process of political balances. But it is not always the “institutional architecture” that causes this dislocation. The problems of democracy do not always depend immediately on legal and constitutional formulas. Placing the health of democracy solely on existing “institutional architectures”, without taking other circumstantial, cultural, sociological and economic factors into account, is also unrealistic (and is basically a relative disregard for the will and freedom of citizens). But, in any case, in 2017 – at a time when the pandemic and the war were still unknown – one of the most pressing concerns was to combat the erosion of democratic functioning, with the widespread understanding that, to do so, it would be necessary to bring citizens closer to the functioning of the Union at all costs. It would be necessary to overcome the European Union’s alleged democratic “gap”, namely by proceeding to a (very difficult) institutional reform.

5. Nowadays, in a different time, post-pandemic and post-war Ukraine, it is the very “existential” objectives of the Union that are in danger. It is important not to forget that European integration was born out of the rubble of the Second World War, with a motivation that was conditio sine qua non for the very survival of Europe and its people: avoiding war. It is true that the history of European integration has been built on overcoming crises. However, integrated Europe had not yet been confronted with a kind of ‘return to its origins’, i.e. it had not yet had to deal with a war that called into question the European order of peace and went against the values and the ‘European way of life’ (solidified during 72 years of integration). And the war in Ukraine is sequentially the culmination of a time of unprecedented difficulties that began with Brexit, go through the pandemic and its effects, culminating now in the Russian invasion of sovereign and pro-European Ukraine.

For all these reasons, it is understandable that now in 2022 and compared to 2017, there is a growing understanding that this alleged “gap” should be overcome and/or mitigated through an exercise of dialogue between political decision-makers, between the Union institutions themselves and the citizens. Listening to the citizens will be more immediately useful in closing this gap than redesigning the Union’s institutional framework (however necessary this may be). Admittedly, many of the proposals made by citizens in the course of the work of the Conference on the Future of Europe may prove difficult to put into practice; a significant proportion of them will require a revision of the Treaties. Some of them will even be contradictory. However, European democracy (which is not and does not have to be state democracy, since its construction and legitimacy are different from those of state democracies) is most immediately attainable through this exercise of listening to the citizens and engaging in dialogue with them. If the Union wants to be effective in preserving the ‘European way of life’, it will have to be politically realistic and, to do so, it needs to understand that reality. Listen to the “real experts”! That will have been one of the great merits of the Conference on the Future of Europe – which, as Macron pointed out in his speech, represented a new and remarkable exercise in democracy and creativity.

6. In Emmanuel Macron’s speech we would highlight three major programmatic lines for the future of Europe and also a proposal that, in essence, may be decisive, from a strategic point of view, for the political strengthening of Europe and the Union. A proposal that may represent a particularly appropriate path, at the present time, for deepening integration. Perhaps even a path that will lead us, from now on, to a new vision of European integration – at least from the point of view of the methodology to be followed to build and deepen that integration.

Macron states that “we are not at war with Russia”. However, he adds that “We are working as Europeans to preserve the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine so that peace returns to our continent”, but that “it is up to Ukraine alone to define the conditions for negotiations with Russia”. He then goes on to explain what he considers to be the Union’s necessary posture after the war, without forgetting the lessons of history (particularly after the First World War): when peace returns to European soil, we must build the new security balances, together, without giving in to the temptation of humiliation or the spirit of revenge, since such revenge and humiliation have already blocked the paths to peace in the past’. However, this point is, in any case, causing some discomfort, some disagreement between the leaders of some Member States. For example the Prime Minister of Estonia, Kaja Kallas, who believes that it is up to Putin – and not Europe – to “save face” by sending troops “back to Russia”. 

From a European point of view, the crisis resulting from the war we are experiencing – which will necessarily support Ukraine in its efforts to achieve peace and then in its reconstruction – should not make us forget Europe’s agenda. In other words, the future path of integration must continue to focus on protecting the climate and biodiversity, health and food quality. On building a fairer and more inclusive Europe. A more egalitarian Europe (Macron expressly refers to the construction of equality between men and women) and also, a Europe endowed with the means necessary to ensure its defence (i.e. with an effective Common Security and Defence Policy, giving effect to Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union). In addition – rather, culminating all of this – Macron stresses, in his speech on 9 May, the need to build a Europe that shows solidarity and defends its values and the rule of law.

In short, a first programmatic line enunciated for the future of Europe consists in pursuing the European agenda, naturally considering the war, but and despite this war, continuing the defence of what are the values of an integrated Europe and the defence of the rule of law. [2]  

7. Referring directly to the conclusions drawn from the work of the Conference on the Future of Europe, Macron lists two further programmatic lines to be pursued by European construction. Macron states that the work of the Conference highlights “two requirements” for the construction of European integration, two imperatives without which democracies in Europe cannot be legitimised: independence and efficiency.

8. The strategic independence enunciated by Emmanuel Macron rediscovers concepts (also previously enunciated by the President of the French Republic) such as “technological sovereignty” and sovereignty in defence matters (the aforementioned Common Security and Defence Policy). European technological independence (technological sovereignty) corresponds to the need for European self-sufficiency in certain goods; the ability to produce goods that, for example, become fundamental to overcoming the issue of energy dependence (e.g. the manufacture of semiconductors). A reorientation of the Union’s industrial policy to give an integrated Europe the capacity to meet autonomously certain needs which, for example, are particularly acute in certain crises. The pandemic initially highlighted the difficulties experienced by the Union in supplying certain simple production products and equipment, such as masks and swabs (practically all of which are imported from China). But such European independence also urgently covers food independence (“food sovereignty” and “protein sovereignty” are expressions used by Macron).

Moreover, we want to underline another aspect that, in a relatively new way, is introduced by the narrative of European independence: “democratic and information independence” (indépendence démocratique et informationnelle). On this point, and again in a direct manner, Macron relies on the work/proposals that expressly result from the Conference on the Future of Europe, stressing that Europe is basically (and increasingly is intended to be!) a power of citizenship and democracy.  That is its intrinsic strength.

9. The key idea about the need for Europe to be effective is summed up in the ability to respond to crises with strength, clarity and speed and, above all, to be able to do so while respecting democracy and the Union of law. Macron illustrates this idea with the European response in terms of the production and distribution of vaccines, against the pandemic of COVID-19. In fact, in freedom, transparency and democracy, scientific creativity itself is enhanced and has enabled an integrated Europe to become a ‘health power’ in a short space of time, able to manage the response to the pandemic (in relation to vaccines) as effectively as possible.

10. Amendments of the Treaties and, therefore, an institutional change (evolution) of the Union was also considered in this speech of 9 May. However, compared to Macron’s 2017 speech, this theme did not take on the same vehemence and emphasis as it did in 2017.

In fact, Macron has now suggested a return to the conventional method for working on a revision of the Treaties. That is, the creation of a Convention (as had happened with the ill-fated “Constitutional Treaty”, approved by the European Council in 2004), enunciating guidelines for such work: revision of the rules for electing and appointing representatives and members of the Union institutions, revision of the rules for control (of the Union’s action), extension of the right/power of legislative initiative also to the European Parliament and, in some way, deepening the democratic control of European decision-making processes. In addition, Macron has put on the table of this Convention for the revision of the Treaties the generalisation of decision making through qualified majority voting (reducing the cases where unanimity is currently required), as well as the simplification of the functioning of the Union (and therefore of the Treaties themselves).

11. What turns out to be the most relevant and innovative strategic proposal made by Macron in his speech and which, in our view, will end up occupying a large part of the debate on the future of Europe, is the proposal to create a new organisation (platform of coordination and political cooperation), called European Political Community.

A strategic proposal that may be, as we have already mentioned, a particularly suitable path towards deepening integration (overcoming, at this point, deadlocks) and organising post-war Europe in Ukraine.

Macron began by taking the example of Ukraine at war to explain his proposal. He described Ukraine as a true Member State “at the heart”, given its courage and resilience in the face of the invasion it suffered. Yet, according to Macron, even if Ukraine had candidate status for membership of the Union tomorrow, we know full well that the process that would allow it to join would take several years, decades strictly speaking – unless we decide to lower the standards of this membership and therefore completely rethink the unity of our Europe, perhaps even the principles on behalf of which we are demanding of some of our own Member States. Macron recognises the legitimate aspirations regarding the future membership not only of Ukraine, but also of other states such as Moldova and Georgia. However, while also recognising the European nature of the choices made by these states (undoubtedly future Member States), he makes it clear that the material conditions are not in place to allow them effective membership quickly.

On the other hand, it assumes the evolving and “multi-speed” nature of European integration. He refers – in a “friend cannot tie friend” logic – to the fact that it has not so far been possible to hold a meeting between Heads of State and/or Heads of Government in the strict “euro zone” format, as such meetings (notably in the European Council) imply the presence of all Member States. He used an impressive image to illustrate his point: in certain areas in the Union, the Member States were like a kind of condominium dwellers who had to invite the whole street to meet and discuss their own particular issues!

For Macron, a multi-speed Europe’ already exists, and it may even be beneficial to take it on as such from an institutional point of view. The fact that the deepening of integration, within the framework of the Union, is first undertaken by some states (and not all!), encourages the others to evolve in the same direction. Europe will very probably have to reorganise itself, under pressure from the aftermath of the war. It will have to reconstruct itself from the point of view of defending its interests and with a view to occupying a place which will enable it to have increasing influence in international politics. As a matter of defence, it should be a political actor with an increasingly effective influence on a global scale. And the European interest in preserving the status of democratic power and citizenship should result from a dynamic of interaction between all those who share the same values (civilisational, environmental, democratic, openness and tolerance and respect for human rights and individual freedom). Rather than a homogeneous path taken by a “bloc” (the Union), we should build a “network” of interactions between Member States and non-Member States, as well as organisations that complement and strengthen each other, interacting with each other.

In this sense, anticipating a near future, the creation of an alliance or organisation under international law, interacting with the European Union, as a sort of anteroom of integration and/or solidarity-based neighbourhood, could be a factor for the reinforcement of European political and civilisational unity. And it is in this sense that we understand the proposal to create a European Political Community, including all those who aim at integration.  Or even of States such as the United Kingdom which, despite Brexit, naturally intends to maintain a certain level of political cooperation and even integration (above all, commercial) with the European Union. 

A well-established example that could serve as a reference, with the necessary adaptations, is perhaps the “European Economic Area”, established by the Treaty of Porto…

[1] Read the speech at:

[2] Cf.  (7 de junho de 2022).

Picture credits: hpgruesen.

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