I thank the Chairman and committee for the invitation to attend. I thought I would go through a few basic ideas and some of the questions and follow up on what my fellow speakers have said.
As we know, the idea of a Conference on the Future of Europe has been a long time in the brewing. It was mapped out as a possible path by then Commission President Juncker in March 2017 in his White Paper on the future of Europe and, of course, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since that time, with Brexit, the rule of law crisis in eastern Europe and the coronavirus crisis. The present phase was kicked off in July 2019 by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in her inaugural address in which, and this may be interesting for the committee to recall, she entrusted responsibility to particular Commissioners - Vice President Šuica, Vice President Šefcovic and Vice President Jourová. The fact there are high-ranking Commissioners involved in this might give ideas for future guests to be invited in on this particular topic.
The basic idea of this conference is that it would be an opportunity for a thorough reflection on the direction of the European Union and its institutional set-up. This body would look at the medium to long-term future of the EU and what reforms should be made to its policies and institutions. In other words, it would be an opportunity to engage in a more structured debate with the aim of improving the functioning of the European Union not only in terms of institutional dynamics but also its policies. Things really got going at the end of last year. In October 2019 we had the European Parliament's Conference of Presidents, which made proposals to the Parliament's Committee on Constitutional Affairs. The various institutions have come forward with their proposals.
As regards where the debate has reached, it had been expected that a joint declaration would kick off the event at this stage but we have experienced a lot of delay. One of the reasons for that is the Covid pandemic. Apart from Covid, there is also the difficulty of the failure to agree on who should share the conference. It is also fair to mention that there is a degree of scepticism in some member states about this process. It has been described as involving varying degrees of enthusiasm so there is that to consider as well.
I will turn very quickly to the questions, although Dr. Day has already dealt with some of them. For example, there is the issue of whether the Conference on the Future of Europe should build on the work of the previous citizens' dialogue on the future of Europe. The Council has explicitly suggested that this be the case and yet there is some ambivalence about the outcome of that dialogue and some feel that it has not led to anything in particular. There have been various attempts to involve the citizenry in debate about European matters and they have all had their limits. There is also a feeling that an ad hoc body like this might not be enough in and of itself in to involve the citizenry and that we might need a more permanent mechanism at some stage. The idea of involving the citizenry is to get a kind of bottom-up dialogue and yet this is coming from above and it is the institutions that are initiating this debate. We will have to see how well it works. It is not absolutely clear that it will work but we will see and we will remain optimistic. The problem of the democratic deficit at European level springs eternal. It is certainly a very interesting idea. I am particularly interested also in the idea of six citizens' assemblies or agoras that would deliberate throughout the conference process. It is an interesting and novel idea. Dr. Day made reference to the fact that she is chairing a Citizens' Assembly herself and a lot of attention will be paid to the Irish experience in that regard, as it is seen as having been very successful.
One of the questions was about what format the conference should take and how it should be organised. The best way of thinking about this is to think of three broad issues. We need to think of its mandate and whether it should it be broad or narrow, focus more on policies or on institutional proposals and competence issues, or, indeed, on both of those. Without a mandate for clear proposals it will just replicate existing and rather inconclusive forms of citizen engagement, rather like the citizens' dialogues. It might run the danger of just being reduced to a communications exercise. We need to bear in mind that it needs a clear mandate. It also requires wide participation and deep deliberation. That is very important. One good proposal is that its composition should look like the Convention on the Future of Europe and thus involve representatives of national parliaments in its deliberations. That would be important and would obviously be of relevance to this committee. Its follow-up should be important as well. It would be useful if not just the Commission but the institutions generally committed to delivering on legislative proposals that emerge from this conference and also to initiating debate on changing the treaties, based on all the proposals that come out of this conference.
The role of national parliaments was referred to by Dr. Day as well. It is crucial that national parliaments play a role in this regard.
The involvement of national parliaments creates transparency, attracts attention and creates a framework in which MEPs can transmit the outcome of deliberations and results to national capitals, transferring the debate from European to international level. It allows national perspectives to be tapped into and it is one means whereby a large variety of different views and options can be taken into account.
Deliberative democracy and citizens' dialogue are very important but there is a continuing role for national parliaments. They can play a big role in the organisation of the conference and participating in the conference. Here at home, one useful idea I have implicitly referred to would be to invite the Commissioners, Dubravka Šuica, Vra Jourová and Maroš Šefcovic. It would be useful to bring them in and, in that way, bring this debate to national level. Various types of parliamentary involvement can take place. One of the most important ones is for the national parliament to become a debating arena on the major issues and that would be an important role. To a certain extent, the Oireachtas can follow its own lead in regard to Brexit, in which the Seanad invited in various speakers on various issues. This committee could perform that role.
Another question was how events held as part of the conference could reach the broadest range of citizens. That is probably the biggest challenge for the citizens' dialogue. The use of technology is important and keeping everything online and viewable is important. They have a multilingual online platform. Covid imposes severe difficulties in terms of participation. I suggest delaying it until the vaccine could take effect but that is not realistic at this stage. We need to get moving on this.
As to whether treaty change should form part of the conclusions, if the committee discusses institutional issues, it is pretty much inevitable that we will get treaty change coming on the agenda. Certain member states, including Ireland, have been reportedly unenthusiastic about the prospect of treaty change because that involves a referendum here, with all the risks that entails, particularly in this age of bots and all kinds of shenanigans going on in respect of Internet interference in elections and referendums. If institutional issues are discussed and wished to be acted upon by the member states, then we are probably looking at referendums in due course. We need to be careful on this. It is not like the Convention on the Future of Europe. It is not intended to lead directly to treaty change. It is intended to culminate in a report to the European Council and then it has to be decided where things will go from there. It will not directly lead to treaty change and yet I think it will be the process that will initiate that.
There are many issues and the ultimate outcome of the conference depends on the focus of the issues. The General Affairs Council has had its own ideas on what issues should be addressed. Other issues have pushed themselves onto the agenda by the force of events such as health, fiscal policy and, to a certain extent, the Spitzenkandidaten system for choosing the Commission president. Individual state have their own priorities. There will be a broad division between policy issues and institutional reform. The impact of the conference will depend on the balance that is reached by those within the conference.
I have probably said enough. I have gone over a number of issues and I know to some extent overlapping what has been said but we will look forward to the discussion.