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The COVID‑19 pandemic and its effects on the future of Europe

Insights by Federica Mogherini, Rector of the College of Europe, and former EU High Representative and Vice-President of the European Commission

Federica Mogherini giving her presentation during a hybrid meeting at the ECA on 6 October 2021.

Emergencies and crises come in all shapes and sizes. The most significant crisis in recent years, by virtue of its global reach, is undoubtedly COVID‑19, not least because of its massive consequences for human health and its economic impact. While any crisis requires a short-term response, there is also a long-term impact on society and how it will be organised in future. When she visited the ECA in October 2021 to reflect on the Conference on the Future of Europe, Federica Mogherini, Rector of the College of Europe, and High Representative of the EU and European Commission Vice‑President from 2014 to 2019, highlighted several aspects of the pandemic, which she felt would shape discussions on the future of Europe. Tijmen Stuart and Lisa Verhasselt, respectively a trainee and a secretary in the cabinet of ECA Member Alex Brenninkmeijer, provide insights into Federica Mogherini’s thoughts, and explain how she connects the pandemic to the long-term prospects for the European Union.

By Tijmen Stuart and Lisa Verhasselt, cabinet of Alex Brenninkmeijer, ECA Member.

Looking beyond shortcomings

On Wednesday, 6 October 2021, the ECA Working Group for the Conference on the Future of Europe organised a hybrid workshop with Federica Mogherini, Rector of the College of Europe and former High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Vice‑President of the European Commission. ECA staff could follow the debate either via Teams or in person, and were invited to express their ideas about Europe’s future from their perspective not only as auditors, but also as EU citizens. The event started with an introductory video message from ECA President Klaus-Heiner Lehne, and was followed by a presentation of the Conference programme by Annemie Turtelboom, the ECA Member chairing the Working Group. In her keynote address, Federica Mogherini shared her thoughts on the future of Europe.

Before discussing the opportunities presented by the Conference, Federica Mogherini took her listeners back a few years, specifically to June 2016 and the Brexit referendum. At the time, the debate centred on the question Who’s next? Mogherini, who was then the EU’s High Representative, recalls that the general feeling was that many other Member States might follow suit, signalling the ‘beginning of the end.’ Now, five years later, she noted that this dystopian vision had largely dissipated, giving way to debate on the future of the Union; a future that was currently being discussed with institutions and EU citizens, both at national and European level.

One particularly important point made by Federica Mogherini was the following: ‘Here we are, 27 still together, the Union reaffirming its mission and its vision, and we are looking at the future in an open and collective manner, including our citizens.’ For her, the flashback to 2016 highlighted ‘the distance between what we risked facing and losing, and where we are today. Because sometimes we focus a lot on the shortcomings, the difficulties, the challenges — and they are all there — and we forget to remind ourselves what we managed to avoid.’ She considered such a message to be equally significant for the Conference on the Future of Europe: ‘We should not enter this exercise only addressing the shortcomings and problematic elements, but we should also value the strong points and the achievements.’

COVID‑19: an opportunity in disguise?

The Conference on the Future of Europe is a joint initiative by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission, the aim being to give centre-stage to EU citizens in discussing the challenges and priorities facing Europe in the coming years. For the former High Commissioner, the initiative is particularly significant, as she had first‑hand experience of how important it is to have good governance and a healthy relationship with the public and public opinion. However, the Conference is unusual in that it is an open-ended exercise, and so there is no clear endgame. Given these circumstances, the COVID‑19 pandemic was very likely to hinder the Conference.

However, Federica Mogherini expressed an interesting alternative view of the interplay between COVID‑19 and the Future of Europe. She argued that the fact the Conference is taking place during a global pandemic brings with it several possibilities and opportunities. Had the Conference been held before the pandemic, it would probably have been ‘restricted to the conventional wisdom of what is possible and what is not possible.’ In other words, COVID‑19 has fundamentally changed the rules of the game, meaning that what was unthinkable only a couple of years ago is now possible.

She cited the example of public health, and explained that before the pandemic, the Union’s powers in the area of health were very limited and mostly exercised at national level — as laid down in the Treaties. In other words, it was inconceivable for the Union to intervene in health policies. ‘Now, it is not only conceivable, but also very much wished for and worked at in very practical ways.’ She added that such a development would have been unthinkable just five years ago. ‘Even the Conference on the Future of Europe as we will have now was almost unthinkable. We are in a timeframe where some key and long-standing taboos have been broken by the institutions as the best way to react to a crisis situation which was unprecedented and that was coming on top of layers of different crises we have experienced in the last two decades.’

According to Federica Mogherini, the last two decades have seen a constant series of crises in different areas. ‘Attacks on European soil, terrorist attacks, migration and refugee crises, financial crisis, the climate change crisis… The pandemic was just the biggest of all, not only for the EU but also for the rest of the world.’ She added that the repatriation of large numbers of European citizens by the European External Action Service (EEAS) also meant an expansion of the Union’s powers, with the EEAS playing a consular role that would usually lie with Member States. Such a development could best be thought of as the Union’s ‘excellent and very courageous manner of reacting to this extra-dramatic crisis.’

Federica Mogherini then reiterated her earlier message, namely that we should not take things for granted, and certainly not restrict our focus to shortcomings, particularly since this reaction to the pandemic was taking place at precisely the same time as the new institutional cycle was just starting. ‘The Commission had only started in December 2019, and by March 2020 was facing one of the most difficult decisions that a Commission could face, remotely and without even having learnt how to work together. The de facto expansion of (health) competencies and the use of macroeconomic and financial instruments of unprecedented scale (i.e. the recovery fund) would have been considered taboo.’ She underlined that, in the context of a global emergency, the Union had showed that by working together it was able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles with the support of its citizens. ‘If you think of how the EU faced the financial crisis and the debates in the Council mainly, but also in the Parliament about the financial and economic instruments to react to the financial crisis, and you measure that kind of discussion against the decision that was taken within a few weeks using the EU budget as a guarantee for borrowing money for Member States, just see how many taboos were broken in the last year and a half!’

All in all, the COVID‑19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for the European Union to bring about real change and progress that would otherwise have been impossible. According to Federica Mogherini, such examples of the Union’s development prove that ‘the future of Europe has already been put in motion from within, from the institutions themselves […] without there necessarily being a parallel discussion about what this implies for the change of structure, the change of policies, the change of perceptions also of European citizens.’ She took the view that the Conference on the Future of Europe ‘falls in a perfect place and time.’ In other words, the Conference will be the perfect framework not just to accompany and provide a structure for debate, but also to provide a sense of direction for certain changes that have already started within the institutions by also involving public opinion. Furthermore, the themes and issues tackled by the Conference also show that the EU clearly has very different priorities than might have been expected two or three years ago.

The Future of Europe: where are we heading?

For the Rector of the College of Europe, the Conference will be more than just a public consultation exercise; it is also a participatory process, which comes at a time when ‘it can really shape the future of Europe.’ The Union’s reaction to the pandemic had shown its citizens that real change is possible. Why? ‘Because some change has already been put in motion but mainly because the policies that have been adopted in the last year and a half, I believe, sent a clear message to the European citizens. The message is: everything is possible! Which is not a message that the EU institutions had ever given to citizens before.’

Federica Mogherini went on to explain that such a message would previously have been unthinkable for the EU. ‘Due to our history, we tend to believe that if everything is possible, we are at risk.’ However, she felt that this message now has positive connotations as well. She believed that the fact that the Conference on the Future of Europe is taking place during the COVID‑19 pandemic could actually be a significant opportunity, as citizens have seen a change, and have recognised that there is an opportunity to bring about even more change. ‘To deviate from common sense, the established framework of policies, and taboos that cannot be broken.’ The EU’s response to the pandemic has led to a new perception of the EU: ‘A Union that is able to look at reality, read it, and understand the priorities of its citizens.’ She described this as the sparkle of life: ‘I think that European citizens have recognised a sparkle of life in what they assumed were in — the best case — useful and boring institutions and — in the worst case — useless and annoying institutions.’

As well as having the impression that citizens’ perceptions of the future of Europe have changed, so, she felt, have the institutions. ‘Like citizens, the institutions have also experienced this sparkle of life. They finally seem to understand the need to explore, adapt and even change things that they themselves had always dismissed as impossible.’ There was now a real opportunity for the institutions to say: We are listening! She noted that there seemed to have been a shift towards matching priorities with policies. It is this change in particular that Federica Mogherini perceived as being the driving force behind the Conference: ‘This empowers the Conference much more than anything else, provided that the opportunity is taken.’

However, this positive note did not mean that she felt there were no risks for the Conference. As with any other participatory experiment, her main concern was citizens’ reluctance to participate. Although participatory processes were always a good idea, even when most participants were from civil society and organised networks, she stressed that it might nevertheless be good for the Conference to reach out to individual citizens. Here too, the pandemic might prove beneficial as ‘it promotes a digital and hybrid environment, which allows for easier participation and can help to open channels for individual participation where before this was not really happening.’

Dreaming of a less complex EU

Focusing on the content of the Conference, Mogherini asked herself ‘what would I bring in if I were participating in the Conference on the Future of Europe as a citizen?’ She identified four priorities, admitting that she might be influenced by her own professional experience and current role as a rector. ‘The first lesson learned from the pandemic is that if there is one sector in which we cannot afford not to invest, it is research. I think we have clearly understood that also as a citizen, I would say. Public health systems are second.’ She believes that these two areas ‘have not been on the political radar in the last two to three decades.’ Thirdly, she added, ‘I would also expect to see, or would dream, of a Union that manages to face the reality of its complexity somehow.’ Another element she would highlight was defence. ‘An EU that invests in European defence in a consistent manner, without ideological approach, would be beneficial for our economies, security and industry.’

As regards complexity, Federica Mogherini cited the example of qualified majority voting on foreign security policy, which she felt was often a ‘mismatch of perspectives.’ She stressed that ‘there has not been one decision that has not been taken because there was no unanimity. Which should not come as a surprise since this happens in all government coalitions.’ Taking the examples of Belgium and Italy, she argued that ‘complexity is a part of politics. You negotiate, you negotiate, and it works. How can you expect that 27 Member States — still 28 in my day — would not negotiate for hours, days and weeks on, to end where joint decisions are concerned?’ She pointed out that this happened even in city councils. ‘Why should it not happen on a continental level?’

She emphasised that what she really saw as the main problem was not the decision-making process. ‘It was the implementation part!’ In her view, this was a key issue, along with the ownership of decisions becoming visible during the implementation phase. ‘Decisions are taken unanimously and then abandoned as orphans. Only the Belgians cannot say this, but all the other capitals can say: They decided in Brussels.’ She explained that ownership of any decision by the Member States is the fuel needed to power an effective and efficient policy, and that if you cannot get the engine running at the implementation stage, then any policy will probably grind to a halt.

Federica Mogherini concluded that there is still a dream for the EU, and that the Conference on the Future of Europe could bring about real change if both citizens and institutions make the effort needed to seize their opportunities. Overall, although it might be difficult to believe in other respects, she made the case that the COVID‑19 pandemic might actually turn out to be an opportunity in disguise for (the Conference on) the Future of Europe.

This article was first published on the 3/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.

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