It is too early to assess the political repercussions of the corona pandemic in Europe. Still, decisions taken since February 2020 will have a profound impact. EU leaders have failed in communicating a shared vision and taking a real political commitment to reassure European citizens that the EU is there for them. Instead, different European countries have taken a national approach, focusing less on solidarity and coordination.
It looked like the corona crisis could be the final nail in the European project's coffin. The "biggest crisis since the EU was founded", said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in early April 2020. During the same year, export bans on urgently needed medical supplies and unilateral border closures gave the sense that "my country first" approaches had destroyed any remaining solidarity between member states.
Nevertheless, European cohesion has come about to an unprecedented degree over the last five years due to Brexit. The EU has ultimately responded more or less effectively to the crisis, agreeing on recovery funds for the hardest-hit member states. However, the coronavirus will either kill or cure the EU.
Just two weeks after the Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe was signed in Brussels by the European Parliament President David Sassoli, Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa – on behalf of the Presidency of the Council – and by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the Executive Board of the Conference on the Future of Europe held its constitutive meeting on 24 March 2021 in Brussels.
The purpose of the Conference was to establish how to give citizens a more significant role in shaping the Union's future policies and ambitions, improving its resilience. The Conference is an opportunity to underpin the democratic legitimacy and functioning of the European project. The aim is to discuss and collect views from EU citizens on matters about the Union that are of interest, whether it is the EU's Health Union, the Green Deal, digital transition, or the way European elections should be held. Those views will dictate the Conference's reform recommendations and hopefully define a sustainable future vision for a more united and effective continent.
At the beginning of the 2000s, the EU seemed to be a tremendous experiment in shared sovereignty that had banished war from Europe. The EU was perceived as the only equitably prosperous and rule-of-law-respecting superpower, even without the military determination to play global policeman. Many believed that its unique combination of open borders, integrated markets and democratic institutions made Europe's "soft power" equal to the "hard power of the US".
The EU received the Peace Nobel Prize in 2012 for preventing European countries from declaring war on each other in the past 60 years. However, Europe is perceived as being always too late and too slow. In their Lisbon Strategy (2000–10), the development plan for the EU economy, European leaders declared their aim of becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world. However, these high-minded words have not been accompanied by the structural reforms necessary for creating stable growth in the long term and for a dynamic response to globalisation.
The EU has to be united and speak with one voice if it wants to play any significant role on the planet. European citizens should understand that the relatively small countries that constitute the EU can no longer face significant global challenges on their own. European countries are now so interconnected that issues like the regulation of financial markets, research, and innovation investment, national security, economic recovery plans, or the fight against climate change should be dealt with as a Union.
The world will not wait for Europe to make up its mind. The EU must show leadership to solve the current global problems. It needs a system of governance with a better balance between efficiency and democratic legitimacy. The EU needs to reinvent itself. Indeed, today's environment does not seem ideal for new ambitions or grand ideas. Nevertheless, a solution-driven Union can only strengthen its legitimacy if its policies and successes are communicated clearly and comprehensively.
Europe needs to develop a stronger identity and a common public sphere. The European identity consists of a set of values shared by all EU citizens. Nowadays, the EU is characterised by two opposing trends. One emphasises the importance of national identities and the right to difference. The other advocates the right to a collective identity and a cosmopolitan culture. These two trends do not necessarily exclude each other. A united Europe does not mean the extinction of national identities. On the contrary, it respects the right to difference and diversity while being cosmopolitan.
Jürgen Habermas, one of the most influential sociologists and philosophers of the 20th century, said that the public sphere encourages rational will-formation. This is a sphere of sound and democratic social interaction. During the 19th century, creating the United States of Europe gained support among European intellectuals. Several political leaders were convinced that a closer union between the European States could not be based only on governments and their administrations. A peaceful union of states had to be sustained by a rapprochement between European nations and their citizens. This perspective was frequently promoted inside many European networks of societies, clubs, associations, and academics.
Moreover, today the active involvement of civil society could be of tremendous support in the formation of a European public sphere. Civil society has grown in size and influence. Nowadays, mobile information and communication technology are becoming highly relevant methods to connect and obtain social change. The lines between communication and advocacy are not very clear anymore. Citizen-centred campaigns powered by digital and social media can drive social movements and achieve political change.
A European public sphere is exceptionally relevant for the future of EU integration because it influences the quality of democracy in the EU. A democratic Union requires that public discourse and discussion of issues are dealt with at EU level. Without a public sphere, institutional reforms of the EU that seek to make it more democratic are doomed to fail.