Despite the top-down agenda-setting, he commented that the conference had been described with no trace of irony as a ‘citizen-friendly, bottom-up exercise’.
This suggests a degree of “poetic licence in the use of language”, he commented.
“Perhaps it might better be described as a bottom-also, rather than bottom-up exercise,” he quipped.
The executive board is the body charged with drafting the conclusions arising from the conference.
“The institutions, without any doubt, will have an eye to their own institutional preferences, and they expect that their presidents will be under some pressure through their shared conference presidency to deliver visible results for their respective constituencies,” Cox said.
The agenda suggests that discussions should cover health, climate change, the economy, social fairness, equality, and inter-generational solidarity.
The digital sector, European rights and values, migration, security, the EU's role in the world, and how to strengthen democratic processes are all worthy subjects, but there is no specified route from A to B, let alone, from A to Z, the former president of the European Parliament added.
Pandora’s Box of the EU’s future
“Every time we return to the Pandora’s Box of the future of the EU, we re-open all the sensitivities of all the boundary questions. ‘Where should the EU start and stop’ is a question to which there is no simple or agreed answer.
All these issues are politically contested, he said, with territorially differentiated preferences.
“The dreams of federalists are the stuff of nightmares for nativists,” he commented.
The EU's multilingual digital platform for the conference may prove to be anything from a “cornucopia of creativity” to a “cauldron of cacophony”, he said, since social media is a vital tool in the spread of identity politics and culture wars.
An important difference is that, this time, all the member states who joined the EU since 2004 will be full participants from the very outset, though they weren’t at the table for the Lisbon Treaty.
Given that the unanimity rule is applied to treaty changes, this is likely to pose some real political problems and challenges, he said.
“Anger, resentment, disillusionment and fear have fuelled the new rise in populism. And that has been evident in many states – east, west, north, and south,” he said.
This is a change in the politics of the union since the last conference, he added.
Populism is still strong, and in some places still growing, and politics has become more volatile, more contested, and more fragmented, he said.
“Today's political battleground in my view has moved somewhere beyond the traditional, left, right cleavage, to a contest between open and closed politics.
It is a battle of ideas between pluralist democracy and creeping illiberal majoritarianism appeals to national identity,” he said.
“The promotion of ethnic homogeneity, the refusal to burden-share on migrants, the erosion of the separation of powers, and attacks on free media as ‘fake news’, are all part of an evident cleavage on fundamental values and vision – and contested vision and values make consensus building more elusive,” Pat Cox said.
Another difference is the absence of the British from the decision-making table.
“Reticence to take great leaps forward has not been a uniquely British phenomenon,” he added.
“However, member states that in the past were happy to be carried along in the slipstream of British pragmatism and caution will be obliged this time, more forthrightly, to reveal their political preferences.”
Macron’s new frontiers
Since his election to the French presidency, Macron has pushed for the exploration of new frontiers in EU policy, capacity and development, Cox said.
The conference will end next spring under a Macron-led presidency of the EU, and on the eve of French presidential elections, according to the Joint Declaration.
“This seems to me to be an extremely tight timeframe,” Cox commented. “It carries a risk of reaching out for quick wins by rushing to conclusions. There is the attendant risk of the outcome being instrumentalised in domestic French presidential politics.
“The upside, of course, is that a Macron win would energise the process. Conversely, a loss could drain the process of political meaning.
“This comes down to a risk that the success or failure of this project of common ownership could end up being perceived as incarnated by one man, on whose shoulders its fate could rest.
“These risks can and should be mitigated by ensuring that the springtime report card will be a milestone – but not the ultimate destination of when and what the conference, ultimately, recommends.”
A slew of EU treaties in the 1980s and 1990s brought a ferment of change, which yielded an appetite afterwards for a degree of consolidation, Pat Cox said
This wish was rudely challenged by the financial crisis in the Eurozone, and later by the migration crisis.
Moves to address these crises required policy innovations outside the treaty structures because of UK objections, and the limitations imposed by the EU rule of unanimity.
The result has been that, in the past decade, innovations were introduced by agreements, outside the EU legal order, in the case of the fiscal compact treaty, European Stability Mechanism, and the Single Resolution Fund for banking.
“Often, of course, all of this was perceived by markets as ‘too little and too late’, and frequently challenged or occasionally ridiculed as muddling through,” Cox said.
And in the end, it wasn’t a European Council initiative which marked a turning point in the fate of the euro, but the decisiveness of Mario Draghi in his ‘do whatever it takes’ speech in 2012 in London, Pat Cox concluded.