The conference is designed to involve citizens in the future of the EU © Reuters

After a delay of almost a year, the EU’s grand exercise in democratic renewal might finally be getting off the ground.

The Conference on the Future of Europe has been envisaged as a chance to bring the EU’s distant institutions closer to its citizens. For supporters such as France’s president Emmanuel Macron and many MEPs, the onset of the pandemic has supercharged the importance of the planned conference, which is designed to ask voters for their input on the direction of EU policymaking in unprecedented times.

But the conference has yet to materialise. Its launch has been beset by delays over such parochial issues as who should run it. Over the past months, the grandiose attempt at direct democracy has descended into a fight about top jobs. A host of names — including former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, ex-chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and the European parliament’s Guy Verhofstadt — have all been rumoured and shot down as neither the parliament nor member states could agree on a candidate.

Former centre-left Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt had been thought the favourite to lead the conference © EPA

To break the deadlock, the idea of a single president looks to be abandoned in favour of a system where all three EU institutions run the show. The Portuguese presidency of the EU is expected to propose this “collegiate” structure to member states in the coming weeks for approval. The EP is already on board, officials said, leading to hopes that a joint agreement over the conference could be thrashed out soon. A notional launch date of May 9 — “Europe Day” for the EU institutions — has been earmarked.

But will the “tripartite” solution actually work? Having no single figure in charge might placate Brussels’ rival institutions for now, but might also end up creating constant struggles between the council and parliament over the direction of the conference once it is up and running. Mr Verhofstadt, a federalist and former Belgian prime minister, is likely to be the parliament’s main representative, an appointment that will no doubt irk member states that spent the past year making sure he didn’t get the top job.

Ironically, institutional infighting might become the upshot of the conference, says Alberto Alemanno, a professor at HEC Paris. “Citizens will be able to see which of the three institutions appear the least keen on following up on their proposals,” says Mr Alemanno. He thinks that the three-headed solution “might favour a more accountable process” if voters can really see the inner workings of Brussels sausage-making.

“The [three-way governance] renders the Conference on the Future of Europe extraordinary as the three EU institutions might actually lose control”, he said.

Chart du jour: shooting up

Line chart of Pound in $ showing Jab by jab, sterling rises against the dollar

Sterling is proving an unlikely beneficiary of the UK’s vaccine rollout, hitting its highest level against the dollar in three years after almost 5m Brits had their first dose of the Covid-19 jab. (chart via FT) Still, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said it remains “too early” to envisage the end of lockdown measures by the spring. (BBC)

Around Europe

Charles Michel chairs latest EU leaders’ videoconference on Covid-19 co-ordination © AP
  • France will require all European visitors as well as those from outside the bloc to have a negative Covid-19 test performed less than three days before they enter the country. The decision comes after EU leaders discussed how to avoid complete border closures within the bloc during a virtual summit on Thursday night, with many member states imposing tougher travel restrictions to contain the virus instead. The European Commission also wants to develop maps identifying so-called “dark-red zones” within the EU that are particular virus hotspots. Travellers seeking to leave those areas could have to take a test before departure and undergo quarantine, commission president Ursula von der Leyen suggested after the videoconference. (FT)

    The leaders’ summit also discussed ways of accelerating vaccination. The Economist’s Charlemagne laments the EU’s “depressing” attitude towards accelerating the pace of vaccinations as Europe seriously lags behind other wealthy nations in administering the jab.

  • The UK is digging in on its decision to refuse full diplomatic status to the EU’s embassy in London. The British government argues that the EU is akin to an international organisation rather than a sovereign nation — a stance rejected on Thursday by Mr Barnier. The spat came on the same day that Mr Johnson’s government named Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, previously its deputy chief negotiator in Brexit trade talks, the head of its diplomatic mission in Brussels. (FT)

  • The FT takes a deep dive into the Brexit trade negotiations, exploring how the deal — and the new barriers that have come with it) — was shaped by the UK’s relentless focus on sovereignty:

“There will be no non-tariff barriers to trade,” declared Mr Johnson on Christmas Eve. But that was not accurate, nor was it ever going to be. As Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organization, noted last year: “This will be the first negotiation in history where both parties started off with free trade and discussed what barriers to erect.”

  • Philosopher Jan-Werner Müller warns liberals not to take too many triumphant lessons about the state of populism from the demise of Donald Trump, particularly as Europe’s “cleverer” populists will still try to “smother democracy slowly through legal and constitutional machinations”. (Project Syndicate)

Coming up today

Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu meets Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels on Friday. The minister held talks with the EU’s top diplomat on Thursday, with Josep Borrell noting an “improvement in the overall atmosphere” in relations with Ankara after renewed tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.

The commission will publish the text of the EU-China investment agreement on Friday. A group of MEPs have argued the deal risks damaging Europe’s commitment to defending human rights. (Guardian)

mehreen.khan@ft.com; @mehreenkhn

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