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Leaders look to bolster EU resilience

By CHEN WEIHUA in Brussels | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-05-11 09:27

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday joins with Erasmus exchange students in Strasbourg, France, where a major EU event opened. [JEAN-FRANCOIS BADIAS/REUTERS]

Weaknesses after virus hit spur reform bid as yearlong conference opens

European Union leaders pledged on Sunday to bolster the bloc's resilience and unity-possibly with a revision of its treaties-as they kicked off the yearlong Conference on the Future of Europe.

The inaugural event of the conference, which will invite public debate on the way forward for the EU, came 15 months after COVID-19 struck the world. Within the region, the pandemic inflicted great damage, with a devastating loss of lives and economic upheavals. The impact exposed the bloc's internal divisions when member states closed borders and imposed export restrictions on medical supplies.

Speaking from a TV studio in the middle of the hemisphere of the European Parliament in Strasbourg and surrounded by several EU leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron said that national divisions during the pandemic have highlighted the need to beef up EU powers, and he hopes the conference will strengthen the decision-making at EU level.

"This weakness explained the difficulties in coordination," he said on Sunday, celebrated as Europe Day in recognition of French statesman Robert Schuman's vision for European political cooperation 71 years ago.

"Therefore, we need to learn the lessons given this major shock of the pandemic; we need to beef up our common capacity because it is at the European level that we'll come up with the relevant response."

Macron stressed that "Europe wasn't moving forward quickly enough, was lacking ambition "and "we need to find an effective way forward with ambition to get through the crises and to avoid not taking decisions".

The French president, a powerful voice in the EU who will face the next French presidential election in 2022, described the conference as an opportunity to decide what the EU would be like in 10 to 15 years.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she is aware that there is always skepticism and cynicism whenever Europe debates its future or launches a project of this nature.

"We should be honest that the conference is not a panacea or a solution to every problem. And we must listen to all voices-whether critical or complimentary-and ensure that we properly follow up on whatever is agreed," she said.

Von der Leyen identified issues that the conference should try to resolve. For example, some feel Europe is too close and too involved in their lives while others feel that it is too remote or too detached.

'Find right balance'

"This is an opportunity for Europeans to help find the right balance … This is an opportunity to help build a new common purpose for all Europeans," she said.

European Parliament President David Sassoli echoed Macron's view of the EU's shortcomings in its response to the pandemic over the past 15 months.

"When Europe is aware of its responsibilities, it responds effectively, rapidly, coherently. But when the European Union finds itself in a difficult situation. Then sometimes it finds itself in difficulties," he said, clearly referring to the chaos that characterized the bloc's early efforts to make a coordinated pandemic response.

Sassoli hopes that the conference will discuss issues in the way of the bloc's future without taboos, citing the need to increase the transparency of elections and enable citizens to indicate their preference for president of the European Commission.

He said that the conference should deal with the lead candidate issue and the crucial issue regarding unanimity in the European Council, both of which would require a change of EU treaties.

"All these reflections and those that emerge from our citizens may well need an update of our treaties. And I would ask everyone, if that's the case, to be brave, to be generous," he said.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa, whose country holds the rotating presidency at the Council of the European Union, said: "There is a desire to move forward but we should not allow problems to exist, which can undermine our cohesion. "We need to address the key issues if we want to be successful and we have to be successful."

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