European Commission vice-president Dubravka Suica said healthcare and Brussels’ response to the global pandemic must be moved to the forefront of the so-called Future of Europe conference. French President Emmanuel Macron had hoped to use the conference to spearhead his push for further EU integration by involving citizens in the decision making process. But Ms Suica, who leads the Commission’s work on the initiative, has signalled a potential power grab, bringing healthcare under the control of Brussels bureaucrats, which could emerge from the conference.
She told the Financial Times: “Many, many tensions will emerge from this crisis.
“At the beginning we thought the treaty was not important, but now maybe we will have to talk about this and see what those citizens think about the future.
“Do people think that health should stay within the competence of member states or not? Let us see what people think.”
Ms Suica said many of Mr Macron’s original proposals had lost importance since the outbreak of COVID-19 across Europe.
The pro-Brussels French leader had planned to use the conference to reopen talks on the Spitzenkandidat process, the system that allows the the biggest parties in the European Parliament choose candidates to be Commission president.
Ms Suica said: “I am sure that nobody will be interested in the Spitzenkandidaten system.”
She insisted the conference should now be used to heal bitter divisions within the bloc over Brussels’ slow response to the coronavirus crisis.
Europe’s worst-affected countries, Italy and Spain, have sent furious warning shots over the bloc’s future after their neighbours protested their demands for financial help to aid their economic recovery from the impact of the global pandemic.
“Europe was initially blindsided by an unknown enemy, the virus,” Ms Suica said.
“We are still hurting from this bumpy start, but now we are collaborating and we can see many signs of solidarity.”
Officials had hoped to open the Conference of Europe in May but have been forced to move the planned launch back to at least September as the disease continues to spread across the continent.
It could also emerge as a tool to help the Commission convince European leaders to sign up to a plan for the bloc’s next seven-year budget.
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Negotiations over the €1 trillion package have failed to produce a result after nearly two years of talks, but Ms Suica said the multi-annual financial framework is the “most important tool” in the post-coronavirus economic rebuild.
“This recovery won’t last a week, a month or a year. It will last for years,” she said.
But critics have said her plans ignored recent spats between member states over sharing the debt burden of the coronavirus crisis.
Former MEP Andrew Duff said: “Frankly, the idea that the treaty has to be altered to supply the EU with greater competence in the questions of pandemic isn’t too serious.
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“The critical issue is fiscal policy. The refusal of the Eurogroup and the Council to do anything serious in the area of bonds in creating mutualised debt is by far the most important thing.”
A European Commission spokesman said: “The views which were expressed are personal comments that were made by Ms Suica in the context of an interview.
“They do not clearly engage or represent the Commission’s view at this stage.
“At the moment it is clear all of the European institutions are very much focused on dealing with the current crisis and we have also said there will come a time when we will need to reflect on the lessons that need to be learnt from this crisis.”
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