By John Chalmers
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France and Germany put aside bilateral tensions on Tuesday to call for an overhaul of the EU, which has been buffeted over the past decade by a euro zone debt crisis, an influx of migrants and refugees, rising eurosceptic populism and Brexit.
Some European Union leaders fear that regional and political rifts could tear apart a project they credit with keeping peace and prosperity on the continent, including in eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Paris and Berlin, long seen as the axis of the continent's post-World War Two unification process, said a "Conference on the Future of Europe" was necessary to make the EU "more united and sovereign" across a range of challenges.
These include Europe's role in the world and its security, they said in a document that comes amid growing concern that Europe is ill-equipped to deal with new security and economic challenges, especially from a rising China.
Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron described the NATO transatlantic military alliance as "brain dead", urging Europe to bolster its capacity to act because it cannot rely eternally on an unpredictable United States.
The two-page Franco-German paper said other areas where Europe needed to be more united included its near neighbours, digitalisation, climate change, migration, the fight against inequality, the "social market economy" and the rule of law.
It said a reflection lasting more than two years should consider reforms that would, among other aims, promote democracy and the functioning of a bloc that will group 27 countries after Britain's expected departure on Jan. 31.
Many EU citizens feel their voices are not heard in Brussels and have little trust in its institutions, sentiments that drove Britain's 2016 referendum vote to leave the bloc.
The EU's two heavyweights said citizens would need to be closely involved in the reflection on Europe's future through a "bottom-up process" of consultations.
They said recommendations agreed at a closing conference in the first half of 2022 should be presented to the European Council of member states' leaders for debate and implementation.
Diplomats said the document sent a message, ahead of an EU summit on Dec. 12-13, that member states must be closely involved in reflections on Europe's future amid institutional jockeying for a leading role.
A new European Commission, the EU's executive, which starts its five-year mandate on Dec. 1, has already proposed a 2020-2022 conference.
Manfred Weber, leader of the centre-right European People's Party in the European Parliament, said in an opinion column on Tuesday that it is the role of an assembly directly elected by European citizens to fight for a more democratic Europe.
"There are many in Brussels and other European capitals who prefer to make decisions through quick backroom deals, in which the direct choice of the voters becomes victim to personal power games," the German EU lawmaker wrote on Politico.
Many in the bloc's assembly were furious when EU leaders, horse-trading over top posts at a July summit, brushed aside the so-called "Spitzenkandidaten", the main parliamentary groups' candidates for the post of European Commission president.
France and Germany have been at loggerheads over the past year as Macron's ambitious plans for reform have often run into resistance from the more cautious Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Berlin was irked last month that Macron blocked the opening of EU membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania, and Merkel described Macron's brain death comments on NATO as "drastic words".
The idea behind the joint proposal on the future of Europe was to show that Franco-German cooperation was not itself brain dead, a French diplomatic source said.
(Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris ansd Jonas Ekblom in Brussels; Editing by Giles Elgood)