This was supposed to be the year it all changed.
Since the European Commission’s creation, the beginning of each term has been dominated by diplomatic tussling over who would hold its presidency. This process has traditionally been totally removed from the wishes and desires of voters. After each European Parliament election a new President of the Commission, generally the most powerful figure in the entire EU bureaucracy, would simply emerge as if from nowhere.
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Historically, while the Commission president was chosen by the ranks of democratically elected heads of government, the process was extremely distant from the people. In the UK a government can be elected with as little as 35% of the support of the nation due to our First Past the Post system. The Prime Minister heading this government has then traditionally headed to Brussels to negotiate with as many as 27 other heads of government over who should be president of the Commission.
In fairness, the situation improved after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. This gave the European Parliament a vote of confidence in the entire Commission. The Parliament demonstrated that this power was not just for show when it was used against the beleaguered Santer Commission in 1999. In the Nice Treaty, the power of individual countries to veto the Commission was removed in favour of an electoral college of the heads of government.
Later, the Lisbon Treaty created a vaguely defined responsibility for the member states to nominate a President by “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament”, and for the Parliament to ‘elect’ the nominee with a majority of votes.
Europe’s political parties, which are in fact vast alliances of national parties (for instance the Party of European Socialists or PES includes the French Parti Socialiste, the German Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands and the British Labour Party) interpreted this to mean that they themselves would nominate candidates. So for this year’s eleciton, five Europarties nominated candidates, with the most notable being Martin Schulz of the PES, and Jean-Claude Juncker of the pro-European, centre-right European People’s Party (EPP).
And did you know that TV debates were held between the Commission candidates? Probably not, as they were not even shown on national TV in the UK. A Brit wishing to watch the debates would have had to use the ‘democracy live’ section of the BBC website or watch it on the channel Euronews, which is deep in the darkest recesses of satellite and cable listings.
The Conservative Party’s group in the European Parliament, the European Conservatives and Reformists, refused to nominate a candidate as they oppose the whole process. Labour also declined to endorse Juncker. No British party publicly backed any of the men and women seeking to become the EU’s most powerful member.
Nonetheless, when the EPP emerged as the largest party in the European Parliament after the elections almost two weeks ago, all Europarties agreed that Juncker should become President of the Commission and the Parliament voted to instruct the Council to recommend Juncker for the position.
In theory, therefore, Juncker should have been appointed. Instead, the member states are engaging in a diplomatic bun-fight.
Most notably, David Cameron has opposed Juncker’s appointment. He has been joined by the leaders of Hungary, Sweden and the Netherlands. At the time of writing, Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, appears to be somewhat on the fence. She has stated that she backs Juncker but rumours suggest she is sounding out other, non-elected, candidates such as IMF head and former French finance minister Christine Lagarde.
Opponents of Juncker argue that the members states should select the president, or that the candidate model adopted this year results in sub-par candidates as sitting prime ministers are reticent to put themselves forwards for fear of damaging their domestic prospects should they lose.
The Economist described the model as nothing less than a “power-grab” by the Parliament. The EU exists at the intersection of diplomacy and governance. In recent years the Commission has been repeatedly strained by increasing dual accountability between the member states and the Parliament. In a sense then, the Parliament is attempting to set a precedent that the Commission should be accountable to it, and not the states.
But we should remember that the Parliament, flawed as it is, remains the EU’s only directly elected institution.
Some of the criticism has some weight. It is true that few would have voted in this year’s European elections with their choice of Commission president in mind. Juncker and Schulz did not appear on the ballot paper. In fact their parties, the EPP and the PES, did not either. Voters made their decisions based on national issues, or to kick the EU by voting for Eurosceptic parties. And the candidate model suffered from an apparent lack of credibility throughout. The model was always slightly unclear on processes, which we critiqued in our report Close the Gap.
Yet the importance of the model is in setting the precedent. Juncker should be appointed as President of the Commission, not because his election is democratically legitimate but because to do so would demonstrate that the EU is making efforts to democratise. It would also mean that the contest is taken more seriously next time. This year the very legitimacy of the candidates was continually challenged by some, and ignored by others. Acceptance of the system could serve to demonstrate that the model works.
The Commission, the member states and the Parliament should all agree to back the candidate model for the next election in order to create a clearer electoral campaign. If this were settled, it would encourage parties to campaign for their nominees, and incentivise more serious candidates to come forward. And perhaps that would make the media want to report the fact there is a presidential election going on. One can only hope.