The European Commission was created as a supranational body independent of member state governments. Its job is to safeguard the treaties and to preserve the “communitaire” decision making process which is the cornerstone of the European Union. Above all it has to steer the European project through the storms created by the shifting power balances, ambitions and rivalries of the member states as well as by global crises.
On the whole, the Commission and the political construct which it represents have been successful. The European Economic Community has grown into a European Union. The original six member states have grown to twenty-eight as countries have clamoured to join the project. The fragmented national markets have been turned into the largest single market in the world. The basis of Economic and Monetary Union has been laid with the establishment of the single currency in most of the member states.
Yet, increasingly, the European Commission has found itself emasculated as supranationalism has given way to intergovernmentalism. Member states have been determined to wrest control from the Commission. An ambition which brings with it its own dangers as we saw in the recent financial crisis, the origins of which could be found in the way banking and other financial services were liberalised in the drive to create a single market. Yet, supervisory mechanisms remained firmly national as member states sought to preserve their national control. The result was the unleashing of forces which no member state could possibly control.
It is the job of the President of the Commission to stand up for the rights of the institution, defend its independence and protect its powers under the treaties. Yet, in recent times government leaders in choosing a new president have turned to members of their own club of current or recent prime ministers. The last three Commission Presidents have been former prime ministers conditioned to fighting for the rights of their member states. In those circumstances, it is legitimate to wonder how easy it is for them to assert their independence and adjust their instincts away from intergovernmentalism and towards the supranational approach required of the Commission. It is surely no coincidence that the best Commission Presidents such as Delors or Jenkins have come from outside the Prime Ministers club.
The status and prestige of Presidents of the Commission has also been undermined by the way they have been selected. Names have emerged from secretive meetings of government representatives following undignified horse trading late into the night. The worst example being the shenanigans that led to the nomination of Jacques Santer in 1994. Such opaque and archaic procedures have no place in modern governance and harm the image of the EU.
Fortunately all this will change this time. The Lisbon Treaty provides for the European Parliament to elect the next President of the Commission. It can only vote though, on a nominee decided on by the Council after they have considered the result of the elections. Parliament’s interpretation of this new procedure is that the Council should nominate a candidate from the group or alliance which does best in May’s vote. Accordingly the main political groups have nominated their candidate in advance of the elections. The process has stimulated wide ranging debates not only about the candidates but also the future direction of the EU. It has helped reinvigorate the European agenda.
Unfortunately, the EPP and the Liberals have both nominated candidates from the former prime ministers club in the shape of Guy Verhofstadt, the former PM of Belgium and Jean Claude Juncker of Luxembourg. If the Commission is to be revitalised and the “communitaire” decision making process is to be strengthened, then it is essential that we look outside the cosy world of ex-prime ministers. That is why the candidature of the socialist Martin Schulz is so important.
Schulz comes from years as an MEP and is the current President of the Parliament. He would bring a refreshingly different perspective to the job as he would not be conditioned by the narrower perspective of a member state. As President of the Parliament he has shown himself to be a strong and dynamic leader. As Commission President he would shake up the institution and drive it forward. Most importantly he would fight for the rights of the Commission as set out in the treaties and challenge member states to work together more effectively to deliver common solutions to common problems.
The next few months represent an opportunity for renewal within the European Union. Let’s hope we don’t waste it by handing power back to the old guard and reverting to the tired old ways of doing business. The EU now more than ever needs energy, drive and fresh thinking. Of all the candidates so far declared, Martin Schulz looks the best equipped to provide those attributes.