Experts and pundits have long discussed how to fill the perceived gap between ordinary citizens and the workings of the European institutions. EU institutions have been suffering for a long time from a knowledge deficit, even more so than a democratic one, given that there is a popularly elected Parliament endowed with full legislative powers in most policy areas.
As a result, even if many citizens regularly blame “Europe” for issues like the financial crisis or the (mis-)management of migration, in most instances the EU as it stands today has little or no competencies for some of the key transnational challenges. At the same time, less than 50 percent turn out to vote in the European elections, thus indicating that a majority do not feel that the European Parliament (EP) is worth the trouble.
Still, it is true that the European political system is overly complex, making any communication and pedagogical strategy difficult. Equally, the pivotal role in the policy-making process of member state governments, and the expansive and exorbitant role of the European Council, pose proper questions of democratic legitimacy. This issue is particularly important in advance of the 2019 elections to the EP, in which pro-European political forces must go on the offensive with strong institutional and policy proposals in order to defeat the mounting eurosceptic and nationalist parties. These have been reinvigorated – after their electoral defeats in the Netherlands and France – by the success of the 5 Stars Movement and the Northern League in Italy.
Three institutional adjustments that do not require treaty change, with two of them not even needing legislative action, can have a decisive impact by simplifying the EU political process, thus rendering it more understandable, improving its democratic dimension and efficiency – and thereby radically transforming European politics.
The first innovation was already introduced in the 2014 election, even if it is not yet fully consolidated, as a result of a long process that goes back to the Treaty of Maastricht and even before, when Parliament fought successfully for aligning the mandates of the Commission President with that of the chamber and for playing a role in his or her election. Known as the Spitzenkandidat principle, it requires that the European Council proposes as Commission president the candidate nominated by the European political parties that command a majority after the EP elections. Meaning, the candidate proposed by the group with the greatest number of votes, or by a combination of parties, before or after the election.
The Spitzenkandidat process makes it clear to citizens that, when voting for MEPs, they are also voting for the “prime minister” or “head of government” of the European Union. She or he is the only political leader of the EU democratically legitimized by the European citizens’ vote. It is a very important political recast of the European governance system, also supporting the emergence of a more typical, democratic (and comprehensible) government-opposition dialectics.
This procedure was followed with the election of Jean-Claude Juncker in September 2014. The EP has stated in 2018 that it will not vote for any European Council proposal that ignores this principle.
The second innovation is the creation of a pan-European electoral constituency, an old federalist proposal that was reinvigorated with Brexit, since the timely departure of the British MEPs provides room for a number of deputies to be elected as candidates on transnational lists. This proposal allows citizens to vote directly for European political parties and for candidates of different nationalities, thereby further Europeanizing an election that tends to be 28 national debates, campaigns and balloting. It is also the perfect complement to the Spitzenkandidat procedure, since the presidential candidates of each political family will naturally be the top-of-the-list on the transnational ballot.
The EP has voted in favour of transnational lists in several non-legislative reports, before voting against at the time of the reform of the Electoral Act in early 2018 owing to the defection of the European People´s Party. However, Angela Merkel has now joined Emmanuel Macron in supporting it (the proposal is part of the Meseberg Declaration) so it is very likely that the EPP will change its tune, even if not in time for the 2019 election.
Finally, there is the merging of the Commission and European Council presidencies. At the time of the Constitutional Convention of 2003, some members were careful to avoid introducing any limitation on the requirements to be elected president of the European Council. This was a newly created institution that many feared, as did indeed happen, would end up overreaching its non-legislative mandate of providing political orientation, becoming the crisis-management unit of the EU during the financial troubles that started in 2008-09.
Indeed, it is not required to be a head of government or state in order to be elected as president of this institution. President Juncker supported this dual mandate idea – that the president of the Commission should also be the president of the European Council – in a milestone State of the Union address of September 2017. In practice, this means that the heads of state and government would agree to elect as European Council president whomever MEPs have elected as Commission president.
A good merger
The merging of the presidencies will have several positive effects. First, it will create a popularly elected EU president, while providing further visibility to the system by giving to the European public (and the world) a “president of Europe”. With this strong popular backing, the European president could muster the necessary political capital within the EU institutions in order to tackle the fundamental policy issues of the 2019 election, particularly migration, security and economic development.
Second, it will strengthen the EU’s standing in the international area, with a single representative at the level of heads of government and state. At last, Europe can speak with that long-sought-after single voice in the world. (Henry Kissinger will finally get his answer…)
Third, it will reinforce the role of the Commission (and of Parliament) vis-a-vis the Council.
Last but not least, this innovation will create a “democratic sovereign”, like other heads of state and government, able to lead a constituent group within the EU institutions that could kick start the process of Treaty change with a view to achieving full political union.
For this to happen, it is necessary that the main pro-European political forces support this proposal, thus making it an issue of the political debate during the forthcoming electoral campaign.