The decision by the European Council to bypass the Spitzenkandidaten process was an intergovernmental slap in the face for the European parties. Yet they are not so ‘European’ either.
In early July, following the elections to the European Parliament in lateMay, the European Council nominated Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission. It did so after protracted intergovernmental negotiations, defying the Spitzenkandidaten procedure by which the principal political families represented in the parliament had presented to voters their favoured candidates for the post.
This decision met justifiable resentment from the European parties which had organised their campaigns according to a now-established procedure—formalised in the parliament’s resolution of November 11th 2015—previously used to appoint Jean-Claude Juncker, representing the European People’s Party, as commission president in 2014.
This is one of the reasons why von der Leyen’s appointment was only approved by a narrow majority of the parliament. She herself devoted part of her ‘opening statement’ there to the notion of improving European democracy.
It is a crucial question for the future of the European Union and that of democracy in each of its member states. The misgovernment of the union has fuelled dissatisfaction among its citizens, leading to the rise of nationalist and populist parties, as in Italy and with the illiberal turn of the Visegrad countries.
European democracy and national democracy are two strands of a single issue—the democratic government of a pluri-national people. Without a democratic European government, democracy on a national level will increasingly be threatened by nationalist and populist politicians, who have the declared aim of destroying the European Union—which they attack as ‘bureaucracy’—turning it into a latter-day, merely intergovernmental, League of Nations. The democratic legitimacy of European governance must be one of the main foci of the new legislature and the Constitutional Affairs Commission of the parliament should give it priority.
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Article 10 of the Lisbon treaty affirms: ‘Political parties at European level contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the will of citizens of the Union.’ National and European parties are essential when it comes to making citizens aware of the importance of political participation. Only a small minority of people are involved in politics on an ongoing basis—the vast majority only engage with the process at election time, if at all. Without democratic European parties, European politics will continue to be ignored by most of the union’s citizens and the media.
The parliament is well aware of this issue, as the November 2015 resolution indicated: ‘European elections are still governed for the most part by national laws, electoral campaigning remains national, and European political parties cannot sufficiently fulfil their constitutional mandate.’ Noting however that ‘the Lisbon Treaty established a new constitutional order by granting the European Parliament the right to elect the President of the European Commission instead of merely giving its consent’, it went on to contend that ‘the 2014 European elections set an important precedent in this respect and have shown that nominating lead candidates increases the interest of citizens in European elections’.
To overcome the problems encountered with the Spitzenkandidaten procedure in the 2019 elections, the EU’s Electoral Act, last updated in 2018, needs to be amended again to provide for a single European constituency. This would make the current European parties—which are actually only international parties, because they have no European democratic organs—genuinely European, linking their permanent organisation with the appointment of their Spitzenkandidat for the 2024 European elections.
There are various ways of doing this. One would be to require transnational lists to stand, along with their designated Spitzenkandidat, in the single European constituency. Another would be to include a norm enabling European parties to establish their democratic statutes, according to which the party secretary and president would be elected by a democratic European congress of delegates chosen from among grassroots members. This would lead to the creation of parties with federal statutes, uniting the national parties of each European political family in a democratic way.
The Spitzenkandidat would obviously be nominated by the European congress. An alternative could be holding primaries—it would be for the European parties to decide.
Secondly, the procedure for the appointment of the commission president after the European elections needs to be rectified. The haste with which the council convened, immediately after the outcome, was astounding. Why do the heads of government think they can interpret the will of the European people better than the parliament? Article 10 of the Lisbon treaty is clear: the council should hold an appropriate consultation, as in all parliamentary democracies. It is up to the European parties to express the will of the union’s citizens.
It is therefore necessary to give the newly elected parliamentary groups the time they need to choose the preferred Spitzenkandidat, enabling them, if necessary, to form a majority coalition, if they have not already done so during the election campaign, behind her or him. By means of a navette between the council and the parliament, the Spitzendandat to be presented to the parliament for its vote of confidence would then be chosen.
Lastly, the single European constituency should also be used for the presentation of the candidates of European parties at the European elections. National traps currently favour national parties and hinder the creation of new, principally pro-European parties. Italy is a case in point: the federalist Volt Europa did not manage to present a Euro-party due to bureaucratic problems in Italian legislation, while +Europa, led by the former European commissioner Emma Bonino, and the Greens did not reach the national threshold of 4 per cent. In the EU there are currently nine countries which impose a threshold of 5 per cent, three with a threshold of 4 per cent, one country with a 3 per cent threshold and one which sets it at 1.8 per cent.
The new Electoral Act should unify these thresholds, at 2 per cent for example, across the single European constituency, and introduce some reasonable conditions, such as requiring parties to present a certain number of supporters in a majority of member countries. This would enable new European parties to compete with existing ones, nationally and at the European level.
Creating genuine European parties would represent an important, perhaps decisive, step towards a democratic European government: the European Commission would be more accountable to the European Parliament, which would have the power to give it a vote of confidence (or no confidence) and it would also be more accountable to the Council of Ministers, the union’s second legislative chamber. While for issues covered by the co-decision legislative procedure between the parliament and the council, European policies are introduced effectively and in a reasonable timeframe, where the right of veto remains—excluding the parliament and reducing the commission’s role in decision-making—the opposite is true. This is the cancer of European democracy.
In her ‘opening statement’, the new commission president criticised the right of veto. Area by area, as it is removed, the co-decision process will come to apply—and the commission will become the only legitimate executive power democratically elected by European citizens.
Guido Montani is professor of international political economy at the University of Pavia. In 1987 he founded the Altiero Spinelli Institute in Ventotene; he is a former president of the European Federalist Movement in Italy and an honorary member of the Union of European Federalists. Roberto Castaldi is associate professor of political theory at eCampus University, research director at the International Centre for European and Global Governance and co-editor of Perspectives on Federalism.