As we witness the struggle to nominate a new EU Commission President unfold, most commentators bring in arguments about democracy to support their case. In their contradictory views, they often refer to the Lisbon Treaty, which says that the European Council should nominate a EU Commission President candidate in the light of the election result and, at the same time, that the European Parliament elects the Commission President. So which side has the stronger case? To answer this question you need to look beyond the treaty.
This year’s nomination of lead candidates for the different political party families is not a requirement of the treaty but a new convention to which all major political groupings signed up. These candidates were nominated to personalise the European election campaign and improve democracy and accountability as citizens would know who they vote for and what their broad ideas for the next five years are. The European Union has often been accused of a democratic deficit and this move was intended to address some of theses concerns. It is this circumstance that now clearly suggests that Jean-Claude Juncker should become Commission President. And national leaders really cannot complain about this.
Most of them were involved in the candidate selection for their party grouping. The fact that David Cameron had no say in selecting a conservative candidate is due to him pulling the UK Conservatives out of the European People’s Party (EPP), which, together with the social democrats, was the only group likely to become the strongest faction in the European Parliament. Nobody forced him out and it was argued at the time that pulling out of the EPP would marginalise Tory influence in Europe. And so it proved.
[vision_pullquote style=”3″ align=””] The heads of governments should have noticed that, with their party hats on, they took away their own room for manoeuver as heads of government. [/vision_pullquote]
The fundamental point is that the voluntary selection of lead candidates narrowed the role of the European Council as the field of potential people became the group of candidates – and amongst them effectively just Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker. Ripping this electoral promise up after the event would be within the limits of the treaty but is politically indefensible. The heads of government should have noticed that, with their party hats on, they took away their own room for manoeuver as heads of government.
Europe’s leaders could have easily decided not to run lead candidates, in which case the European Council’s current view, that the unrestricted nomination of suitable personnel is their prerogative, would be perfectly legitimate. But changing people after an election, like some heads of governments are now suggesting, is worthy of a banana republic and would significantly erode the democratic legitimacy of the European Union as a whole. If this is the way things work out, you might as well call off the next European election as voters would rightfully feel betrayed.
Members of the European Parliament of course know this. And they realise that the outcome of this power struggle between themselves and the European Council will set an important precedent. Therefore they will fight tooth and nail and they are in a strong position: they have the last word as the treaty clearly states. For this reason some members of the European Council have started to ‘work the candidate’ in an attempt to make Juncker withdraw so they regain their scope of action as the election winner would no longer be available. If this tactic were to succeed then Martin Schulz, who was running on behalf of Europe’s social democrats, which became the second strongest group in the election, should try to form a parliamentary coalition that supports him. And he would have good chances in succeeding as this is now as much a fight between institutions as it is for individual people.
There is much at stake for the European Union in this fight. After years of crisis management, which always strengthens the role of governments, the European Parliament is pushing back in an attempt to improve its own standing in the Union. If it succeeds, it will play a more important role than ever. If it loses the direction of travel for the European Union will clearly be determined by national governments. So this battle is not just about Juncker or somebody else, it is about the future shape of the European Union.
Also visit our Hot Topic page on the European Election 2014
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments below.