Bursting the Bubble

Clash of the Titans: European Council vs. European Parliament and their fight for the next Commission President

26 February 2014 | by

Over the years the European Parliament elections have increasingly become synonymous with “second order elections” where the brightest candidates do not always make it onto the ballot, and with “low turnout” caused by the citizens’ perception that the European Union is too complex, irrelevant to their interests and not very exciting. But this time… this time is different!

Or at least according to the European Parliament itself it should be the case. This time, a renewed excitement can be felt in the air… For the first time, the results of the elections are supposed to impact the decision-making process for the nomination of the President of the European Commission. Put succinctly, the President of the European Commission will be expected to wear the same political colour as the European party who is seen to win the upcoming European elections.

Pundits believe that this novelty will increase citizens’ interest into the election due to the personalisation and even politicisation of this central position that the Presidency of the European Commission is. This change could not only help to fend off the euro-scepticism that will according to recent polls enable parties that are “either critical of or radically opposed to the EU” to win as many as 29% of the seats in the Parliament. It could also trigger a parlementarisation. That means that the way the European Parliament functions would undergo some transformation with the current ad hoc majorities constituted on a case-by-case basis leading to a hemicycle being run much more in a national-like way with a division between majority and opposition.

And just like at the national level when it comes to electing the government, the vast majority of European parties have begun putting forward their top candidates for the position of President of the European Commission.

At the time of writing, some names had already been made known. The Party of the European Left (PEL) has appointed Alexis Tsipras (Greece), the Party of European Socialists (PES) has chosen Martin Schulz (Germany), the European Green Party (the EGP) has elected José Bové (France) and Ska Keller (Germany), and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE) has nominated Guy Verhofstadt (Belgium).

The European Peoples’ Party (EPP) will make a decision at its congress between 6 – 7 March 2014 and the Movement for a Europe of Liberties and Democracy (MELD) is yet to announce any selection process for putting forward a candidate. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) have decided not to propose a candidate for the Commission Presidency due to their view that such a process would legitimise the idea of a “European executive [being] chosen by a federal legislature” where this idea would, according to them, “have no treaty basis, nor any backing from the electorates.”

Nevertheless, these candidate nomination processes have stimulated debates across Europe as they have translated themselves into open primaries, lively exchanges of views and even divisions among the national members of some European parties during their internal nomination process. This in turn is nurturing political life across Europe as well as at the national level. However, for Europe to follow this path, to become even more accessible for its citizens and to further align itself with the tradition of member states’ democratic models, it will have to settle one constitutional issue.

With the Lisbon Treaty now in force, the role of the European Parliament has gained some weight since the Treaty on the European Union states in Article 17.7 that

“Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council […] shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament […].” (emphasis added)

Granted by this article, the European Parliament is disposing of a veto power on the election of the President of the European Commission and is planning to use it in order to force the European Council to abide by its own interpretation of what it means to “take into account the elections to the European Parliament.” According to the wishes of the European Parliament, the European Council would then be forced to nominate the candidate proposed by the party who wins the most votes in May. Such a federalist vision would enhance its own importance in the European institutional game and reinforce its legitimacy in line with the powers the Parliaments enjoys at Member State level.

The European Council, on the other hand, which gathers the Heads of States and Governments in an inter-governmental configuration, is much more opposed to such a quantum leap toward a more federal Europe. It is thus likely to give away with difficulty its power to nominate the Presidency candidates behind closed doors as the result of political bargaining among countries. Instead it is expected that the European Council will fight to impose another legal interpretation of Article 17.7 of the TEU which would grant it the right to nominate an ‘independent’ candidate.

This can be illustrated by the recent comments made by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, in which she foresees no “automatic link” to be made between the winner of the elections and the president of the European Commission. In the same vein, the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, has recently declared that this politicisation of the Presidency of the Commission would be a source of disappointment and would only reinforce the powers of the Commission vis-à-vis the Member States.

On the other side of the European Council table, other countries, such as Slovakia, seem to be more open to the idea of “putting faces on the elections”. Slovakia’s Maroš Šefčovič, the current Vice-President of the Commission for inter-institutional relations and administration will be running for the upcoming elections as a way to reinforce his legitimacy when and if reappointed by his country for a new term as Commissioner. Although this example is still isolated, this might be a sign that the European Parliament will find some allies within the European Council itself.

In conclusion, the real question is to know whether or not the European Council will make use of its legal possibility to nominate an ‘independent’ candidate, a possibility that would be politically difficult to use as it could sharply damage the credibility of the European Parties. In a more political dimension, the clearer the victory of a European party in the elections, the more likely the Parliament is to use its veto power in case the European Council would be tempted to ignore the result of the elections.

However, in case the European Parliament ends up fragmented without a clear-cut winner, remaining unorganised due to the rise of Euroscepticism and greater polarisation, the level of its influence could be reduced to such an extent that it would allow the European Council much more room to manoeuvre its preferred candidate into the position. Whoever said the wording of the Treaty does not matter? The Devil is in the detail and the struggle for power has only just begun.

What do you think?