For a while there has been quite a stir in Brussels about the upcoming European Parliament elections – and I am not talking about some MEPs flying back already to their home constituencies to begin campaigning, rather than voting at the Plenary. Since the changes to the Lisbon Treaty the question being asked throughout Brussels – and indeed more widely – is how much the parliamentary election will directly affect the decision of a new President of the European Commission.
The Lisbon Treaty states: Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission (TEU Art. 17 (7)). There are two conflicting interpretations of this article. According to the European Parliament pro-federalist party leaders, like Martin Schulz, only the official candidates put forward by European parties can be selected by the European Council, and then presented to the Parliament for voting (to recap, they are: Jean-Claude Juncker (EPP), Martin Schulz (S&D), Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE), Alexis Tsipras (European Left party), and both Ska Keller and José Bové (European Green party.)) On the other hand, European leaders like Angela Merkel and Herman Van Rompuy insist on the old order, arguing that looking ‘for ‘faces’ to guide the EU [is] not a solution’. Someone may argue, why change the system when the previous one works so remarkably well?
In previous years the selection was done through backdoor negotiation (with lots of media speculation in the months prior to the official Council meeting). However, as populist groups are on the rise and public trust in the EU falls, the cry for a democratic Union has never been greater. The European candidates differ from each other in their knowledge and prestige – Martin Schulz with his robust experience from the European Parliament, internationally respected ex-Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, and Greek leader of the opposition, Alexis Tsipras, with his alternative view on austerity measures. I can only say that the presidential debates which will be broadcasted throughout the entire Union (with the first one in Maastricht!) will be far from dull. And maybe, just maybe, more people will come out to vote.
It is clear that the decision on selecting a new President of the Commission is both a question about which institution holds more power (Council or European Parliament), and whether the European project can considered democratically accountable to its citizens. However, far too few people think how the newly politicized nature of the Commission will affect this particular institution in the first place.
Although the choice of Commission President is political, once the candidate is officially President they pledge an oath to be ‘completely independent in carrying out their responsibilities, in the general interest of the union’. Just like Heather Grabbe and Stefan Lehne, I doubt if the Commission can still remain an independent Guardian of the Treaties. ‘What chance is there of a newly elected President – such as Martin Schulz – in remaining unbiased when proposing new legislation?’
Apart from proposing new legislation, I can hardly imagine how a partisan Commission can lead changes against a President’s pledges made in the pre-election period. The Commission gained new roles in light of the Eurozone crisis – to monitor and enforce fiscal discipline in the Eurozone. If the European Left gained most of the votes and Alexis Tsipras became the new Commission President, would he still be able to impartially and technically carry out his duties? Will he receive support from both anti-austerity and pro-austerity countries? Would he be able to keep his promise to his European electorate? These sorts of questions can arise based on any candidate who will promise various pledges to their electorates.
To end this blog post, I want to quote one of my favourite TV-shows, namely Yes Minister. Although British cynicism on the European project is scorned by many (continental) Europeans, this time Sir Humphrey nails the nature of the Brussels bubble:
James Hacker: The trouble with Brussels is not internationalism, it’s too much bureaucracy.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: But the bureaucracy is a consequence of the internationalism. Why else would there be an English Commissioner with a French Director-General immediately below him, and an Italian Chef-du-Division reporting to the Frenchman and so on down the line.
James Hacker: Oh, I agree.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: It’s like the Tower of Babel.
James Hacker: I agree.
(“Yes Minister: The Devil You Know. Season 2, Episode 5)
The public affairs professional knows that the Brussels of today remains a Tower of Nationalities and (National) Interests. Apart from national interests presented by the Council and European Parliament, there are thousands of institutions, companies, organisations and associations that lobby and influence European legislation according to their interests. Getting an agreement is difficult and accommodating all wishes is impossible. Therefore in order for Europe to make bold and necessary choices for the Union to operate in this brave new world – the answer is an independent, non-partisan European Commission.
First European Presidential Debate #EUdebate2014 will take place in Maastricht on 28 April 2014.
To watch first you can either register or watch it broadcasted by Euronews. You can find more information at http://www.eudebate2014.eu/