by Yana Prokofyeva. Originally published on 2013/11/12
On the 6th of November the European Socialist Party (PES – Party of European Socialists) designated Martin Schulz, the incumbent president of the European Parliament (EP), as its official candidate for the presidency of the European Commission. The Greens have pre-selected 4 contenders and will make their final choice soon. How is the post of the European Commission President related to the European Parliament Elections? What do all these nominations mean and what consequences will they have?
Election of the Commission President: history of the rise of EP-powers
For quite a long time, it was only up to the heads of governments to decide who would be the President of the Commission. However, as the European Parliament started gaining more influence, the Member States had to share their power with it. Since the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the term of the EP was aligned with the term of the European Commission. The governments of the Member States, after having chosen a candidate, also had to consult the Parliament on this matter. However, the EP interpreted this line as a right to vote on the nominee, which it has exercised ever since.
The Lisbon Treaty, in force since 2009, makes the following point about the procedure: The European Council proposes, “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament», a candidate for the Presidency of the Commission, who is then elected by the EP. As the upcoming elections are the first after the Lisbon Treaty, there is no established practice yet, allowing this principle to be interpreted in different ways.
The fact that the European Socialist Party has already nominated a candidate and all other parties have promised to do so is about to radically change the face of the European politics. Let us see what is it aimed at.
Fight democratic deficit
First of all, since the first direct election in 1979, the European Parliament has been regarded as the most legitimate institution of the European Union as it represents the EU’s citizens directly. This has been the reason for the EP’s gradual empowerment – for example, after the Lisbon Treaty most of the European legislative acts are voted by co-decision procedure, meaning that the EP now has almost the same legislative rights as the Council of Ministers. In this respect, relating directly the results of the parliamentary elections to the candidature of the Commission President is seen as a very powerful breakthrough in ensuring the EU’s legitimacy. What is more, it is considered as a significant move to increase people’s trust: if the Commission President is someone the citizens voted for and not a person appointed by the governments in a way that is not clear for everybody, it may actually bridge the gap between the EU and its citizens.
Fight the lack of attention
Secondly, at the moment everybody seems scared of a possible low turnout at the European elections in May 2014. The previous elections in 2009 saw a voter-turnout already as low as 43% and there seems no reason to believe that the EU has become more popular with citizens ever since. Some suggest that one of the ways to promote the European elections may be their personification in order to make them more traditional and thus understandable for people. They could vote not for a coalition (which are very big and do not always have clear agendas) but for a particular person to become what is now the highest European executive.
Create a right-left cleavage
The direct appointment of the Commission President is also thought to contribute to the development of a right-left cleavage within the European Union. As of now it is absent (Fabrini, 2013) but some think such a cleavage is important to create on a European level in order to increase the diversity of European ideas. As Martin Schulz says: “The big political forces need a competition to confront their vision of Europe. We should not limit the debate by the clash of pro- and anti-Europeans. We have to offer a choice between the Europe of the right and of the left, the liberal and the socialist Europe, in order to help its democratization”.
However, not everybody is happy about this. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, for instance, thinks, that the choice of the Commission President is to be left within the hands of governments. Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, called it a “false good idea”, fearing a clash between the EU institutions.
I am not in favour of this idea either. To my mind, reflecting citizens’ political preferences is not part of the Commission’s job: its job is coming up with law drafts and then legislating on some of the most technical issues. The main directions of the EU’s development, are overseen by the European Council which represents the heads of European governments and therefore the electoral choice of European citizens. The sought politicization may be far from useful, it may be harmful: as long as the European Union does not interfere greatly into social matters and redistribution of welfare (e.g. taxes), it should, in my opinion, remain more technical. Nevertheless, this certainly leads to a further and broader discussion about where the EU is heading.
To conclude, the nomination by the European parties of a candidate for the post of the President of the European Commission is, without doubt, changing things for the EU. The main question is, will it serve its purpose? Will it attract voters in May 2014, increase their trust in the European institutions and make them understand better how the EU functions? Because at the end of the day, Europe is all about its citizens. May 2014 will see if it worked.
1) Martin Schulz : “Pourquoi je suis candidat à la présidence de la Commission européenne”
2) Simon Hix, «Executive Selection in the European Union: Does the Commission President Investiture Reduce the Democracy Deficit?», European Intergation Online Papers, 1, 21, 1997.
 Fabrini, S. Parliamentary election of the Commission’s President: Constraints on the Parliamentarization of the European Union. Based on the opening lecture “Parliamentary Democracy in Europe”, by Carli, L.G. (Rome, 2013).