Newly re-elected President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz has claimed “The vote of the European Parliament of 15 July has sealed a new method for the selection of Commission President ushering into (sic) a new era for European democracy.” Writing in a LinkedIn discussion forum, Schulz resolutely defends the spitzencandidaten method and tries to put to bed two alternative but competing visions for enhancing EU democracy, writes Tim McNamara.
Besides the strong arguments against the process, e.g. no names on the ballot paper; Juncker’s party got less than 30% of the overall vote; most voters didn’t know who the candidates were in many member states; the process seems to only have had political traction in Germany alone, Schulz is a stout defender of the method of choosing the commission’s president.
Firstly, in the article entitled “Juncker and the Spitzen-revolution” Schulz claims that the method of choosing Jean-Claude Juncker “has quickly morphed from an idea snubbed upon (sic) into an an unstoppable process”. Yet this is directly at odds with the conclusions of the European council of June of this year. Paragraph 27 of the conclusions state “Once the new European commission is effectively in place, the European council will consider the process for the appointment of the president of the European commission for the future, respecting the European treaties.”
Juncker’s elevation to commission president was arguably a case of ‘dammed by faint praise’. The council went out of its way to present an almost united stand that could be interpreted as “Well, we are stuck with this process for now but never again”. Juncker’s authority was, it appears, deliberately weakened by a demonstrable lack of enthusiasm that emerged during the council’s deliberations.
Several leaders were overtly critical of the apparent fait accompli they were presented with. It can be safely assumed that the European council, as an institution in its own right, will not allow itself to be politically outmaneuvered in a similar fashion again. One reason is that if the council accepts the spitzencandidaten process as legitimate, then there would be nothing to stop the Parliament following a path of aggrandisement in the future.
For instance, why not follow a similar process for the double-hatted post of Head of the European External Action Service or even introduce a nationally based spitzencandidaten method of choosing Commissioners in each member state? Nigel Farage as European commissioner for agriculture anyone? Why should Van Rompuy’s successor be the sole prerogative of the European council?
Could Schulz’s own position be called into question on democratic grounds? After all, if one takes Schulz’s arguments to their logical conclusion, Jean-Claude Juncker has far more democratic legitimacy (popular choice of voters and ratified by a directly elected chamber). Does the parliament really want to try and control a bureaucracy that has more claims to political legitimacy than any other bureaucracy in the 28 member states?
Schulz also argues that opponents of the spitzencandidaten process “have failed to set out their alternative”. Actually, there are several alternatives. The clearest alternative would be the have the candidates for the post of European commission president named on the ballot papers of European election voting slips. I would argue that this ought to be complemented by a further voting choice “None of the Above”. Positive abstentionism is a legitimate choice for voters and would allow voters in member states where voting is compulsory to express their views in a legitimate manner and would see equal treatment of such votes across all member states.
Another alternative, alluded to by Schulz but quickly dismissed, would be to increase the power of national parliaments. He believes that national parliaments’ role should be to increase their scrutiny of their national governments rather than be involved in pan-EU legislative scrutiny. Adopting the role of the victim, Schulz goes on to argue that “Of course it is difficult to find executives advocating this kind of re-empowerment of national parliaments. It is a lot cheaper to wage a campaign against the European parliament, the beacon of all evils.”
Actually a hybrid spitzencandidaten method involving national parliaments would be a better alternative than the process Schulz resolutely defends. Why not give national parliamentarians a vote in the election of commission president, obviously weighted to reflect the different populations of each member state. It would go some way to address the democratic deficit that Schulz uses to defend his preferred process.
Schulz’s finishes his article by claiming that “The spitzencandidaten process is not the be all and end all but it is a permanent feature of the more democratic EU which we will build over the coming years”. It is to be hoped that when the EU’s institutions address the democratic deficit then the spitzencandidaten process will actually be consigned to the dustbin of history where it clearly belongs.
Tim McNamara is head of the Peercourt consultancy firm. He was previously political editor at the European Commission.