The election of the European Commission’s president may not be exciting -- but it’s far more important than cranky, skeptical pundits are willing to admit.
- By Gareth Harding<p> Gareth Harding is Brussels program director for the Missouri School of Journalism. </p> <p> </p>
Imagine a presidential campaign in which the leading contenders are unknown to the vast majority of the public, voters cannot directly cast their ballots for the candidate of their choice, and the eventual winner can be struck down in favor of a more palatable politician by ruling elites. This may sound like a sham election in a post-Soviet dictatorship. But in fact, it is the slightly surreal circumstances of the world’s first transnational presidential campaign.
From May 22 to 25, 380 million voters in the EU’s 28 member states are invited to the polls — as they are every five years — to elect 751 members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The difference this time is they can also play a part in picking the next president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive body.
The scheme is not short of critics among Europe’s pundits. Open Europe, a mildly Euro-skeptic think tank based in London, argues that the European Parliament has "failed to gain popular democratic legitimacy" and that its candidates for the plum post "are unable to connect with what remain national electorates." An op-ed in the Economist last week called for the European Parliament to be "downgraded" and urged EU leaders to "stand against its latest power grab."
But the new election is really a step toward more democracy in Europe, giving voters a bigger say in choosing who runs the EU than they have ever had before. And that’s a good thing.
Until now, the commission chief has been chosen in much the same way as the pope — by a conclave of leaders meeting behind closed doors. However, under a purposefully vague clause in the Lisbon Treaty, the latest version of the EU’s rulebook, European heads of state are obliged to "take into account" the results of the European Parliament elections when deciding the next commission CEO.
This year, Europe’s main political parties — such as the Socialists, Liberals, Greens. and center-right European People’s Party — have interpreted this clause to mean that they have the right to field candidates for the commission post, something that has never happened before. The political grouping that tops the poll would expect to have its candidate confirmed by EU leaders in late June, before being ratified by the European Parliament in July.
Some, such as Dutch premier Mark Rutte, have pushed back, arguing that EU leaders are not obliged to pick any of the parliament’s preferred candidates. But as MEPs can reject any figure put forward by Angela Merkel, David Cameron, et al, it will be extremely difficult for EU leaders to ignore the victorious party’s applicant.
In a May 15 televised debate among candidates, the current parliament president and Socialist candidate, German Martin Schulz, said, "If member states dare to put forward someone else, they would overrule the EU treaty and citizens and that would deal a big blow to European democracy." The other hopefuls for the commission job — center-right contender Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, European Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt of Belgium, German Green MEP Ska Keller, and Greek leftist Alexis Tsipras — agreed, implying the assembly will veto any attempt by EU leaders to impose their nominee.
Critics accuse the parliament of politicizing the role of the European Commission, which is independent of national governments and has a quasi-judicial role in ensuring EU laws are applied. However, the EU executive is already an intensely political body. Former ministers and prime ministers-turned-presidents are responsible for drafting the bloc’s 150 billion euro annual budget and have the sole power to propose new EU legislation. Giving the union’s only directly elected institution greater power over who heads the commission therefore seems both more democratic and more in line with how chief executives in national political systems are appointed. In Britain, for example, the prime minister is usually the leader of the party that musters the most votes. He or she is not directly elected to the post.
One of the criticisms leveled at the European Union is that it is run by faceless, unelected Eurocrats who are impossible to turf out. This charge will be more difficult to make after this first presidential campaign — if EU leaders pluck one of the political groups’ contenders. Even Merkel, who had previously voiced her opposition to any automatic link between the candidates and the election result, said Thursday, "A clear, qualitative improvement is that, in principle, the commission president gets elected."
Two of parliament’s four main parties — the Liberals and the Greens — held primaries for the post. All candidates have been campaigning across the continent, holding town hall meetings, rallies, selfie contests, and engaging with voters online. By the end of the campaign, Juncker’s aides estimate that the former Luxembourg premier will have visited 32 cities in 18 countries and given over 300 interviews. He even has a campaign bus and "war room" — hardly cutting edge by U.S. standards but a first in transnational politics. The televised debate between the five candidates was broadcast live by 47 TV stations, and while it lacked the drama, excitement, and scripted zingers of U.S. presidential debates, it compensated by focusing on the meaty political issues that concern most Europeans: high unemployment, sluggish growth, and the crisis in Ukraine.
It is easy to mock what could be described as a European election without a European electorate. The Liberal primary campaign videos for Verhofstadt and his challenger, EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn, were hilariously bad. The former featured poorly edited clips of the former Belgian prime minister in action, overlaid with a cheesy rock soundtrack that is ideal for air-guitaring but not quite appropriate for a politician vying to run a 30,000-strong civil service. Rehn’s spots, meanwhile, starred the Finnish EU official droning into an autocue with a voice designed to put even the most caffeinated listeners to sleep.
With the possible exception of Verhofstadt, the sparkiest performer in the May 15 debate, the three leading candidates are uninspiring Brussels apparatchiks whose unblinking belief in further European integration is wildly out of step with most voters’ belief that the EU is intrusive and deaf to their concerns. Like the MEPs who will decide their fate, the five contenders are also unknown to most of their electors. A recent poll of 9,000 people in 12 EU countries showed more than 60 percent of voters had no idea who any of the candidates were. It might have been a different story, though, if the political parties had nominated political heavyweights from large EU countries, such as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy or former British prime minister Tony Blair.
Most Europeans view the EU assembly elections like Americans view mid-terms, as second-order polls. That is one reason why turnout has slumped from almost two-thirds 35 years ago to 43 percent in 2009. At the same time, there has been a creeping Eu
ropeanization of politics on the continent in recent years. The economic crisis and the brutal austerity measures imposed by the EU have made household names of Olli Rehn and Jose Manuel Barroso, the outgoing commission president, in Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, and other bailout countries — even if those names are often accompanied by unprintable adjectives. And as a result of the crisis, finance ministers now have to trek to Brussels to ask EU officials to sanction their national budgets before they can be put to parliaments in their own countries.
There are legitimate questions about whether the commission has abused its powers in dealing with small, vulnerable countries — or whether it should have such powers in the first place. But surely the best way to guarantee that the policies pursued by the EU executive are in tune with those of the people it is supposed to represent is to give voters a say. If they plump for parties backing a commission candidate advocating strict fiscal discipline, then they should not be surprised if austerity continues.
The right to use your vote to boot out those who hold executive power is democracy at its most basic. That makes it all the more curious why critics of the presidential campaign, who are often the loudest in denouncing the EU’s democratic deficit, are opposed to this innovation.
The most democratic way of choosing the EU chief executive, of course, would be to hold direct elections, with the names of candidates on ballot papers like in the U.S. presidential race. This would go some way toward meeting the concerns of the seven out of 10 people in the EU’s largest countries who believe their voice does not count in the EU. But that would require a change to the EU treaty, something that has only been done six times in the bloc’s history. For now, the current campaign, flawed and faltering as it is, represents a small step towards a more democratic and accountable European Commission.