Choosing a Commission President

Article written by Lisa Azzopardi – Executive, MEUSAC
Published on MaltaToday – 31.10.18

When one thinks of how the EU functions, it may be easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of acronyms, institutions and bodies.

In reality, the backbone of EU governance is quadripartite. If one were to imagine the EU as a square divided into four parts, the Commission and the European Council would be the holders of the executive power, while the legislative power is held by the Council of the EU and the European Parliament (EP). The European Council, composed primarily of the Heads of State or Government,  provides political impetus to EU decision-making, the Parliament is the legislative chamber directly elected by the people, whereas the Council coordinates Member States’ policies and legislates via the ordinary legislative procedure, hand in hand with the Parliament.

The European Commission is composed of 28 members, one hailing from each Member State. By way of statistics, the Commission is an administrative comprising over 32,000 permanent staff members. This might seem a lot, yet the figure is much less than the number of administrative workers in any major European city council.

The Commission has seen its mode of appointment evolve drastically since it was first set up as a ‘High Authority’ by the Treaty of Paris that established the first European Community (Coal and Steel – ECSC) in 1952. In the 1980s, the practice was introduced whereby the EP started to ‘approve’ the appointment of the Commission. Along the passage of time, the treaties of Maastricht and Nice made further enhancements to the method of appointment of the Commission. However, it was the 2009 Lisbon Treaty that effected the biggest change.

Following the amendments introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, Article 17 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) now stipulates that the President of the Commission is ‘elected’ by the absolute majority of members of the EP (MEPs) (currently 376 of 751, however the number of MEPs is expected to be reduced to 705 after the UK’s planned exit in March 2019) on a proposal of the European Council, after the latter takes into account the results of the European elections (due to take place in May 2019). However, there is no legal obligation for the European Council to propose the candidate hailing from the political family that would have won the largest number of seats in the Strasbourg assembly. This makes the process more unpredictable, but at the same time, exciting.

Following the 2014 elections, the European Council did in fact propose the so called ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ (a Germanic word for ‘lead candidate’) of the party winning the most seats in EP.  However, there is no guarantee that it will do so again next year.

Political groupings from across the EU are currently in the process of nominating a candidate for the Commission’s top job. With elections taking place in May 2019, numerous potential Spitzenkandidaten have thrown their hat into the ring.

There are considerable pros and cons to this system. Its biggest fans proclaim that it narrows the gap on the EU’s democratic deficit, as citizens select the Commission President. This novel way of choosing a Commission President, albeit indirectly, serves to mobilise the electorate, no mean feat given the ever-declining participation of voters in European elections. As irony would have it, as the Parliament’s powers increased along the years, voter turnout has steadily decreased since the first direct elections to the EP were held in 1979. This may be attributed to the second-order characteristic of European elections, whereby European voters vote on national issues at pan-EU elections. By providing a clear link between the vote and the Commission President, the man in the street has a real political choice to make.

Additionally, by tying the position of Commission President to the outcome of European elections, the EP is indiscutably strengthened. Of the three European institutions, the EP has been constantly clamouring to have its competences increased. The Spitzenkandidaten could be the procedure that brings the EP on an equal institutional footing to the Commission and Council.

On the other hand, its detractors point out the need for more transparency, accountability to citizens and certainty. French President Emanuel Macron’s La République En Marche party has declared that it will not support any European political group that backs the so-called Spitzenkandidat, saying the procedure strips them of the power to pick Europe’s most senior official. Others claim that it polarises the European public sphere instead of seeking a consensus-building candidate. Polarisation often leads to more politicisation of European issues. Therefore, this may not be the right recipe to bring back alienated Europeans to the fold since very often the Commission is lauded for its technocratic, evidence-based style of policy-making, rather than good old national political games.

Feedback on the process itself has been somewhat uneven. European Council President Donald Tusk has been quoted as saying that ‘the idea that the Spitzenkandidaten process is somehow more democratic is wrong’.  On the other hand, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke favourably of the process in his final speech on the State of the Union in September 2018. He stated, ‘I would like next year’s elections to be a landmark for European democracy. I would like to see the Spitzenkandidaten process – that small step forward for European democracy – repeated.’

Whatever happens, one thing is certain: the debate on the future of the EU and its Commission is wide open.

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