Politics

Choosing a New Commission President in the European Union: Whose Authority, Whose Power?

Simon Glendinning · 26 June 2014
A letter signed by a number of influential European academics urges the members of the European Council of the European Union to propose Jean-Claude Juncker to the European Parliament to be the new Commission President.

Following changes to the election procedure of the Commission President in the Lisbon treaty, which provided for a new role for the European Parliament, the signatories think this is the only just outcome. Citing the treaty, the signatories note that “when proposing a candidate for the EU Commission President, the Lisbon treaty instructs the European Council to ‘take into account the elections to the European Parliament’ and states that the Commission President ‘shall be elected by the European Parliament’.”

The reason why the signatories think that Juncker’s candidacy is the only politically acceptable one is that, before the elections to the European Parliament, the party families in the Parliament each nominated candidates for the post, and since the European People’s Party emerged from the elections as the largest family group, its candidate should be the one proposed by the Council: “Proposing someone other than Juncker would be a refusal to recognize the changes in the treaty.”

Whether one is inclined to thank them for this initiative depends on one’s overall vision of the Union and its future. This is the question that the member states face today in regard to their Union: should it be a united Europe of States or a United States of Europe?

Simon Glendinning

But there are two problems here. First of all, the treaty does not call on the Parliament or party families to nominate candidates. Supporters of the “initiative” may like to represent it as a “voluntary” act by the party families, an initiative that advances “democracy” in the European Union. But that argument is not strong, since it is obvious that the preferred candidate of the largest grouping in the European Parliament is no more democratic a choice than a candidate proposed to the Parliament by democratically elected Heads of State. Indeed, one can argue that elected Heads of State are elected, in part, precisely to speak on behalf of their citizens in international affairs. On the other hand, one can also argue that the European parliamentary families should be conceived as speaking for Europe’s citizens too: the candidate from the largest group in the European parliament is “the European citizens’ choice”.

There are two very different, but equally pro-European, visions at stake here: on the one hand, of an EU that is organized on the basis of agreements between its member states; and, on the other hand, an EU in which the member states become implementing authorities for decisions made at the supranational level. The “voluntary” initiative of the parliamentary parties to nominate candidates, and to attempt in doing so effectively to tie the hands of the Council, belongs to a movement that strongly prefers the latter vision. It is attempting to “nudge” Europe towards becoming a supranational state. Whether one is inclined to thank them for this initiative depends on one’s overall vision of the Union and its future. This is the question that the member states face today in regard to their Union: should it be a united Europe of States or a United States of Europe?

This question has not been settled. However, I think we can be certain of one thing. It should not be settled by a power-grab, but by a genuinely voluntary agreement between its members. Until and unless that agreement to form a supranational state is voluntarily entered into, the only truly democratic decision is to act in accordance with the agreements already reached.

Given where the Union is today, this means that the European Council must remain free to decide, after due consultation, who to propose to the European Parliament: the candidates should not be nominated for them.

Simon Glendinning

The signatories insist their preference is already in conformity with the changes enshrined in the Lisbon treaty. This claim seems incredibly weak. Here is the relevant wording in the treaty: ‘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.’ There is a powerful European Parliamentary veto in this structure, and a requirement of the Council to look beyond itself too, but in the end it is for the Council to make up its qualified majority mind, not the Parliament to do so for it. This process does embody a vision of the Union, a vision enshrined in the treaty, of the Union and its sovereignty as a creature of its sovereign member states, and not the reverse.

It is not a question of trying to assess the merits of one argument over another concerning “democracy” in the Union, but the reality of an institutional commitment to “the rule of law”. This phrase is often abused by politicians, taking it to relate to the good behavior of the citizenry. But it means nothing of the sort. The rule of law relates to the behavior of those who govern us: it demands that what they do is done within the constraints of constituted lawfulness, and not the exercise of arbitrary power or influence. Democracy goes beyond the rule of law, but without it, it is inconceivable. Given where the Union is today, this means that the European Council must remain free to decide, after due consultation, who to propose to the European Parliament: the candidates should not be nominated for them.