Portfolio blogger

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The "fight" for the presidency of the European Commission

There was no big opposition against the idea that the European parties should nominate their candidate to the presidency of the European Commission as it was expected that this could boost participation. Apparently the participation did not fall as expected but many doubt ( see for example here) whether this was due to this so-called "Spitzenkandidaten" system.
The same newspaper demanded already in 2009, before the previous European elections in an editorial that: "Voters must be told what they vote for. The Parliament's groups should tell votes who they want to be the next Commission's president. ... European Parliament elections have for far too long been presented... as a vote for Europe or against it. Political parties should change their approach and make clear that these elections are about what kind of European Union voters want."If the debate were about whether naming the candidate for Commission president is just that, it would make sense. I will try to answer this question below.
After the election, however, political actors start to discover the inconveniences of this idea and thus their disagreement with the principle.
The principle comes from an extending interpretation of the Lisbon treaty:the Council proposes "taking into account the result of the EP elections" a president for the Commission and the Parliament has to approve him/her by vote. It is only after that, that the commissioners can be nominated by the governments (one by each) and it is even after that, that the High Commissioner for Foreign and Security Policy (who is vice president of the Commission and chairs the External Affairs Council) and as the last, the president of the European Council (which is different from the different formations of the Council of the European Union, of which the the External Affairs Council is one) are nominated.
The system of institutions and the way the EU works is a delicately constructed framework and there is no doubt that the European parties threw a stone into this - actually never quiet and sometimes murky - pond.
So it is the European Parliament who finally approves the Commission president while it can only vote about a proposal brought forward by the Council. So it sounds logical that the parties in this Parliament can express whom they are ready to vote for. On the other hand, the separation of powers of initiative and approval is a feature of the EU which among others gives a power to the Commission national executives do not have - while the Commission lacks some other powers of national executives -, thus it is an important part of the above-mentioned delicate construction. The Parliament was in fact limiting the choice of the Council in whom to propose. The more so, as the Council has a majority of conservatives (mainly in the EPP) and this party is also the strongest in the Parliament. Had the Socialists won the EP elections, and the Council proposed Juncker the EPP candidate, not Schulz, the Socialist's favourite, the EPP could have still assembled a majority in the Parliament to approve Juncker. A nomination of Schulz could also been digested, in particular by Juncker, whose ambitions always pointed more towards the presidency of the European Council, which he could have won in exchange. But the time of these bargains is over, it seems taht eithe Juncker, or another EPP candidate will be proposed by the Council.
But why is Juncker's nomination in question? He is supported by Angela Merkel, the strongest national leader in the EPP (the French government is socialist). The opposition came first from Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, and then from Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and - Britain.
What makes the situation bizarre, is that although the question to be put was whether the voters want an EPP or a socialist candidate, the reservations against Juncker (and also against Schulz) are that they are too federalist. So we are back to the "more Europe" or "less Europe" question, which we should have forgotten. On this, however, the voters could not decide, as neither the ECR, to which the British conservatives belong, nor other eurosceptics staged a candidate for the Commission presidency. And - again no one knows whether due to that or not - all non-europhiles gained only 30% in the EP. A clear minority. We cannot go into the question whether this is much or little, why and how the people voted. It is widely discussed in the political press.
Before we deal with the Hungarian aspects, let's be up my promise: what can the European elections decide in terms of where Europe goes? Clearly, the power relations in the Parliament influence the direction, although no party has a clear majority and coalitions have to be forged. These are occasional coalitions, not like a government coalition. And some analysts like Professor J.H.H Weiler, president of the European University Institute (still a few but nevertheless I think they found the real problem in European-level democracy, the so-called "democratic deficit" of the EU) say, that in a real democracy, a governing coalition should be formed and it should define the way the executive works. The Commission, however, is not quite like a national executive. And its members are nominated by the member states and are usually adherents of the governing national coalitions or parties. Thus, the majority in the Commission will be conservative, but it is not automatic and there will be members from socialist and liberal parties. And the programme of the Commission will be set up by its members. Based on this, some could argue that finally the main political line will be defined by the political stream supported by the majority of the electorate (through both the choice of their governments and the elections to the European Parliament) but to explain to the common voter how this works is not easy. So the voters do not see that their vote has a real influence on the direction the EU takes. And the imperfections of the national vote (that you vote a general direction and a government may have individual measures and even policies you do not like but there is no party with whom you can 100% agree) is also present.
As explained in the previous post, the EP elections in Hungary had a domestic significance in spite of the fact that the national elections were less than two months before. It is more interesting to examine the reactions of the winner of both elections, the governing FIDESZ party to the nomination of Juncker. Of course, during the election campaign they did not mention the topic, it would have been couter-productive. But immediately afterwards, Orbán already declared that they do not support Juncker, who was the figurehead of Eurozone austerity, who is a "man of the past" and wants a Europe they do not want (i.e. too federalist).
And then Mr Szájer, MEP, explained (in the title of the article on the homepage of FIDESZ, the name of Juncker is incorrectly spelled since the 2nd June) the opposition in more popular terms: he repeated the antifederalist argument, that the interests of the nation states should be represented in the EU, but then recalled that during the government Juncker in Luxembourg, Hungary was significantly attacked. He called Asselborn, then foreign minister of Luxembourg the member of Juncker's party (which he is not) and also recalled that Viviane Reding attacked the Hungarian media law. Which in fact she didn't, she did deplore other laws which were more in her remit as European Commissioner and in this quality not reporting to Juncker. The latter mentioned this is his response.
Angela Merkel still appears to support Juncker, but left herself a back door: whe does not want to lose Britain for the EU. About this discussion next time.