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Ensuring Legitimacy in the Selection of a New President of the European Commission



For the first time, a president of the European Commission is to be selected under the Lisbon Treaty, which stipulates that the candidate can be selected with a qualified majority, eliminating the ability of a single country to exercise a veto. In addition, the selection has to take into account the outcome of the European parliamentary elections held last month.

All three top EU positions—commission president, council president, and high representative of the union for foreign affairs and security policy—are to be filled with new faces, another first. Some political imperatives are certain to apply, however. For example, at least one of the three leadership positions should go to a woman. The euro area, the non-euro area, the new member states, the northern states, and the southern states will all be clamoring for representation.

But the biggest political headache for EU leaders is the election of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten, or political leaders of the political groups in the recently elected European Parliament who may run as direct candidates for the job as commission president. As discussed earlier on RealTime, the Parliament, in which several anti-European integration fringe groups made serious gains, may try to usurp the right of the EU Council to nominate the commission president. Former Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, representing the European People's Party (EPP), the largest center-right group, is the front-runner Spitzenkandidat.

But can a process that brings about a power struggle between the Parliament and leaders of member states be considered legitimate? A democratic election of the leader of Europe's largest regional institution would seem to be a great achievement. But an election campaign waged by Juncker as EPP's Spitzenkandidat is not similar to a popular election in the United States.

Calling Juncker “the people's candidate” distorts the pseudodemocratic process. Juncker's name was on no ballot in the European parliamentary election, not even in his native Luxembourg. Few European voters knew they were voting for him for anything. Only 8 percent of voters even knew his name, according to polls. Getting a majority of votes in the European Parliament does not constitute a pan-European popular mandate, even though selecting a candidate from EPP does take into account the election outcome.

A pan-European democratic election of any office holder would be an unrealistic break with the past. Under such a system, the European Commission would cease its role as a bureaucratic and legalistic regulator and guardian of the EU treaties, becoming a politicized organization led by a president with an explicit and partisan agenda. The European Parliament would become a political partner of the commission as they team up against member states.

Yet a directly elected commission president might also unleash unpredictable and uncontrollable political processes. Imagine a president elected on a platform of support for euro bonds, Turkish EU membership, rollback of parts of the internal market, or opposition to the free mobility of labor in the EU. In such a case, Brussels and the European Parliament would prefer keeping the selection in their own hands rather than have winning candidates coming out of nowhere.

The current controlled Spitzenkandidat system means also that future candidates like Juncker will lack legitimacy. Europe still lacks a common identity, or demos. Most Europeans identify with their states. A few weeks of European parliament candidates campaigning on bus tours and engaging in a few televised debates hardly counts. In the United States, it takes years of nonstop primary campaigning for presidential contenders to reach minimum familiarity among voters. Achieving such recognition in a continent of linguistic and cultural differences would be even harder.

A European demos can be created eventually, but Europeans are only in the first stage of that process. Supporters of such a goal should think twice about trying to promote Juncker, whose credentials for the presidency are dubious. They should think instead about the long term. Trying to speed the process could actually weaken the European Commission, making member states less likely to cooperate with a president imposed upon them. In light of these risks, Juncker should withdraw his candidacy.

Those who want to imbue the president of the European Commission with democratic legitimacy must lay the political ground work to make it happen. In the next elections in 2019, a longer period of campaigning by Spitzenkandidaten should be required. The next Spitzenkandidaten should be selected as early as 2017, ideally by an open primary process. The last-minute backroom wheeling and dealing of this year must end.

Since the democratic legitimacy of an elected president of the European Commission would come at some cost to the legitimacy of national governments in national elections, some performance criteria should be established for the election itself. The 2014 European Parliament elections reversed the 30-year decline in turnout, edging up to 43.1 percent from 43.0 percent in 2009. But the average level of national election participation in the European Union was 68 percent. Hence European elections attract less than two-thirds of the voters participating in national elections.

For the EU Council to respect the democratic outcome of the European elections with regard to the presidential selection, a candidate that is to be imposed on democratically elected EU leaders should only be elected with a minimum level of voter participation—two-thirds or maybe 70 percent of the average turnout in the most recent national elections in the 28 EU members, for example. Perhaps a minimum 50 percent overall participation requirement could be imposed.

Were the 2019 European Parliament elections to fall short of this threshold, the EU Council should not be bound by the result, but reserve the right to take the election "into consideration" as the law now requires. One could further require that a victorious Spitzenkandidat secure adequate support in a geographically distributed manner across the entire European Union, guarding against regionalization of different political platforms, with candidates appealing to voters only in certain states.

All these steps would help command legitimacy in the eyes of voters. After all, many of the European nation states still have independent regional identities—think of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, or the United Kingdom. Creating a European demos will be hard, hard political work in pan-European elections for perhaps generations to come. The Spitzenkandidaten of 2014 are just the first baby steps to that end.

See also earlier post on this topic: What's Next for the European Parliament?

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