‘The European Union is too far removed from its citizens,’ is a sentence uttered all too often. Europhiles have passionately defended the democratic nature of the union and its institutions. In 2014 the Spitzenkandidaten-procedure was introduced to increase the influence of the European Parliament and start a European public debate around the elections. The process failed to gain much public support and attention in 2014, but the winner, Jean-Claude Juncker was nonetheless selected as Commission President (despite reservations from Angela Merkel).
Why did it go through in the end? Not many people are aware that the procedure was actually an invention of the EPP party secretariat that was covertly served up to leaders within the Lisbon Treaty. Many didn’t even realise what they had agreed to, because it was just one line within a much larger treaty and easily overlooked. In the end, it worked, because the EPP had a majority in the Council.
While leaders like Angela Merkel feared losing the power of nominating the Commission President themselves, they also realised what a brilliant mechanism they had created for themselves. With a majority in the Council and a majority in the European Parliament, the EPP would always win the Commission Presidency automatically in perpetuity, so long as they kept up their strong electoral results.
This seemed very likely at the time and so the Spitzenkandidaten-procedure became a way of keeping the EPP in power, using ‘democratic legitimacy’ as a buzzword to ensure no other faction could ever challenge their claim to complete dominance of the EU institutions.
In 2019 the situation is very different. The EPP is no longer the undisputed king on the hill and they know it. It only holds 9 seats on the European Council. Both the Socialists and the Liberals have 7 seats each and are joined by three independents and two members of the Eurosceptic conservatives (at least until Brexit). While the EPP is still ahead, its position is significantly weakened compared to the 12 seats it held, against 8 socialist and 3 liberal seats before the European elections in 2014. The European elections didn’t go as planned either. Both the EPP and S&D lost a significant amount of seats to liberal, green and far-right parties. The EPP still held on to its majority, but the grand coalition is broken.
At the negotiating table, Merkel did her best to save the Spitzenkandidaten-procedure, but Emmanuel Macron had the opposite goal. From the outset, he publicly declared the system as dead and didn’t even want to consider one of the lead candidates in the election. It was all part of a plan, of course. The liberal ALDE group, which his LaREM party later joined to form Renew Europe, had also rejected the system by selecting a ‘Team Europe’ to lead the election campaign, rather than just one person, who would become Commission President.
Angela Merkel is close to her retirement and as such doesn’t really care as much about party politics anymore, as she did at the height of her power. So she came up with the ‘Osaka-deal’; a backroom deal negotiated at the G20 summit in Japan.
This deal would have given the Council presidency to the liberals, the Commission presidency to S&D Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans and the Parliament Presidency to EPP Spitzenkandidat (and Merkel’s friend) Manfred Weber.
Macron insisted that the Spitzenkandidaten-procedure was undemocratic and therefore should be dismantled, but Merkel stipulated that with the addition of transnational lists (which the EPP had previously already rejected in the European Parliament), it would become democratic. This way, a deal was reached after all; a backroom deal that paved the way for more democracy.
Except we didn’t get this deal either. It turns out, attacking the V4 (Poland, Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia) on the campaign trail was not a great idea, given that they all have a veto on the Commission President’s nomination. Thus, Frans Timmermans and Manfred Weber were automatically rejected by Poland and Hungary respectively. Why Margrethe Vestager, who is not only a competent centrist Commissioner, but also represented the faction with the most seat gains, was not even on the table, remains the biggest unanswered question to date.
Instead, we ended up with current German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen. Von der Leyen’s nomination came completely out of the blue. She was not a Spitzenkandidat, never considered by the media or anyone else in the EU bubble and suddenly she was the only one everyone could agree on (except for the German socialists, who made Merkel abstain from the nomination).
How? Why? She was not even nominated for the race! How are we to explain to citizens why they should vote in the next European elections? Heck, why should any of us ever vote again in European elections? You cannot create a quasi-democratic process and do away with it when it appears inconvenient to you.
Of course the elections were primarily about electing Members of the European Parliament, who now have a chance to make their voices heard and potentially fight against this decision, or at the very least use their leverage to increase the powers of the Parliament. But as the EP elections were coupled with the election of the Commission President, this nomination leaves a bitter taste in voters’ mouths nonetheless.
If Britain ever had a chance of staying in the European Union, this decision is sure to seal its fate. Out of all the many reasons, why people voted for Brexit, the undemocratic nature of the European Union was by far the most idealistic. Now, it is sure to become the main argument of Brexiteers for leaving as soon as possible, with a deal or without, ensuring that all our economies are going to hurt in the process.
This nomination showcases the inherent flaw of the European Union and its truly deep-running democratic deficit and yet another strong argument for the abolition of the intergovernmental parts of the European Union. Not only is the European Council incapable of making quick (and effective) decisions in a crisis, the Council of the European Union, also slows down and blocks important policy decisions on a regular basis. Now the European Council yet again demonstrated its inability to make a decision and when it finally reached a compromise, it was one that was not taken with European citizens’ interests in mind, but the desire to appease each national government.
POLITICO reported that the main reason why Poland and Hungary are celebrating Von der Leyen’s nomination as a national victory, is, because of her piety and numerous children. Her qualifications not withstanding, can such arbitrary attributes really be a legitimate reason to nominate someone for the Commission Presidency? Should we not be looking for leadership qualities and technical expertise in our next president, rather than how they choose to conduct their private life, or whether it is convenient for their country?
Some people will argue that the national governments were all democratically elected and therefore should be able to represent the people of Europe. Unfortunately, this line of thinking is very flawed and dangerous. Not only do heads of governments only represent half a country’s voting population at best (which, in many cases is far less than the actual number of citizens), but in most cases, we are dealing with the representative of a coalition government, whose party achieved around 30% of the vote. So we are talking about heads of governments that collectively represent between 10 and 30% of the EU’s population if we are being generous.
They were also elected on a specific national policy platform, not to make European decisions. Why should we now trust them to represent us on a European level? If a national representative can make European decisions, why shouldn’t we just have local councilors do the same? In fact, they have the exact same level of legitimacy to go into their respective national assemblies and make decisions there. Elected representatives should stick to the level for which they were elected. That is what subsidiarity means.
Representatives that elect even more representatives is an age-old concept that never worked out well in the past. Look at the Russian model of the soviet republics (not to be confused with the system of the Soviet Union), where each level selected representatives of the next and the next. Not only does this system foster corruption through interdependencies of the different levels and their representatives (e.g. Viktor Orbán nominates you, now you cannot go against his illiberal policies on the national level), it also requires representatives to deal with vastly different realities at the same time, likely causing them to make mistakes and poor decisions (think the popular children’s game ‘chinese whispers’, also known as ‘telephone’).
Now it is up to the European Parliament to make a decision. Will it bow to the Council’s decision and effectively confirm the European Union’s democratic deficit in exchange for a few policy favours from the new Commission? Or will the European Parliament light the flames of rebellion against the Council, strengthening its position and potentially initiating a process for desperately needed democratic reforms in exchange for short-term chaos between the institutions?
Of course the European Parliament does not want to shoot first and make itself out to be a power-hungry institution that is willing to risk open conflict with the Council. Then again, has the first shot not already been fired by the Council?