New openness in contest for Commission presidency

Opinion: With political parties devising Europe-wide platforms the process of creating a European ‘demos’ could be beginning


At its congress in the National Convention Centre in Dublin, starting today, the European People’s Party (EPP) will designate its candidate for the position of president of the European Commission. The prospective candidates are Jean Claude Juncker, until recently prime minister of Luxembourg, Michel Barnier, currently a member of the European Commission, and Valdis Dombrovskis, the former prime minister of Latvia and currently also a candidate to become a member of the European Parliament.

Difficult to control
The entry of Dombrovskis into the race, and the divisions in the ranks of the EPP parties in France and Italy, make it more difficult for the leaderships of one or two big parties to control the outcome in advance, in the way some German and French leaders might have been able to do in the past. This race could go right to floor of the convention centre.

Delegates from member parties tend to go their own way, and surprises can occur, as when, at the EPP’s last congress in Bucharest, Lucinda Creighton topped the poll for the EPP vice-presidency, beating Michel Barnier of France into second place. The winner in Dublin will need to have spent a lot of time on the phone and visiting capitals long before delegates arrive here.

The fact that this decision is not being made behind closed doors, but at a party congress, meeting and voting in public, demonstrates the increased importance of European political parties in EU decision-making. It also demonstrates a desire to involve the public more directly in EU politics, giving them a sense that they can hire and fire some of the top people in the union.

Enter race
The nominee picked in Dublin will enter the race with Martin Schultz, who is president of the European Parliament, the nominee of the Party of European Socialists, of which the Labour Party is a member; Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister, who has been put forward by ALDE, the Liberal party, of which Fianna Fáil is a member; and the nominees of the Greens and European Left.

Verhofstadt and the others would appear to have a slim chance of getting the big prize because their parties are unlikely to get enough seats in the European Parliament. This is critical, because the Lisbon Treaty says the European Council must pick its nominee to be commission president “taking account of the elections to the European Parliament”, and their parties are unlikely to elect enough MEPs.

In Ireland, a vote for Fine Gael in the European elections will be a vote for whoever the EPP congress in Dublin chooses ; a vote for Labour is a vote for Martin Schultz; and a vote for Fianna Fáil one for Guy Verhofstadt.

After the election, the European Council will decide on one nominee by a qualified majority. But that nominee must then be elected by the European Parliament by an absolute majority. But no one party is likely to get such a majority in the parliament.

The latest “poll of polls”, collated on February 19th by VoteWatch Europe, suggests the Socialists could get 221 seats in the new parliament. That would still leave Martin Schultz 154 seats short of an absolute majority.

The same polls currently give the EPP 202 seats, which would leave its nominee even further from a majority.

When they meet in Dublin, the EPP members will be trying to pick a nominee that will help the party gain the 20 or so extra seats that would put it ahead of the Socialists. Opinion polls in recent European elections have tended to overestimate the likely Socialist performance, so the race may be closer still.

The treaty has, up to now, been interpreted in practice as meaning that the biggest party, even if it has no majority, would have the commission president chosen from among its ranks.

But a nominee with only 30 per cent of MEPs committed to him would have a job getting the up to 50 per cent needed to pass in the parliament.

There will be a lot of drama in the coming months. This will show that the EU is a not a bureaucratic entity, but increasingly a political and democratic one, where there is a real contest of both philosophies and personalities.

Of course, once appointed, the commission, under the treaty, must “neither seek nor take instruction from any institution”, including from the European Parliament.

For that reason, I would have preferred if the president of the commission was elected directly by the people, and did not have to depend on either the council or the parliament. But that is another debate.

All this highlights the ever more important role of European political parties.

As the number of states in the EU enlarged, the number of members in the European Commission and at Council of Ministers meetings became so large that free-flowing discussion was difficult.

Informal caucuses
To overcome that, ministers of the different parties – EPP, Socialists and Liberals – started to meet in informal caucuses before formal council meetings to discuss policy. Many ministers now feel they can get a better sense of how the wind is blowing at these informal gatherings than at formal council meetings. Similar party-based meetings also take place between commissioners.

In devising common Europe-wide party platforms for the European elections, all parties come to learn about political sensitivities in other EU countries that they would not necessarily learn from newspapers or diplomats. Gradually, a European “demos” is being built.

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