Towards a systemic change of the European political process?

Today I could write books about the municipal elections in France, with chapters dedicated to the rise of the extreme-right, the disillusion towards French politics leading to a never-reached 40% level of abstention in local elections supposed to be the heart of democracy, or again why changing the government as a consequence of this electoral defeat for the French Socialist Party isn’t going to bring anything in terms of jobs, growth or political benefits for the socialists.

To read this book, my fellow readers would need more than one glass of bourbon, though. So I will leave this issue for the moment, inviting to contact me if ever you happen to get a bottle of Jack – I’ll bring the rocks, be certain of it.
Still, I will talk about elections in Europe. About the new Slovak president, Andrej Kiska? I am not qualified enough.

Neither am I to comment on the Dutch municipal elections that took place ten days ago; after 8 months in Amsterdam I am still unable to speak a word of this curious language – a fact inconceivable in France where if you start speaking a word of Nigel Farage’s language without showing an extraordinary feeling of guilt and remorse, anybody will answer you: “qu’est-ce que putain?

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I will then talk about the European elections which are to come on the 25th of May. Only one round, fellas, proportional representation. Which means, yes, more voting weight for people who actually go to vote. And who will mobilized like never? I will let you guess. I do not want to take position; instead let’s see a bit how the 2014 elections will work and what they could bring to European democracy. Because this year something changes – and it can be of great importance.

Until now, and from the establishment of European Parliament elections in 1979, we were all voting for our European representatives – so-called “MEPs”. The president of the Commission – the executive branch of the EU – was then designed by the European Council (all 28 Member States chiefs of executive), the only democratic requirement as to this designation being stated in article 17§7 of the Treaty on the European Union:

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. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members.
If he does not obtain the required majority,
the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure.

You see that our beloved leaders have to “take into account” the result of the elections to the European Parliament, the latter being able to approve or refuse the proposed candidate. If a refusal happens, only the Council can propose a new candidate. Accordingly, in theory the European Parliament can refuse all candidates the Council proposes until it is happy with somebody.

Political reality and legitimacy leaves less opportunity for the EP. In fact, the Council is the real master of the process, European leaders willing not to give the job to somebody too high-profile – and too popular. You can look at the list of former Commission presidents to be convinced.

This whole system leads to a justified criticism of the Commission: it is not democratic enough. How much percentage of the European population know and care about their Commissioners, after all? What is their political agenda? The College of Commissioners seems indeed like a distant institution which only widely press released actions are perceived as negative in public opinion.

This year, this system is supposed to change. European parties within the Parliament have decided to each designate one head-of-lists (“têtes de liste”, or Spitzenkandidaten) whom they will support for the Commission’s presidency. European citizens will thus vote for lists on the top of which figures a face and a name. If their list wins, this face will have to be president of the European executive who will be accorded more legitimacy. The Council will have to “take into account” that vote. This way, the European parties made a bet: that the 28 chiefs of executive will respect direct democracy and will not go counter the will of their own citizens. It makes no doubt that to do otherwise will be politically unsustainable from a democratic point of view.

Yet doubts subsist as to the attitude the Council will adopt. One of the two designated candidates to the Commission’s presidency, EPP Jean-Claude Juncker, is said to have another goal in mind: the presidency of the Council itself, currently held by the bleak Herman van Rompuy. A deal seems to have been concluded between him and Mrs. Merkel, who preferred Mr. Juncker over his French rival Mr. Barnier as the EPP candidate for the Commission’s presidency. Some say Mrs. Merkel supported Mr. Juncker so that, in the case the EPP wins the next elections – an uncertain perspective as polls change regularly – Juncker would withdraw from the game to get the Council’s Presidency. This would leave the hands free to the Council to designate a candidate of its choice. How would such a way to circumvent democracy be justified by our leaders before the public opinion? I will leave this to their imagination – or to the inexistence of a wide and active European public opinion.

 

But my optimism about this new system will not be altered so easily by behind-the-stage rumours. By taking advantage of a somewhat blurry provision of the TEU, European parties are actually pushing towards something everybody thought would need an impossible reform of the treaties: a real parliamentary system within the EU. The Commission is already politically responsible before the EP and can be censured by a two-thirds majority (article 234 TFEU). This tool has been used once, against the Santer Commission, but seems like a very exceptional power of control of the EP. By effectively requiring MEPs to reach a simple majority when approving the head-of-list elected by European citizens, one of the big two parties will have to make an alliance and, in consequence, to define more accurately their position on important European topics such as energy strategy, competition policy, net neutrality, external relations, etc.
Let’s hope citizens will feel more concerned about these issues as the debate in the European Parliament will be more vivid (at least, if it gets more confrontational, it will be more interesting to cover for French media).

 

Let’s also hope that sometime soon this ever-increasing influence of the European Parliament in the adoption of European law will be recognized to the extent that it will be able to propose its own legislation. But until then a lot of local and national elections in Europe will happen. Until then, such elections have a greater impact on the shaping of European democracy.

 

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Towards a systemic change of the European political process?