The original sin of the von der Leyen Commission
If the Council’s agreement on a package for the EU’s top jobs is, in itself, good news, there remains much to be skeptical about and the Council’s behaviour may constitute the original sin plaguing a von der Leyen Commission.
Last week, the European Council put an end to its marathon of negotiations and, over a month after the European elections, proposed a list of nominees for the EU’s top jobs. In particular, the nominee for the presidency of the Commission — now German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen — had been closely watched, and remains to be confirmed by the European Parliament.
On the surface, there are solid reasons to rejoice.
First of all, national leaders did reach an agreement, which, in light of the previous week-end’s discussions, was becoming uncertain. Had the Council failed to propose nominees before the Parliament’s election of its own President, the Council would have found itself constrained and in a worse situation to agree. However, should von der Leyen be voted down by Parliament, the Council would be required to go back to the drawing board.
Secondly, national leaders have nominated two women for major positions, putting an end to the all-male group of “five Presidents” — respectively the Presidents of the Commission, the European Central Bank, the Parliament, the European Council, and the Council of the European Union [only five of the Council of the EU’s 124 rotating presidencies have been held by women]. Following a disappointing election for gender balance — with only 39% of MEPs being women — , a woman as President of the Commission would be, in and of itself, a positive development.
And, finally, Ursula von der Leyen seems a more moderate leader than Manfred Weber, meaning the political barycentre of the Commission would be shifting to the centre, thereby reflecting a change in the electorate already seen in the composition of the Parliament and of national leaders in the European Council. The media was also quick to highlight pro-federalist comments made by von der Leyen, probably indicative of a greater willingness than her predecessors to strengthen European integration.
Yet, for all these positive developments, the proposed package leaves a bitter taste for many Members of Parliament and, even more so, for European citizens themselves.
Firstly, the selection method marks the likely death of the Spitzenkandidat system used for the first time in 2014 to specifically do away with national horse-trading. Not only was the EPP’s candidate not given the Presidency of the Commission, but, in a harsh move, none of the parties’ nominees made the cut for the top jobs. Additionally, this brands the Commission President as the choice of the Council — and therefore as in the debt of national leaders.
Indeed, the Spitzenkandidat system, as it was used, was flawed, but what matters was its intent. It aimed at having the head of the European executive elected by our representatives, who are not only directly-elected, but also recently elected, and elected, in theory, on a European programme. This is the heart of parliamentary democracy. By contrast, national leaders, depending on national systems, are directly or indirectly elected, they stand at very varying moments of their terms, and were elected on mostly national programmes.
The issue is not the lack of legitimacy of national leaders in itself, but that this process falls way short of the standards of democracy we should demand, and far from anything we would tolerate in our own countries.
Requiring support from a majority coalition in Parliament, instead of simply from the largest party, would have contributed to strengthening the Spitzenkandidat system. By abandoning the process, instead of reforming it, this nomination is a clear step back for European democracy.
Secondly, only one of the nominees — former European Parliament President Josep Borrell — holds true European experience. To be sure, the remaining three — former ministers von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde and Prime Minister Charles Michel — have all sat on the Councils, but not one of them is a former Commissioner, MEP or European civil servant. European experience, and not a flimsy criteria of “executive experience”, is what should be required from candidates.
Indeed, this reinforces a view of States fighting to place their nationals, and entrenches a separation between “regular” EU officials and institution presidencies co-opted by national officials. With EU policy-making being famously different from national politics, the rise of EU officials to the top jobs would been a step in the right direction.
Finally, and most importantly, the proposed President of the Commission is an absolute unknown to the vast majority of EU citizens. Even without speculating on various accusations currently surfacing, European citizens are now presented with a single candidate who has never officially run for European office, never proposed a plan for Europeans and for the future of Europe, and never been presented to the wider European public.
In times of growing euroscepticism, this nomination is sure to reinforce the popular idea of a Union governed by invisible, unknown and unelected technocrats. Of course, this is not quite true, but it remains a very prevalent perception among citizens, and one clearly damaging to our institutions, our democracy, and the very idea of the European project.
As in the proverbial story, the original sin of this Commission may not truly be the fault of its members, yet it is sure to stain its work and its acceptance by citizens way beyond a parliamentary confirmation.
Brexit, social protests and the rise of the far right are clear signs that citizens expect and actively demand more democracy. By focusing on narrow national interests, national leaders have lost an opportunity to strengthen our European democracy and given more arguments to nationalist movements. If confirmed, it will be up to the von der Leyen Commission to prove that the EU can indeed be the purveyor of democracy, even against national wishes and interests if necessary.
Image credit: European Union