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The enigma of the three European Union amigos

The ongoing and unseemly tussle as to who will be the next president of the European commission is in danger of descending into a bitter squabble not only between institutions (specifically the Council and the Parliament) but also between Member States (the UK and Germany). These differences risk on-going divisions that may not heal in the short-term and will, inevitably, lead to unintended consequences, writes Tim McNamara.

The European Union already has a farrago of presidents. One can sometimes observe them acting as panjandrums at global and/or EU-wide multilateral meetings and conferences. From the G-7 (ex-G8) to bi-lateral meetings with heads of state, the presidents of the three main institutions of the EU are known as ‘The Three Amigos’.

In all of the fog surrounding the ongoing appointment process of the commission president, one aspect of the parliament’s claim to have primacy has been little discussed. This aspect has the potential to fundamentally alter the power relationships between the three main institutions of the EU. ‘The Three Amigos’ will have the capacity to transform themselves into a triangle of bitter resentment as they battle over parity of esteem.

The Spitzenkandidaten process as advocated by the parliament would ensure that the next commission president would be able to claim a democratic mandate on a par with the Council of Ministers AND the European parliament itself. Jean-Claude Juncker’s social media campaign with the hashtag #respectmyvote is an early indication of the democratic legitimacy that will be claimed (and acted upon) if the Spitzenkandidaten process is adopted.

This not to say that J-C Juncker would not, necessarily, be a bad candidate for commission president, just that the process of appointment by the application of the Spitzenkandidaten method is fundamentally flawed. In fact it can be argued that the appointment of a commission president by any democratic instrument of the parliament may only serve to entrench whichever party grouping has the greatest influence in the parliament and establish a system of political hegemony that will tend to isolate all opposition. It is however, more likely that real differences will emerge between the parliament and the commission.

Parliament’s claim that the commission president will have democratic legitimcy also undermines the delicate inter-relationship between the three main institutions. Whilst the Council of Ministers has always been seen as the primary source of power in the EU, the capacity of the parliament and the commission to claim a joint democratic mandate would be a formidable challenge to the Council’s powers.

One unintended consequence would be that the European Court of Justice would have to play a prominent role in establishing the the legal bases for the actions of each of the main institutions. The Euroepan Court of Justice (like the Supreme Court in the US) has already been accused of being overweening and accumulating too much power. Being the sole arbiter of disputes between the institutions would only serve to aggrandise its own power and influence.

It would be a perverse outcome if one of the EU’s institutions with the least legitimate claim to have a democratic mandate , the court, would see its powers boosted whilst the three main institutions are disempowered by way of ongoing disputes over legal primacy based on democratic credentials.. When a constitutional vacuum is created, the judiciary will always fill that space.

Even some elements of the present-day Commission used to claim that they already had a electoral mandate through a method of indirect democracy. As they had been nominated (by Council Members) and approved by MEPs, they claimed a significant element of democratic legitimacy.

One current member of a commissioner’s cabinet actually gave an internal presentation to a Directorate-General they were responsible for ludicrously comparing the election of a President of the USA through the US’s electoral college with the method of appointing Commissioners. Do not underestimate the capacity for political self-delusion amongst high level apparatchilks in any form of representative governance!

The loose drafting of the Convention on the Future of Europe, which finally led to the Lisbon Treaty, is at fault as it opens up a pandora’s box of possibilities.. The treaty simply states that the European Council (the heads of government of the 28 member states) should take account of the European parliament elections. Simply put, this does not mean that the Council has to take account of the new parliament’s views, but only of the election results themselves.

Whoever was going to come out on top by way of the Spitzenkandidaten method was always going to be seen as grabbing power. The inherent weaknesses of the parliament’s methods have been written about by myself in previous articles for policyreview.eu.

Using a caucusing method (beloved of old-school Trotskyists and/or Marxist-Leninists) to nominate a candidate with majority support in the parliament could actually ensure that the election results themselves are ignored and a mandating structure is given legitimacy at the expense of the wishes of the voters, which, as ever, can be interpreted in many ways. The one conclusion that can be drawn from the outcome of the European parliament elections is that no candidate has a clear mandate.

It can be argued that the Spitzenkandidaten process is actually anti-democratic in that the major party groups in the European parliament agreed in concert before the election what the process of electing a candidate for commission president would be irrespective of the outcome of the election. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that a candidate’s party could receive less than 20% of the votes yet still be the largest party group, and therefore that the candidate could expect the nomination under the Spitzenkandidaten method.

If Jean-Claude Juncker is appointed by the Council of Ministers as the next European commission president this will, undoubtedly legitimise the Spitzenkandidaten method, with all its inherent weakness and consequences. It will also alter the delicate balance between the three main institutions and alter the separation of powers in the EU.

‘The Three Amigos’ will at a later stage, almost certainly become ‘The Three Enemigos’.

Tim McNamara is a senior partner at the Peercourt Consultancy and former political editor for the European Commission.


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