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Will EU presidential elections create grassroots democracy?

Experiments like party primaries and television debates in the run-up to the European Parliament elections and European Commission selections are starting to resemble American presidential processes – writes Corinna Horst

Unprecedented things are happening in European politics these days. Political parties are deciding on top candidates for the European Parliament elections in late May. Amid Euroscepticism, apathy and political maneuvering for European Union leadership positions innovative mechanisms are being tested; some of which — like party primaries and television debates — are beginning to resemble United States election practices. It is an experiment but if it takes root, it will shake up European politics forever.

The Lisbon Treaty — the constitutional basis of the union, which came into force in 2009 — requires that election results be taken into consideration when nominating a new president for the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. The new European Parliament must endorse the candidate. This has encouraged European political groups to put forward their own candidates for the top job.

The European Green party’s first Europe-wide primary election came to an end in January. For the previous 10 weeks, Europeans were able to vote online to select two Green candidates for the European elections. Around 23,000 Europeans participated in this democratic exercise, selecting the young Ska Keller and the French farmer-turned-activist José Bové as the Green representatives in the race for European Commission presidency.

While some portrayed the primary as an innovative and courageous democratic project, others called it a failure due to low participation. 
Meanwhile in a less democratic way Martin Schulz, current president of the European Parliament, was nominated as the candidate for the European socialists by a few parties. He was also the only candidate. The German government endorsed him as part of the grand coalition negotiations that gave Chancellor Angela Merkel a third term. Schulz will now lobby socialist parties across Europe for their official endorsement, to be given at the party’s electoral congress in Rome on March 1.

The European conservative parties will also select their candidate at their European Elections Congress in Dublin a week later. Then all candidates will have to boost their visibility around Europe. It remains to be seen what makes for a successful European candidate profile. Perhaps it is a combination of name recognition and political experience on the European or national level. It is not clear if it is even possible to run for European office while holding a national office. The coming months will demonstrate how the candidates manage to run a European campaign in 28 countries and unite the diverse national parties.

It leads to interesting questions about what language to employ when speaking to voters and what event formats are chosen to raise visibility. For the moment, candidates plan to rely on mass media to get out their messages. As in the US, a television debate with the top candidates will be aired across Europe. More than ever, political parties are shifting from loose political blocs to stronger policy coordination bodies that encourage members to develop coherent, truly European party programs.

It is not yet clear how the candidates will manage to overcome national interests. The recent party congress of the German Greens illustrated this friction. Ska Keller, the top European Green party candidate, only received enough support to be ranked third on the German Green party list. 
In mid-February, the European Parliament called on the 28 member state governments to clarify how they will honour the citizens’ vote when they put forward a commission presidential candidate.

The issue is at the heart of a power struggle between member states and the European Parliament. While some believe the top candidate put forward by the most popular political party should automatically get the post of commission president, the heads of state are reluctant to give away their power to determine European leadership. This is further complicated by the fact that not only does the president of the commission need to be selected but also the president of the European Council and the high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

The rules for filling these positions involve a rather opaque consideration of gender and nationality as well as small state versus big state and north-south and east-west balances. Endorsing the direct vote of European citizens would create difficulties in this back-room negotiating process. However, rejecting a candidate that has the support of a majority of a new European Parliament would be a blow to what some say is an experiment in true democracy. It could lead to gridlock because parliament, just like the US Congress, can block European nominations. Nobody in Brussels seems to know what will happen after May. Grassroots democracy in the EU is still in its infancy but how it plays out in the coming months could determine the future of Europe’s leadership selection.

Corinna Horst is deputy director of the Brussels Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States think-tank. The GMFUS first published this article as part of its Transatlantic Takes series: The EU’s first presidential-style elections?

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