• People did have a choice to influence who becomes the next EU commission president (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

Opinion

Spitzenkandidaten boost legitimacy of European Commission

03.07.14 @ 09:28

  1. By Sophie In't Veld

BRUSSELS - The new "Spitzenkandidaten" procedure for selecting the president of the European Commission has triggered a heated debate. Opinions vary, but no one remains indifferent.

An argument put forward by the opponents of the new procedure, including in an OpEd on EUobserver, is that it jeopardises the independence of the European Commission. The opponents also ring the alarm bells over the alleged "politicising" of the European Commission.

These arguments seem to rest on the assumption that until the Spitzenkandidaten took over, the European Commission was a completely independent, apolitical, technocratic body, made up of purely neutral civil servants, merely executing decisions.

This is complete nonsense.

Firstly, before the Spitzenkandidaten entered the arena, the Commission president elect had to seek approval of the European Parliament as well. Parliament would naturally seek assurances about political priorities in return for its vote.

In any democracy it is a completely normal procedure for the executive to submit its political programme for a vote in parliament. Executive powers rest on a parliamentary majority. No one has ever claimed that the independence of a government is jeopardised because it asks the vote of confidence of parliament.

Indeed, even British PM David Cameron himself can only govern with the parliamentary majority behind him, but no one would question his independence.

Secondly, the Commission, i.e. the college of Commissioners, was never the political eunuch some people make it out to be. Commissioners are senior politicians, who are nominated not for their technical expertise, but for their political experience and their party affiliation.

The Commission is the only EU institution with the right to initiate legislation. It does so on the basis of political views. Clearly, the Commission takes political decisions every day.

Thirdly, whereas the Commission was once the independent driving force behind European integration, in recent years it had been reduced to not much more than the secretariat of the Council.

Tellingly, in some cases the Commission refused to use its right to initiate legislation, because "there is no majority in the Council anyway".

In other words, the Commission would not act without explicit prior approval of the Council. The Council, when nominating candidates for Commission President and other key positions, would make sure not to nominate people who would dare to contradict the Council and member states.

So the independence of the Commission has in fact already been severely undermined by the member states and the Council.

Member states consider the Commissioners not as European politicians, acting in the interest of all European citizens, but as their national representatives.

Greater legitimacy

The Spitzenkandidaten have broken the stranglehold the member states had over the Commission, and that seems to me a very healthy development.

And if anything, the Spitzenkandidaten have not only strengthened the independence of the Commission, it has also given it greater legitimacy. The procedure may not be perfect yet, but it is certainly much more transparent than the method followed so far.

Until now, the nomination of the Commission president was the outcome of a lot of horse-trading behind closed doors, with zero involvement of the citizens, and with no guarantee to get the best qualified candidate for the job.

The Spitzenkandidaten were chosen in a transparent procedure. They presented themselves and their political platform to the public, and they participated in public debates, which could be watched by all European voters.

Whether voters made use of their new powers or not, it is a fact that for the very first time, they had an opportunity to influence the choice of Commission president and his/her political programme for the EU for the next five years.

This year may be considered a kind of test-run, but from 2019 onwards, voters will know their vote will not only determine the composition of the European Parliament, but it will actually determine the political direction of the EU in the five years to come.

There has been a lot of criticism of Jean-Claude Juncker, who is set to be the next Commission President. Indeed, the outcome of an election may not be to the liking of everyone, but that is democracy. In a democracy we accept the outcome, because we all accept the procedure. There are no objective criteria to select "the best Commission president", it is all a matter of voter preference.

A real game changer

The Spitzenkandidaten are a real game changer, and the member states realise it. When they complain the Commission independence is being undermined, what they really mean to say is the Commission will no longer be submissive and meekly taking instructions from the Council.

The attempts of member states to bring the Commission to heel, by imposing a political programme on the Commission President before nominating him, is a scandalous restriction of the independence of the Commission, and a violation of the Commission's autonomous right to initiate legislation, as laid down in the Treaties.

The Spitzenkandidaten have brought the process out in the daylight and put it firmly in the hands of the citizens, where it belongs.

It is a decisive step in the direction of a fully-fledged parliamentary democracy.

The writer is the vice-president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group in the European Parliament.