23rd Oct 2016


The European Parliament's institutional coup

Member state leaders have been backed into a corner. They have, as it were, been overtaken by the campaign bus; or outspoken at the TV debate. Yes, the European Parliament is in the process of staging a rather successful coup.

It has talked itself, and the rest of us, into a process that is not actually written in the treaty. That is that each political party puts forward a candidate to be commission president. And that person should become head of the EU executive if their political family win the most votes in the 22-25 May election.

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  • In the game of presidencies, the EP is playing a master hand (Photo: European Parliament / Pietro Naj-Oleari)

Member states initially did their best to ignore the parliament (it’s a long-held reflex, so it was not that hard). Berlin tried to kill the idea by dismissively calling the contenders Spitzenkandidaten, meaning someone who tops an electoral list and no. more. than. that.

This did not have the effect Chancellor Angela Merkel intended. In fact, it just meant that all those not previously acquainted with the word added it to their lexicon. Spitzenkandidat (which doesn't roll easily off the tongue for non-German speakers) has now become a byword, in the small looking glass that is Brussels, for someone running to be commission president.

But that is an aside.

The greater question is how the EP managed to do it. It's rather like what it did with the global anti-counterfeit treaty (ACTA). It shouted a lot from the sidelines saying "we're going to vote it down", "we're going to vote it down". By the time others got around to taking it seriously, it was past the point of no return.

For the commission presidency it has been much the same process. While some EU leaders peered into the treaty and saw only that they must take the result of the elections "into account" when choosing the person for the job, MEPs saw Article 17 bis.

And they set about making turning this expansive interpretation into a reality (the institution that wants more power is always going to be more active and creative than the institution opting for the status quo).

That is where the campaign bus - (courtesy of centre-right candidate Jean-Claude Juncker) - and debates come in. They create facts on the ground. If the candidates run around Europe telling people that they are actual contenders, and participating in political debates on TV (even if they are only webstreamed or shown on lesser-known channels), they create a truth of sorts.

And from a rather wobbly can't-distinguish-one-from-the-other they are gradually emerging with policies and debating styles. And they are naturally keen to stress the democratic nature of it all.

There more than a point or two of discussion on whether voters are aware of this 'democracy' and indeed whether they consider the EU institutions at all when casting their 'second order' 'punish-the-home-government' vote.

But the upshot of it is that EU leaders- after paying so much lipservice on the need for the EU to be democratically legitimate - will be hard put not to choose one of these candidates.

Nevertheless, a huge tussle is to be expected. And it will start directly after the results of the vote come in. Until now though, the EP has been better at this presidential chess game than the European Council.

EU parliament approves Juncker commission

MEPs have approved Juncker's new EU commission, with a slightly smaller majority than in 2010, and following a number of concessions on portfolios.

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