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19th Nov 2018

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Spitzenkandidaten risk politicising EU commission, advisers warn

  • Barroso's in-house thinktank warns against locking the European Commission into party politics via the 'Spitzenkandidaten' process (Photo: TP)

The EU commission has officially endorsed the top candidates (Spitzenkandidaten) process for finding President Jose Manuel Barroso's successor, but two commission advisers say it could undermine the institution's independence.

Back in March 2013, the EU commission published a non-binding recommendation arguing in favour of political parties putting forward top candidates in order to boost turnout and encourage a pan-European debate.

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Now that the Spitzenkandidaten process has led to a rift between Britain and a few allies on one hand and the European Parliament on the other, the commission's in-house think tank, the Bureau of European Policy Advisers (Bepa) has put out a monthly brief looking at the pros and cons of the experiment.

In one article, signed by Edward Best and Sabina Lange from the Netherlands-based European Institute of Public Administration, the Spitzenkandidaten process is scrutinised for how it may damage the independence of the EU commission.

"This process could even be counter-productive. With the aim of highlighting the virtues of the new approach, the impression is being given that all EU institutions except the European Parliament are illegitimate, and will remain so unless and until they too are elected in EU elections," the two authors write.

They also criticise the top candidates for over-promising things they will never be able to deliver as commission president.

"The commission president is not comparable to a chief executive in a presidential political system at national level, far less a Prime Minister," they write, adding that there will be 27 other commissioners appointed irrespective of the EU elections results.

In addition, a complex EU policy-making where member states, EU parliament and commission are involved at all times "already constitute powerful limits to policy options".

"Personalising EU politics may engage more citizens in thinking about Europe. However, this public competition between individuals may not only be deceptive in the light of institutional reality. It could also distract attention from, and distort, debate as to the institutional nature and raison d’etre of the European Commission."

The authors argue that the EU commission's role, as enshrined in the EU treaties, is to be "completely independent" and focus on the implementation of EU law, "without being caught up in the short-term interests of national – or indeed European – electoral politics".

"However, the linkages between the Commission and the European Parliament as promoted in the campaign cut deeply into the roles of the Commission, starting with that of promoting the general interest of the Union," they write.

With an increase of supervision powers on the economic front, "the usefulness of the Commission role as an independent and objective referee may actually become greater".

"Criticism over the commission's preference for certain political options, closer to some member states' governments than to others, has confirmed that in such highly sensitive areas as those covered by the European semester, increasing the commission's independence will do more for its legitimacy than locking it into political party politics," the authors write.

A spokeswoman for the EU commission said that the views expressed in the Bepa review are not an official position of the EU commission.

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