Sunday

20th Jan 2019

Opinion

EU must overhaul process for choosing commission chief

  • Juncker (r) and Schulz (l) are too often allied against member states. (Photo: European Commission)

The European Parliament will not be legitimate “for 100 years”.

Who made such a statement? Some advocate of Brexit speaking on the campaign trail? Or someone from a growing bunch of nationalistic far-right parties?

Read and decide

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No. It was Francois Mitterrand in 1991, a good European, no doubt.

One is not necessarily an enemy of European integration when one criticises the European Parliament or other institutions, although the MEPs or members of the European Commission often try to suggest otherwise.

Both the European Parliament and the European Commission deserve much criticism these days.

It is now two years since the last European elections and it is high time to say it clearly: the so-called Spitzenkandidaten (top candidate) process, the main innovation of those elections, has failed and needs to be abandoned.

Under Spitzenkandidaten, the top parties name their candidates for commission chief before European Parliament elections. The candidate from the winning party then takes up the EU's most powerful post.

First of all, the selection of the commission’s president through the Spitzenkandidaten process has created nothing more than an illusion of democracy.

In the European Union there is no single public space that could serve as an arena for the competition of political parties. Elections are national.

Can someone in his or her right mind really think that people in Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy or Estonia were passionately arguing whether to vote for Juncker or Schulz?

The Spitzenkandidaten process is political theatre for the Brussels bubble.

No wonder that, according to media reports, even senior German politicians including Angela Merkel want the Spitzenkandidaten process abolished.

Ignoring member states

It is equally unsurprising that the commission and the parliament will fight tooth and nail to keep it. It gives considerable power to a small number of leaders of both institutions.

Since the last elections we can observe a very pronounced trend of mutual cooperation between the commission and the parliament. They act in tandem (one is almost tempted to use the word “cartel” instead). Their leaders are sometimes not even trying to hide their contempt for the member states. This is dangerous.

Juncker, Schulz and their aides are thus transforming the so-called community method, where the commission proposes legislation that, in order to come into force, has to be adopted by both the parliament and the member states (the Council of the EU), into a clash where the commission and the parliament are too often allied against member states.

Deals are prepared in advance and then both institutions pressure the member states to agree. We have seen it in the course of the current refugee crisis where the commission has repeatedly ignored the will of the member states.

This leads to serious irritation among those member states that do not share the view that the notion of an ever closer union is gospel that the EU needs to follow on every possible occasion.

A counterproductive move

“The commission and the parliament are deliberately setting the countries against one another,” complains a senior official from a Central European country.

Thus, the member states – and not just those from Central and Eastern Europe, far from it – are losing faith in the impartiality of the commission and they suspect that the whole Spitzenkandidaten process serves as a vehicle for the commission and the parliament to enhance their own powers.

The idea of selecting a very powerful commission president in a democratic-in-name-only process no matter what the European Council might be thinking, who allies himself closely with MEPs who are unknown to most people in Europe, and who pushes for far-reaching measures towards further integration, is counterproductive for the European ideal.

Rightly or wrongly, people around Europe are more and more distrustful of the EU and of “Brussels”.

The Spitzenkandidaten process, by decreasing powers of national politicians who hold a truly democratic mandate, risks inflaming this distrust even more.

Ondrej Houska (@OndrejHouska on Twitter) is Brussels correspondent for the Czech public radio.

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