The Damage a False Promise Can Do

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Perhaps it is too late for sanity. Maybe the dynamic of a false democracy argument cannot be brought back under control. But let me try nevertheless. It is too important to give up now. I am talking, of course, about the European Parliament elections of May 22–25 and the debate over who should be the next president of the European Commission. Over the last week, this debate has gone from irritating to insane.

The scandal is not that EU heads of state and government—the European Council—are trying to find a commission presidential candidate who has the full backing of as many member states as possible. The scandal is that an attempted power grab by the European Parliament could be successfully sold to voters and intellectuals alike as improved democracy in Europe; and that, now the EU’s legal and political realities have called the parliament’s bluff, the very people who were naive enough to buy the story are accusing those who have to fix the mess of being antidemocratic.

It all started with the ill-conceived idea of pan-European party candidates for commission president. The idea was as well intended as it was necessary: to bring about a much-needed politicization of European elections across national borders. By naming presidential candidates for each party, strategists believed they could mobilize voters across Europe and make the elections more pan-European.

Unfortunately, party candidates were a false promise from the beginning. They could only be elected to the European Parliament in their respective home countries. Pan-European parties may exist, but pan-European party lists don’t—and can’t under current law.

So to make the entire idea more appetizing, something else needed to be invented. The leaders of the party groups in the European Parliament saw their chance. How about simply claiming, without any backing from the existing treaties, that the group that wins the parliament elections would automatically nominate the commission president?

The advantage of this strategy was not only that it sounded deceptively like voters really had something to decide in these elections. The plan would also give the parliament enormous, extralegal powers to nominate the candidate for the commission presidency, a right reserved under the Lisbon Treaty to the European Council.

In a frenzy to demonstrate their democratic goodwill to potential voters, none of the political players outside the parliament called its bluff. Everyone felt they needed to play along to avoid being seen as undemocratic. And the heads of state and government, who should have opposed this usurpation of power from the beginning, demonstrated no firmness either. As a result, they share a considerable chunk of the blame for the mess the EU is now in.

EU leaders preferred to overlook how highly unlikely it was that the promised automatism of “winner of elections equals commission president” could survive. It was improbable that either of the two main party groups would win a parliamentary majority massive enough to create an irresistible political momentum. From the outset, it was clear that there was not enough unity among national governments, or even within the party groups, to realistically expect EU leaders to lend their full support to either of the two leading candidates.

What was further ignored was how much damage the unkeepable promise of more democracy could do to an already-scarred EU brand.

The result was a foreseeable disaster. People who believed in that promise now feel betrayed, even though the EU has a perfectly clear constitutional situation. It is the very situation the Lisbon Treaty provides for: no automatism in the selection of the commission president, but rather a carefully negotiated compromise between the member states and the parliament.

Everything is as it should be, although nothing is as it was before. The damage is done. Scores of enraged voters, politicians, intellectuals, journalists, and pundits—most of them with very scarce knowledge of the actual legal and political workings of the EU—have created an angry storm of misguided criticism against those now trying to deal with the situation as it presents itself.

Anyone who dares to say that the promised automatism can’t work, and that it was a hoax from the beginning, is accused of being contemptuous of democracy, even undermining Europe’s foundations.

But the exact opposite is true: the people undermining democracy and bringing Europe into further disrepute are not the ones insisting on a proper, legal process. They are the ones who started a power game that was founded on neither the political nor the legal realities of the EU.

To be sure, Europe needs massive democratic reform to boost its legitimacy. It needs political competition in the form of real pan-European elections, based on crosscountry party lists, and with a meaningful political prize to be won. (In my opinion, the elections should be a vote on the European Council president, not the commission president, but that is another story.) The parliament must become more accountable, and then—only then—it must be given the full right to initiate EU legislation.

Europe badly needs a real politicization. But any attempt to make Europe more political requires a firm institutional foundation that can channel the dynamism of politicized competition into a productive and stable process. What the EU does not need is the unguided unleashing of electoral powers that then run into an institutional void, creating disappointment and rage. And it certainly does not need a European Parliament that empowers itself outside the legal framework of the union.

My point is not about Jean-Claude Juncker or Martin Schulz, the commission presidential candidates of the center-right and the Socialists respectively—or any other candidates or parties. It is about showing respect for the constitutional setup of the Lisbon Treaty as it was ratified by all member states and the European Parliament. According to this setup, no automatism exists for the appointment of the commission president. EU heads of state and government propose a candidate by negotiating a compromise. The parliament then elects that candidate.

Let’s respect the rules—and then change them quickly afterward so that real democracy has a chance in Europe.



Comments (10)

  • Denis MacShane
    Thanks Jan but respectfully why did you and Tim Garton Ash and everyone write and write and write about the 'Democratic Deficit' and tell the world that all decisions were taken undemocratically behind closed doors. The culture that the EU was run by technocrats without any democratic accountability is one of the poisonous lies of the last 15-20 years. I opposed the PES going in for nominating a Commission president for the 2009 election but the main governing parties, above all in Germany, insisted and insisted on having a presidential context election. It was an old cry of Joschka Fischer and Pierre Moscovici wrote 'Donnez-nous un president pour l'Europe' in Le Monde a decade ago. Please send me all the elite EU opinion-formers who opposed the idea in recent years. Now it has come to a choice of Jean Claude Juncker everyone is excited and hostile. Instead names like the classic Wall St-Davos-IMF elite insider Mme Lagarde is proposed. I think she and Juncker have to accept some blame for the disaster of 2008 and the dreadful austerity ideology that has led to Europe's lost decade and 26 million out of work. But it is not that we have a roomful of brilliant EU Commission presidents. Yes it will revert to a closed corridor secret deal based on squalid trades and in a few months we can say 'Habemus presidentem' and then you and others will complain that the EU is secret, unaccountable and has a democratic deficit!
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  • @Europolitikus
    "Let’s respect the rules—and then change them quickly afterward so that real democracy has a chance in Europe."

    Occasionally this should not apply to a Parliament.
    Read the story of the EU. If EP would have followed your advise, it would have no powers. A Parliament has the right to take powers by majority vote from other institutions of its State/Federation/Union.
    How did the US, the French, the British or the German in the past?

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  • George
    The Article 14, par. 1 of the Consolidated version of the Treaty on European Union states: "The European Parliament shall, jointly with the Council, exercise legislative and budgetary functions. It shall exercise functions of political control and consultation as laid down in the Treaties. It shall elect the President of the Commission."

    How do you conclude that "the right reserved under the Lisbon Treaty to the European Council"?
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  • loveEU
    Fine. The treaties say only that the European Council must take into account the results of the elections. But this can be read in the one or another way. Before 2014 in fact only in one way: the Council must endorse a man/woman of the same party that wins the elections. But in the course of the campaign 5 European parties (including the national leaders and even members of the Council) decided to nominate their respective candidates for President of the Commission. End of the story. The same persons cannot, after the elections, say: "it was a joke". That would be simply suicidal for the respective parties, above all for the powerful (among States and citizens) EPP.
    One national leader can firmly convince itself of the new reality: if he wants to influence the result, his party must belong to a true European party. Cameron withdrew the Tories from EPP and the current ECR don't give a candidate for the President. Now he gets the result: nothing. Nothing in the Council, nothing in the EP, nothing in Britain. For the benefit of UKIP.
    The EU go on as a political-institutional subject. The UK remains blocked in the past, looking at the Council as a sovereign permanent diplomatic conference between different powers, at the Commission as its servant (bureaucratic) body and finally at the Parliament as the English one before the Glorious Revolution. That doesn't work, any more.
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  • ttus
    can you point to an article where you have already expressed such views BEFORE the nomination of Juncker?
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  • Denis MacShane
    This is an important point, namely that the EU treaty makes it clear since Lisbon six years ago that elections to the EP were now part of the Commission president selection process.
    Off hand I do not recall any of the EU commentariat criticising this. On the contrary they constantly moaned and denounced the democratic deficit.
    I did not because on the whole I think the EU is not a construct that can replace national democracy. I have argued and written over a decade for a senate of national parliaments to be a filter though which EP decisions should go.
    This has not made me popular with MEPs who think the executive heads of government in the Council are a kind of second chamber which is silly. The exclusion of around 10,000+ national parliamentarians from any part of EU decision making has contributed to the rise of the feeling that Brussels is out of touch etc.
    I also opposed the PES naming a Spitzenkandidat for 2009 election when I represented Labour on it. But the Juncker-Schulz-Verhofstadt contest was a genuine attempt to get some democratic competition into the process.
    I am sorry so many friends especially from UK media are dumping on it.
    I do not think Juncker is right man but the more the UK elite media trash him and more he is difficult to dump.
    Cameron has made another tactical error in com in out as the 'Kill Juncker' man. He may claim credit for internal UK political reasons if finally Juncker isn't chosen but at the price of further presenting the UK as being unwilling ever to work constructively in Europe.
    If Juncker does get it, then Cameron is humiliated. Lose-lose for the UK.
    Finally I have been checking French and German media on Reuters story that Merkel has asked Hollande to propose Lagarde. I can't find anything. Not saying it's untrue but if it was serious I would have though it would have surfaced by now?
    Oddly enough as David Charter reported in The Times a short while ago Juncker is the only candidate who has expressed sympathy for UK and said efforts must be made to avoid Brexit. Hug him close, Dave. He may be a better friend than you realise!
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  • sidney sloth
    A fascinating article. I am reminded of my youth, and the immense frustration I felt when trying to muster horses. The thing about mustering horses, when riding a horse, is that they are faster than you are, carrying no burden, and also highly intelligent animals. So, unlike with cattle, horses will give you the merry run around until they feel good and ready to come to the yard.
    I can remember throwing my hat onto the ground and literally screaming at the horses to be reasonable. Not long after I joined the army, so perhaps, in retrospect, it broke me.

    Anyway, I think Europe is much like this. The nations of Europe will come to political union when they are good and ready, and not before.
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  • Veritatem Cognoscere
    The Treaty says that the EP shall elect the President of the Commission and not that it shall rubber-stamp a compromise negotiated in the European Council. By the way, which formulation conveys a stronger position: 'propose a candidate' or 'elect'?
    Reading all relevant provisions together (including Declaration 11 in the annex), one does not exactly have to resort to a teleological interpretation to see that a compromise has to be found between the EP and the European Council, with the EP having the final say.
    Many neglect to see the political link between these two institutions: the European political parties, whose membership not only comprises MEPs but also Heads of State and Government. The leading candidates were not chosen by the political groups in the EP but by the European political parties. The precedent set, if the Spitzenkandidaten procedure prevails, would strengthen the European political parties rather than the EP as an institution. This prospect would bring significant benefits for strengthening European democracy and could eventually lead to electoral campaigning similar to the US with primaries within the European political parties. However, if the European Council torpedoed the idea of Spitzenkandidaten, it would not only do a disservice to European democracy but to its own credibility as an institution committed to the European values and ideals.
    To end on a positive note, kudos to Mr Techau for the spiteful style of writing.
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  • Thomas
    We all should remember that most of the greatest democratic advancement weren't due to the strict respect of what was then legal, but the fact that what was legal was then broke. We have numerous examples, among which the evolution of the British political system since the Magna Carta, which was always imposed to the monarchs, too the Révolution Française, which had begun when representatives of 97% of the French population claimed to be an Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly) and refused to follow the King's orders and the traditional way to count voices during the Etats Généraux : by order (Nobility, Church and themselves, the Third State or Tiers Etat) instead of number.

    What I mean is that, while the EP actions may seems to be against the treaties, it is in fact an extremely needed process for the Union : it helped brought me back from europhobia to a prudent Euroscepticism (I think that the EU should change a lot of it paradigm, it is far too Right Wing and uncontrolled Free Market dogma for my tastes) and it forces the various heads of states to challenge their usual position, and to be clear on what they want for Europe in the future (thus showing that the British don't want to be part of what continental Europe may still want : more than an economic Europe which failed). This move from the Parliament could end with the departure of the UK from the EU and the departure of Scotland from the UK, the former being sorely needed to advance and the latter is potentially better for everyone, since the Scots are extremely pro-Europeans.

    So, all in all, it was a very good choice and a way to save the EU from itself.
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  • Sidney sloth
    The word "democracy" is the rented mule of the English language. Every state describes themselves as such, the two best examples being north Korea and the former DDR, which include the word in their formal name.

    As a student of both English semantics and the soviet system of government, I am fascinated by the balance of power between the political executive and the electorate, and the interaction between the two bodies.

    The soviet system had elections all the time. It really didn't matter who one voted for, because the political executive vetted all candidates strictly according to party doctrine. Now the soviets had one party, but they had several leading departments, each of which would field competing candidates in elections, in the hope of gaining more revenues of state for their department from the Duma.
    Semantics aside, and caring not at all if you wish to call the rose of your politics by another name, I submit that the distance between the political executive and the electorate in the soviet union was not conducive to great prosperity. Something for advocates of the EU to consider, perhaps.
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