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The heads of state and government took the easy way out. With cleverly staged drama that needlessly simulated urgency the European Council has cornered the newly elected European Parliament for no good reason. Only a few hours after the new Parliament was constituted, the Council nominated a candidate for President of the Commission: Ursula von der Leyen. If the body of heads of state and government had a genuine interest in reaching a consensus with Parliament, a later agreement would have been possible, as the new Commission is not scheduled to start until November.
The Parliament was also accused of not being able to agree on a candidate of its own beforehand. But this is incorrect, because the newly elected representatives (around 60 per cent of all MEPs) haven’t had offices and telephones until 2 July. For negotiations on a level playing field, it would have been fair to wait until the new Parliament took office. Then, the political groups could have competed for finding a majority. In short, slower pace but greater communication between the Council and Parliament would have helped in finding a solution.
Moreover, the inclusion of Parliament in the Council’s nomination process is not just a self-evident expectation for democracy and inter-institutional peace, but it’s also laid down in the Treaty on European Union. Article 17(7) states that ‘after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission.’
No ‘institutional crisis’
It’s easy to predict what effects this decision will have on citizens’ interest in European politics, which has noticeably increased during the European elections. They will be rightly disappointed if they see that someone should lead the Commission who has not taken part in the democratic exercise of an election campaign. After all, the main European party families assumed office with the promise to elect one of the top candidates as head of the Commission.
But now, with Ms von der Leyen, once again a politician who did not stand for election is to become President of the Commission. It’s understandable that voters see this as a backroom deal and are hence disappointed. The Lisbon Treaty grants the heads of state and government the right to make proposals, but only by taking election results into account. These results have been disregarded, and blowback will come in the form of even more acute frustration with the EU.
Ursula von der Leyen is also not a suitable candidate when it comes to solving the EU’s big problems.
In the public debate, some are now trying to turn things around, saying it would be irresponsible to reject von der Leyen out of hand. Moreover, they claim, there’s no good alternative (especially from a social democratic point of view) and an ‘institutional crisis’ is in the making. If Parliament rejects von der Leyen, however, no such crisis will suddenly occur.
The current Commission is still in office until the end of October and, in the event that a candidate is rejected, the procedure to follow is clear: heads of state and government must submit a new proposal to Parliament within one month. If that candidate does not receive the required majority, the Council needs to offer the name of a person deemed acceptable. Here, Parliament should be involved extensively and from an early stage. But Parliament must also do its homework and agree on a proposal by taking an indicative vote.
Reforming the Spitzenkandidaten principle
However, Ursula von der Leyen is also not a suitable candidate when it comes to solving the EU’s big problems. In the questioning by the Socialist Group, she was unable to present a progressive vision for the EU. Although her appearance was pleasant and eloquent, she had no concrete proposals. There was no specific plan to rescue refugees in distress at sea; her CO2 reduction target falls short of the one required by the Parliament; a plan for the future of agricultural policy was lacking; and above all, she showed weaknesses in safeguarding the rule of law in all EU countries.
Now one may argue that she only had a few days to prepare. But that’s exactly why the Spitzenkandidaten system is so important. The lead candidates have offered concrete solutions that were worked out in a process lasting for months. Therefore, they are necessarily better versed in the policy fields and better acquainted with the problems and solutions.
All the same, regardless of whether Ursula von der Leyen will be elected Commission President, the current situation clearly shows the limits of the current procedure for filling the Commission’s top position. As long as the Treaties of the European Union allow the European Council to have the sole right of nomination for Commission President, with few formal requirements for this nomination, this situation can recur. For this reason, we urgently need to change the procedure.
The Spitzenkandidaten principle must be binding for the Council and finally extended to include transnational lists, as demanded by the Socialist Group before the last election. In the past year, the proposal for transnational lists had no majority, but after now having a situation seen as unsatisfactory by the vast majority of MEPs, it must be discussed and resolved this time around.