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Consensus, not automaticity, should govern the selection of the next European Commission President

Following the European elections, the European Council and the European Parliament must work cooperatively in order to decide the new European Commission President and the Commission’s work programme. The leading candidate experiment did not succeed, and the Council and Parliament must agree a selection process before the next election.

European Commission

European Commission, kfcatles, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The aftermath of this May’s European Parliament elections has proved challenging for many national and European leaders. The success of Eurosceptic and anti-establishment parties on both the left and right will have a greater long-term impact than most have suggested. While the recently elected MEPs organise themselves into their political groups – itself the subject of intrigue – the matter remains of nominating the next European Commission President.

Famously, or infamously, a number of the European political parties (EPP, PES, ALDE, Greens and European Left) put forth their leading candidates for the EC presidency. Since the election returned the EPP with the greatest number of seats, a significant group of people believe that Jean-Claude Juncker, the EPP’s nominee, must become the next President.

The principle of voters’ electing the Commission President by some means is not a new idea. However, as I have argued in some detail, the way in which it has been attempted was neither advisable nor effective. I should state from the outset that I am not in principle opposed to seeing the President elected, though I recognise the objections made that the potential politicisation of the Commission might be damaging. To my mind, the process is just as important as the principle, and the process here has left me thoroughly unconvinced.

Take for a start the complete absence of agreement on how the EC President should be selected. Having launched this leading candidate initiative, the European Parliament and the participants acted without any formal accord with the Member States. The EU’s treaties do not require the presentation of leading candidates, after which the Council merely formally appoints the Parliament’s nominee. This is important for the fact that the EU, as a multilateral organisation, is based on the conferral of powers and on the procedures outlined in its treaties.

Proponents of the leading candidates have suggested that the procedure does not need to be based in the treaties, since it is the norm of national governments. However, since the EU is made up of a number of states with distinct constitutional practices (admittedly with some commonalities), it does not follow that the process can be simply inferred based upon national traditions.

Beyond the treaties, the Council and the Parliament could have reached a written agreement or even an informal understanding detailing the new selection mechanism for the Commission President. No such agreement was concluded. In the absence of a mutual understanding, it was unwise for the initiative to go ahead, as the process could not be guaranteed and those voters who believed in it were and remain very likely to be let down.

What about the candidates themselves? Voters were faced a poor range of choice, on political differences at least. The top three candidates (from EPP, PES and ALDE) all have remarkably similar approaches on how they wish to confront the EU’s challenges. Some may argue that, as in national politics, it’s natural for all major parties to move to the centre during campaigns. Indeed, this is often true. However, all three believe that the EU’s problems should be solved through more integration – this is not a centrist viewpoint.

In order to be able to distinguish the minute differences between the candidates, voters would first need to know who they were. The overwhelming majority of voters across the EU couldn’t name a single candidate before or during the election. No doubt matters weren’t helped by the fact that they didn’t campaign much if at all in some countries, including the UK.

Supporters have suggested the fact that some national leaders campaigned with the candidates is evidence of a tacit agreement on the process. However, such a significant constitutional change can’t be justified simply on the basis of passive acceptance by a number of national politicians. That’s not how the EU works nor how it should work.

Voter turnout was practically flat as compared with the last election in 2009 (up 0.09% on 43%). A clear indicator that the leading candidate experiment was working would have been a marked increase in voter participation. More to the point, most voters continue to rate the EP elections as not particularly important and make their choices primarily on the basis of national and local issues.

All of these factors progressively build a picture of a process which lacks legitimacy.  However desired the principle of the electing the Commission President might be, it surely cannot be based on an absence of agreement on the procedure and a dramatically uninformed public. The solution is not to press ahead anyway – a course too often pursued by the European Union. To do so would in fact weaken its limited democratic legitimacy by holding up a fatally flawed process as the exemplar of the EU’s political future.

Instead, the Council and Parliament should work together to select the next Commission President. The Commission’s work programme for the next five years is equally significant. Allowing the Parliament a greater say in drafting it may provide some space for compromise on the presidential nomination. However, the Council and Parliament must not stop there.

It is likely that the Parliament and the European political parties may wish to attempt another leading candidate effort at the next election. Accordingly, the EU institutions need to conclude an inter-institutional agreement well in advance of the election, laying down how the procedure will work and what the outcome will be. This will provide the clarity and certainty which are fundamental to any successful and legitimate democratic process.

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How to cite this article:

Salamone, A (2014) ‘Consensus, not automaticity, should govern the selection of the next European Commission President’, Britain’s Europe (Ideas on Europe), 13 June 2014,


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