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Why @AMSalamone is badly wrong at @LSEEuroppblog on the current battle about the EC President

If you would like to understand how British see the European Union you only have to read the blog post from Anthony SalamoneThe European Council should not feel obliged to choose any of the leading candidates as President of the European Commission” on EUROPP – European Politics and Policy run be the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The author gives us many reasons why the next president of the European Commission does not have to be the winning Spitzenkandidat of the last European election.

Here are some of his arguments and my comments on why he is badly wrong. Original quotes in italics and inverted commas:

The idea was that each party should have a leading candidate (frequently called by its German name, Spitzenkandidat) and after the election the European Council should simply nominate the designated candidate from the party with the greatest number of seats. (…)This process is not provided for in the treaties nor was it agreed with the Member States in legislation.

It is not mentioned in the treaties but this is how democracy works. If the European Council should consider the outcome of the European elections those elections have to be operationalized. That is why every democracy has political parties that organise the distribution of power passed over via democratic elections. The sole vote by citizens does not help, democracy needs organisation like in very nation state. Nobody would question that. The system of Spitzenkandidaten is not mentioned in many nation states. We only talk about elections and the results knowing that everything (incl. Spitzenkandidaten) is organised by the political parties.

In any case, most voters across the EU had little idea who the candidates were before Election Day.

The question is who is to blame – democracy or the voters who are not interested. Voting is in many countries not obligatory. If people are not interested so be it. They have every opportunity to get the information. Democracy is not a one way street. Sure, democracy should try to animate citizens to get active, but it is also the citizens who have the duty to inform themselves about their community and may it be the European one.

First, as stated, no legal basis exists mandating that the Commission President be proposed from nominations by the Parliament or its parties.

Wrong. The author himself quotes the respective article of the Treaty of Lisbon “Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament“. Parliament and the political parties have done nothing except putting forward the will of the European citizens expressed in democratic elections.

Second, voters suffered from a substantial lack of choice among the candidates. (…)They all favour more European integration to address the EU’s biggest challenges. Indeed, they are all Brussels veterans, certainly with a great deal of experience, but not necessarily with an outsider’s perspective.

Eurosceptic parties have gained in recent elections and they are a clear opposition to the other political parties that are in favour of European integration. Every citizen could have voted for a Eurosceptic party giving them an overall European majority. Than, the European Council would have to nominate a Eurosceptic President of the European Commission. But they did not get an overall majority in Europe. Again, this is democracy – the winner gets the job like in the UK no matter how different or equal the contestants have been.

Third, the initiative didn’t increase voter turnout. It was 43 per cent across the EU in 2009, and it remained virtually the same in 2014.

What would you do if the turnout in the UK would fall sharply because British citizens are not any more interested in national elections? Nothing. Still the winning candidate would become Prime Minister maybe trying to raise voter turnout in the next election. A low turnout is bad but it never reduces the legitimacy of the elected parties.

European parliament elections are seen as a national election based on national and local issues. They are frequently used to express satisfaction or dissatisfaction with parties in government.

Why behave like this? European elections are European elections and if voters do not know it we have to keep on telling them. As we can see the elections are important as they determine who will be the president of the next European Commission. Moreover the European Parliament has many powers and that is why citizens should take it serious.

The Council’s clear role is to nominate the President, for approval by the Parliament. (…)The treaties make them more or less equal on the matter. If the Council can only accept the candidates the Parliament dictates, they are certainly not equal.

No. The Parliament elects, it is not an approval of an independent nomination done behind closed doors without transparency by the European Council. These times are over. The new basis is the democratic election for the European Parliament. The citizens decide that’s what democracy is for.

Published inDemocracy & Human RightsEuropean Union

2 Kommentare

  1. Hi Karsten,

    It’s great to see that you’ve read through my article. Thanks for your reply to it. I’d like to respond to the criticisms you’ve raised. You’ve got seven quotes and replies, so I’ll take them in the same order.

    (1) The idea of leading candidates. It’s very clear that the entire concept of leading candidates was thought up by the European Parliament, with the participation of most of the political parties. The procedure was not set out, directly or indirectly, in the treaties, nor was it agreed with the Member States. This is fundamentally important. Unlike in nation states, everything is the EU does must be based in the treaties. In order to have a credible process, there must be consensus among the Member States and the EU institutions – and it was clear from the start that such consensus did not exist.

    (2) Not knowing the candidates. Leaving process aside, how can candidates be legitimate when voters do not know who they are? One poll (http://goo.gl/cIeK63) around the time of election showed that only 13% of people in 15 EU countries could name ANY of the candidates. If people were voting for Commission President, not recognising the candidates’ names is a major problem. Regardless of whose fault it is or isn’t, this simply can’t be brushed aside under the guise of lack of interest. It’s also clear matters weren’t helped by the candidates not campaigning in some countries, such as Spain and the UK.

    (3) Legal basis. The TEU says that the Council proposes the Commission President and the Parliament elects, having considered the election results. It does not say that the Council shall appoint the Parliament’s chosen candidate. If such a process was agreed between the Member States and the Parliament, then that’s fine. But it wasn’t. In fact, several Member States have objected to the idea ever since it came about.

    (4) Lack of choice among candidates. If people were voting for the EC President candidates (and it’s evident most voters were not), they would have had top choice between three leaders who have remarkably similar approaches on how they would wish to confront the EU’s challenges. At the same time, the relationship between the leading candidates and their parties’ MEPs is nothing like the link between national party leaders and their parliamentarians. It is beyond doubt that the choice of Commission President must indeed reflect the election outcome. It does not mean the President must be a leading candidate.

    (5) Voter turnout. A clear indicator that the leading candidate experiment was working would have been an increased voter turnout. In fact, that was one of the main aims – to motivate people to vote. Despite the effort, turnout was almost exactly the same EU-wide as the last election. Clearly, the leading candidates did not motivate voters (which makes sense, considering polls show they didn’t know who they were). Any legitimacy which might have existed for the process evaporates in the face of this. It would be deeply concerning if voter turnout was very low in a national election – and if 92% of people didn’t know the top party leader, that leader too would certainly lack legitimacy.

    (6) Issues voters decide on. The reasons why voters don’t see European elections as a separate vote on European issues are many. I’m not going to try to defend them. However, pretending that’s not the case will not somehow make the election more focused. Legitimacy derives not from what something is supposed to be, but how it is perceived. Most voters do not see the European elections as important and they mostly vote on national and local issues. While this is regrettable, it does not mean this fact can be simply ignored.

    (7) Selection process. The European Council and the European Parliament both have a role in deciding the European Commission President. While it may be desirable to have an EC President who is chosen by the Parliament and only appointed as a formality by the Council (like in many parliamentary systems), that it not what the treaty says, nor is that what was agreed. It is fundamentally important that the correct legal process is followed. The Council is free to nominate a leading candidate if it wants, but it is not obliged to. The Parliament may also block any nominee who is not a leading candidate, if it wants. This is why I’ve argued that both institutions must work together in a spirit of cooperation.

    I should point out that I don’t have a particular problem with electing the European Commission President. I’m much more concerned about the process rather than the concept. In order for the EC President to be elected and for this to be legitimate, the process for doing so must be agreed in advance between the EU institutions and the Member States on the basis of broad consensus. It clearly wasn’t. The public must also be well informed on the facts and the process. It also certainly wasn’t.

    It’s highly likely that we won’t agree on this. It was kind of you to the take the time to read my article and to set out your points against it.

    Also, I’m not British. It’s a bit amusing that you’ve assumed so. I’ve simply written in English on a UK-based blog.

    Best wishes,


  2. @Anthony Salamone

    After looking at the European Convention 2002-03 and later stages in the treaty reform process, which ended up with the Treaty of Lisbon, I beg to differ from many of your basic assumptions.

    My blog post ‘War on the EP 2014 election winner’ offers links to short entries dealing with the background, aim and interpretations of the new election procedure for the president of the European Commission, as well as personal views about the need for full democracy in the eurozone or the wider European Union. I hope you find that these viewpoints offer new insight:


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