(B2) The appointment system of the top European leader may appear complex, opaque and discretionary. But with a little good will, it’s pretty easy to understand, as long as you leave some preconceived ideas aside
First key : Europe is an original system with a dual coalition
To understand the situation, we must keep in mind some fundamental principles.
1° It is not possible to copy a national system on the European system. A common mistake is to copy our French-style appointment system, which is quite simple in itself, in which the president, elected by universal suffrage, has an undeniable legitimacy and constitutes his government as he wants, with the support of a solid majority in the Assembly. This is not the case at the European level.
2° Europe is neither a State nor an international organization. It is a union of states and peoples. A kind of non-state confederal system. This specific mechanism is reflected in the nomination process which requires an agreement between the European Council (= Council of States) and the European Parliament (= Parliamentary Assembly).
3° There is no democratic legitimacy that overrides the other. National governments have all been crowned by universal suffrage (national suffrage) and have a notable legitimacy, just as valid as that of the elected representatives of the European Parliament (european universal suffrage). And vice versa.
4° Europe is therefore governed by a system of dual coalition : a coalition of political groups (in Parliament) + a coalition of countries (in the Council) which collide, either in Parliament or in the Council. Sometimes personal or geopolitical affinities are more important than strictly political arithmetic. Which explains some unexpected choices.
5 ° The top chefs cannot be : all men (or – women), too numerous from a single country or geographical area, etc. There is a subtle balance between small and large countries, southern and eastern countries, women and men, older and younger (see 3rd key).
6 ° Traditionally, the European agreement is done between France and Germany. As long as Paris and Berlin do not agree – which is the case today -, no agreement can be made. This does not mean that the Franco-German agreement takes precedence. But without it, nothing is possible. The United Kingdom being cast aside (because of Brexit) makes this couple even stronger than before.
7° Certain rules cannot be overlooked because they are laid down in the Treaty: a European Commissioner can only be appointed by a Member State, all Commissioners and their president must be subsequently approved by the European Parliament, and finally, this process of appointment must be respected.
Second key : the constitutional framework set by the Treaty allows for two interpretations
What the text says
The mechanism provided for by the ‘constitutional’ Treaty reflects this double legitimacy : that of the states and that of the parliamentary election. Article 17.7 thus provides for an indirect appointment system :
« 1. Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations,
2. the European Council, acting by a qualified majority,
3. shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission.
4. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members.
5. If he does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure. »
NB : the numbering is ours, for greater clarity on all the process’ steps.
Two different interpretations
The new element introduced in the treaty, « the taking into account of the elections » – a zest of political democracy in a system that was previously a matter of geopolitical technique -, has given rise to two different interpretations.
First version : that of the elected officials and the European Parliament. This is the system called Spitzenkandidat. The candidate of the leading party in the European elections automatically becomes the designated President of the European Commission.
- a variant of this system considers that it is the party that manages to form a majority that should see its candidate nominated – not the party that came first.
Second version : that of the Heads of State and Government (European Council). We listen to the results… and we choose the right candidate, who must be +/- issued from the same majority.
Only one application in 2014
The Spitzenkandidat system was only used once : in 2014. It is therefore very early to make it a custom. The European People’s Party’s candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg), is then chosen by a majority of political groups. The European Council endorses this appointment by qualified majority.
Jean-Claude Juncker fit many criteria : somewhat of a celebrity in the european bubble, experienced, former Prime Minister, from the majority party, but consensual enough for the other parties. One can therefore wonder whether it is the Spitzenkandidat system that was adopted (version of the European Parliament), or whether this system met the will of the Heads of State and Government who would have chosen this candidate anyway (version of the European Council).
In 2019, it is ‘more difficult’
On the one hand because the main political groups have chosen personalities who are objectively a notch below those chosen in 2014 : the president of a political group (for the EPP), a European commissioner (for the Social Democrats)… To be compared with an experienced Prime Minister and a President of the European Parliament (Mr Schulz). To choose them would ask the European Council to compromise on or set aside certain criteria. On the other hand, some parties (including Liberals and Democrats) and some Heads of State and Government reject this system of Spitzenkandidaten which gives primacy to the European People’s Party.
Third key : ‘objective’ criteria, written or not
The appointment of a President of the European Commission (like other Commissioners) cannot be the simple translation of a democratic or autocratic choice. It obeys certain criteria, written and unwritten.
Certain criteria are found explicitely in the Treaty :
- « persons whose independence is beyond doubt ;
- on the ground of their general competence ;
- and European commitment. »
Without forgetting to be a national of one of the EU member States.
Some criteria are not explicitely expressed and are not prohibitive, but have emerged over time and are present in everyone’s mind at the time of choice.
- No court cases (corruption, etc.) – proven or potential, directly or indirectly (family, entourage).
- Good image.
- Flexibility of mind – to be able to impose when necessary, to fade if necessary.
- Be available.
To this must be added a new (unwritten) criterion…
An additional criterion : international stature
This criterion was not so important a few years ago. But it should be today. The President of the Commission, like the President of the European Council, will indeed have to negotiate face-to-face with strong personalities at the international level. The European Union has to deal with, among other strong characters, the American Donald Trump, the Russian Vladimir Putin, the Turkish Recep Tayip Erdogan, the Chinese Li Keqiang…. The Europeans leading the EU must not only be skilful conciliators of the European gesta. They must be able to impose themselves on the international scene.
Fourth key : a subtil geopolitical balance
One can easily identify two or three potential candidates when using these criteria. But the situation is not that simple because the president of the Commission is only the first piece of a puzzle that includes several others. The whole must respect a subtle balance.
A complex puzzle
There are at least two compulsory chess pieces : the President of the European Council, the High Representative. But we can add a few others : the president (s) of the European Parliament (if the mandate is split), the president of the European Central Bank, or even a vice-president of the Commission with a large economic agenda. Therefore, one ultimately has to take into account half a dozen names, so as to provide compensation to the ‘losers’ of the first round.
The political balance
The jobs’ distribution between the political families of the ‘governmental majority’ – Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Liberal Democrats, and possibly the Greens – must reflect, more or less, their weight in the public opinion. The result of the 2019 elections shows that the European People’s Party (EPP), which held almost all the reins for the 2014 top chef appointment (except that of the High Representative, given to the social-democratic family), will have to give away at least one position.
The geographical/geopolitical balance
All geographical or geopolitical areas must be represented : the East and the West, Germanic and Latin Europe ; the small and the big countries.
The gender balance
At least one or two of the top leaders (according to the new rule established at the European Council on May 28) must be women.
The age balance
To this can be added a fourth factor of equilibrium, that of the ages. This balance factor has never been of much importance. But it could be this time. This factor is not only a question of experience, but also of image. To only have people approaching 65-70 would be interesting in terms of wisdom, but a bad signal sent to Europeans. On the other hand, only having 40-year-olds at the top would be just as risky, as personal ambition can annihilate all the enthusiasm of ‘youth’.
The crash test game
You now have all of the elements and pieces of the puzzle. Evaluate each potential candidate through the prism of these written or unwritten conditions. You will see that some do not resist the crash test. Do not draw an early conclusion. Do not forget one last thing : European politics is in constant motion. And a surprise is not excluded. Nothing prevents the ‘leaders’ and ‘negotiators’ of the different parties from adding a new criterion or a new element in the balance to find… the compromise.
Your turn to play !
NB : this article is an extract of a class I gave in Kinshasa in front of the audience of the CHESD, RDC’s High school of strategic and defence studies, where I had been invited.