Andrew Duff -  On Governing Europe

I’m actually getting a bit bored by the argument over the rights and wrongs of the Spitzenkandidat adventure. But as I and my federalist friends have been accused of manipulating a ‘power grab’, and even of instigating a coup d’état, and in the interest of record, here we go. (Those tempted to boredom should go and watch the tennis.)

The idea that the new President of the Commission should enjoy the dual legitimacy of having been elected by both the European Council and the European Parliament surfaced at the Convention on the Future of Europe in 2002-03. It was an idea promoted by the federalist camp in the Convention – led by revolutionaries like Elmar Brok and me – as a counter to the more radical and headline grabbing proposal from the Convention’s president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, that the European Council of heads of government should have a ‘permanent’ full-time chair.

So it was that Article 19(1) of Part I of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (2003) says that the Parliament ‘shall elect the President of the European Commission’. Article 26(1) goes on to say: ‘Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after appropriate consultations, the European Council, deciding by qualified majority, shall put to the European Parliament its proposed candidate for the presidency of the Commission’. This constitutional treaty was agreed at an Intergovernmental Conference by the then Labour government, as well as by the Liberal Democrats. The agreement of the British government was not irrelevant because it had been John Major who in 1994 had vetoed the appointment as Commission President of arch-federalist Jean-Luc Dehaene (whom we recently mourn), and it was Tony Blair who, ten years later, vetoed the appointment of arch-federalist Guy Verhofstadt (happily still with us). (Just for the record, we got the illustrious Jacques Santer and José Manuel Barroso instead.)

In 2005 the constitutional treaty was sunk by the referendums in France and Holland – though probably not because of outrage provoked by the proposed new system for the election of the Commission President. By the end of 2007, Giscard’s scuppered treaty had transmogrified into the Treaty of Lisbon, which was fully ratified in 2009 by the British Parliament. Two substantive changes were made to the procedure for the election of the Commission President. First, the European Parliament was to vote by an absolute and not a simple majority of its Members (Article 17(7), Treaty on European Union). Second, the Lisbon Intergovernmental Conference added a Declaration to the treaty to provide more detail on the electoral co-decision between Council and Parliament. Both changes served to consolidate the constitutional character of the procedure.

Declaration 11 is worth citing in full:-

‘The Conference considers that, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaties, the European Parliament and the European Council are jointly responsible for the smooth running of the process leading to the election of the President of the European Commission. Prior to the decision of the European Council, representatives of the European Parliament and of the European Council will thus conduct the necessary consultations in the framework deemed the most appropriate. These consultations will focus on the backgrounds of the candidates for President of the Commission, taking account of the elections to the European Parliament, in accordance with the first subparagraph of Article 17(7). The arrangements for such consultations may be determined, in due course, by common accord between the European Parliament and the European Council.’

In the light of the controversy surrounding the emergence of Jean-Claude Juncker, it may be regretted that Herman Van Rompuy, the President of the European Council, did not see fit to execute the common accord on the detailed arrangements provided for in the last sentence.

Who’s Your Candidate?

In the 2009 elections, the federalists had a campaign aimed at the EU level political parties entitled ‘Who’s Your Candidate?’. But the fact that the incumbent Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, was destined to have a second term blunted its effect. During the course of the 2009-14 mandate, I attempted to go one step further and introduce, by a change to EU primary law, a pan-European constituency for which a certain number of MEPs would be elected from transnational party lists. Lacking a majority for this radical change to the electoral procedure, in 2012 Parliament fell back on a resolution, also drawn up by me, which invited the European political parties to nominate champions to lead their election campaigns. In doing so, Parliament was putting some political flesh on to the constitutional skeleton. Our purpose was to bolster the role of the European political parties in the election campaign, and to raise the European dimension of the electoral debates which had previously been entirely national. The nomination of party champions, we believed, would help to personalise the campaign in a way which would be easier for the media to report and more recognisable to the electorate. Turnout mattered.

Some months later, President Barroso and his Commission formally agreed to support Parliament’s initiative. When the matter was discussed in COREPER (the conference of the ambassadors of the EU member states) no decision was taken either to support or to deflect Parliament’s interpretation of the new Lisbon rules. The new approach was hotly debated in COSAC (the conference of EU national Parliaments), and promoted by the European Parliament’s communication campaign: ‘This time it’s different: Act. React. Impact’.

The European political parties, obliged to respond, broke new ground. Rules had to be invented for the internal selection of top candidates, and special congresses held. Martin Schulz was first into the ring at Leipzig in November. The Greens held a primary election. At the EPP congress in Dublin in March, Jean-Claude Juncker won in an open contest against Michel Barnier, the unsung hero of the Spitzenkandidat exercise. If Angela Merkel had wished to stop the process, she could have done so then and there.

London, as usual, was in denial. The British have never really understood the political nature of the Commission. Nor do they seem to grasp that the EU has a bicameral legislature. Constitutionally illiterate and driven by off-shore domestic obsessions, few in Whitehall or Westminster woke up to the changes afoot. Having withdrawn from the European People’s Party in 2009, the Conservative Party has no engagement with mainstream mainland party politics – making risible its desperate claim to see in the German CDU its natural fraternal party while, at the same moment, they admit the right-wing conservative AfD to their group of MEPs. Labour abstained in the process by which Martin Schulz eliminated all potential rivals to emerge as the nominee of the Party of European Socialists. The Liberal Democrats were divided by Nick Clegg’s peremptory decision to support Olli Rehn as Guy Verhofstadt’s rival in the race to become the Spitzenkandidat of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) – but at least the Lib Dems took part in the process, and accepted the outcome.

This Time, It’s Different

The astonishing thing, at least to me, is that the Spitzenkandidaten experiment has worked so well. Admittedly, Juncker, Schulz and Verhofstadt have not become federal folk heroes overnight, but their presence, and that of the Greens’ top candidate Ska Keller, was certainly felt in the election campaign among the intelligentsia. This time the European Parliamentary elections were indeed a bit different. After thirty five years, turnout rose. The sharper electoral contest has led to a larger understanding of the importance of the choice of the Commission President. Witness the media frenzy.

Throughout the adventure, the European Parliament has acted within the letter and spirit of the Treaty of Lisbon. It is natural that the four mainstream pro-European parties which took part in the election are now backing the lead candidate of the EPP, the largest group, to become Barroso’s successor. The ball is in the court of Van Rompuy, who acts in the Belgian way as informateur. Later this week, he will propose to his colleagues in the European Council that they nominate someone who commands a qualified majority among heads of government and an absolute majority in the Parliament. Having been heard in the groups and in the plenary, the parliamentary election will take place by secret ballot in Strasbourg in 16 July. If the nominee has not won over 376 MEPs, the European Council has one month in which to come up with an alternative name – all in accordance with the Treaty.

If this is a ‘power grab’ by the European Parliament, I am proud to be complicit in it. Time was when a parliamentary blow against autocratic rule would have been lauded by the British Establishment. It is ironic that what is deemed fine by the UK for, say, Burma is considered to be scandalous for the European Union.

David Cameron argues that Juncker is too much of an old-fashioned federalist to be Commission President. Yet he has no other candidate to put up. And, despite vain claims, Cameron has no coherent reform programme of his own. He has engineered for himself a presumably deliberate defeat at the hands of (mostly) continental federalists. What profit this brings him, his party or his country I am not able to say.

Those who wish the European Union well, however, can expect to get out of this crisis of leadership a stronger and more legitimate European Commission.


On 1 July my fifteen years as an MEP come to an end. I will continue to blog here from time to time as and when I have something intelligent to say on how a more united Europe might best be governed.

Author :

Leave a Reply