- The Europarties have already nominated their candidates to succeed José Manuel Durão Barroso (first row, centre right). But what about his colleagues?
It’s still a few months away until the European elections, but already we have leading candidates from the Liberals, Social Democrats, Greens and the European Left. The Christian Democratic European People’s Party will also declare its candidate for the Commission Presidency in March. It’s a serious response to the duty that the European Parliament has to elect the Commission President, and it opens up the post to the electorate – linking the elections more directly with the executive, in keeping with Europe’s largely parliamentary tradition. The change has potential: it will make the elections more meaningful because the European parties will have a better chance of introducing legislation and it will give people control over the executive, making the EU more accountable to citizens. At the moment the European Commission has the power to propose legislation, while the Parliament does not. By linking the Commission President to the Parliament, there will be a democratic mandate to introduce legislation based on the policies of the winning party or coalition, making the EU more responsive to citizens.
The Commission President and the College of Commissioners
On the other hand, we should cast our minds to after the election. The next Commission President would sit in a College of Commissioners made up of nominees from the Member States reflecting the political colours of the various national governments rather than the winning coalition in the European Parliament that elected him or her. This College votes on legislative proposals to put to the Council and the Parliament and, while the Commission President has a prime position with control over the legal service, the political make-up of the Commission affects its political direction.
If I could change one thing about the EU, it would be the nomination process of the Commission. Giving the Commission President the power to nominate Commissioners (and the European Parliament the role of approving the nominations individually) would allow winning coalitions in Parliament to be reflected in the Commission, making it more democratic. It would also make the Commission more effective: not only would it have a common political direction coming from the elections, but no longer will the Commission be the dumping ground for national governments eager to rid themselves of embarrassing or incompetent politicians.
Representing both a democratic majority and the Member States
At the same time national representation in the Commission would remain – there could still be an Estonian, Maltese and Luxembourgish Commissioner. The “consociationalist” character of the Commission could remain, ensuring that big and small Member States alike will be fairly represented, but within a Commission representative of the electoral outcome. In other words, while there would still be a Commissioner from each Member State, each one would be nominated by the Commission President and confirmed by the European Parliament. At first glance this may seem a paradoxical position: that the Commission should reflect both the electoral outcome and the Member States, but representation of the nationalities that make up the Union is still a vital part of its legitimacy.
Having an electorally responsive and representative Commission goes hand in hand in developing its legitimacy and ability to respond to Europe’s political environment. As the “Guardian of the Treaties”, tasked with enforcing agreed EU rules across the Union, the Commission sometimes has to speak out against some policies and practices in the Member States. Having a Commission that is representative of all the Member States, while also rooted in a democratic majority, strengthens the Commission’s ability to do so without coming across as a “foreign force”.
That said, changes to the portfolios of the Commission are necessary to ensure that the departments are rational. The different portfolios of the Commission – from agriculture to home affairs – can hardly be subdivided further, and we may need to look at the possibility of having Commissioners without a portfolio in the future to prevent bureaucratic duplication. A possible role for these Commissioners could be to focus on sectional issues that cut across portfolios, chairing groups of Commissioners tackling common problems – but that’s a topic for another time.
Greater relevance to the European elections
Making the Commission more open, accountable and representative would bring the EU closer to citizens and give greater relevance to the European elections. Despite the fact that the last European Parliament has had a bigger political impact than its predecessors – just look at ACTA, the SWIFT Treaty, and the Eurozone reforms –, the reactive nature of the Parliament means that it’s very difficult to make the connection from representation to action. Voters need to know that their vote counts towards action on the European stage, not merely deciding the political colour of the Parliament that reacts to initiatives from the Commission and the European Council. Currently, it is difficult to explain the role of MEPs to the electorate as, unlike at the national level, the European elections – until now – have not translated directly into who takes executive office (in the Commission) and in deciding the way forward on important issues like the Eurozone. Without this link, it is hard to hold officials responsible for their policies and actions, which is vital in a democracy.
Even with the change I describe the EU will be a complicated beast, with deals hammered out between the Commission, Council and Parliament. But making the Commission more democratic opens the door to a bigger and better debate on the EU – not just what’s wrong, but what we should do to fix it, or what policies to change. It’s not enough for people to engage in a debate on the rights and wrongs of the EU from the Eurozone to the Common Agricultural Policy. There must be a point at which we can give a democratic answer on how to proceed.
Eurocentric is the pseudonym of an Irish blogger who blogs on European politics over at The European Citizen since 2009.