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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

A dose of democracy needed to revive the EU

Simon Hix argues that a contested election for the presidency of the EU commission in 2014 would help to revive the EU after the financial crisis.

The European Union, for all its many achievements over 50 years, is at a crossroads. It faces several fundamental policy and political challenges. On the policy side, the main issue is the financial crisis in the Eurozone, but other challenges include overcoming our energy dependency on outside states, increasing Europe's global competitiveness, coming up with an effective climate change policy, dealing with migration, and protecting European interests and project European values on the world stage.

On the political side, the main challenge is leadership. Who is in charge? Merkel and Sarkozy are trying to take a lead on the Eurozone crisis. But, in an EU of 27 member states, Germany and France no longer have the legitimacy they had in the EU of 6 or even 12 countries. And, where is the Commission? The creation of the single market and the Euro was the apogee of the Commission's powers. Since Jacques Delors the Commission has been absent from major policy debates and has become marginalised in the making of EU legislation, as the key issues are now resolved between the European Parliament and the Council.

So, where will these challenges lead? Are the achievements of the last half century under serious threat? I think there are four possible scenarios for what might happen in the next decade – crisis and collapse, fiscal union, muddling through and emerging democratic politics.

In this online article, I do not have space for exploring the first three. Readers interested in these scenarios can read the full essay on which this article is based in the current edition of PPR. Here I'm going to concentrate on a more optimistic scenario for progressives in Europe, what I've called emerging democratic politics in Brussels.

In this scenario, something new happens in the June 2014 European Parliament elections: rival candidates for the Commission presidency are declared before the elections. This might seem a rather trivial change to the way European elections currently work, where the Commission president is currently proposed by the heads of government and ratified by a majority of MEPs in a newly elected European Parliament. On the contrary, rival candidates for the most powerful executive office in the EU could start to transform the way EU politics works.

Some elements of this scenario have already started to happen. Jos?(C) Barroso will stand down at the end of his second term in 2014. The centre-right European People's Party (EPP), to which Barroso belongs, has already announced that they will propose a candidate to succeed him, probably from among the group of sitting EPP prime ministers. In response, the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) has announced that they too will propose a candidate for the post. The liberals, greens, radical left, and perhaps even anti-EU parties will no doubt propose their own candidates.

With several names on the table in 2014 there will be a European focus to the European Parliament election campaign for the first time. These elections are usually fought as mid-term national contests on the performance of national governments and national party leaders rather than on EU issues, or candidates for the European Commission, or ideas about the direction of the EU policy agenda. This might change if there is a battle for the Commission Presidency.

Currently, EU politics is largely ignored by political editors of newspapers and TV news programmes. This is for understandable reasons, since the media are fighting for space in highly competitive media markets, and so have no incentive to allocate valuable space to EU politics when there is enough material to fill their pages or minutes from their domestic 'political soap operas'. News media need political personalities and identifiable winners and losers, so they can provide 'info-tainment': who is up, who is down, who is clever, who is stupid, and so on. A campaign for the Commission president would provide editors with the content of a European level political soap opera for the first time. The candidates would no doubt issue their own "manifestos", setting out what they plan to do in their five-year term. There would also probably be a live TV debate, hosted by the European Parliament, with video streaming on the internet and images for newspapers and news channels. There would be ample material for the media, who would compete for interviews with the key candidates, and praise or poke fun at the leading personalities. Quality newspapers, such as The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Times, would no doubt take a lead in reporting the campaign. There would probably be numerous "support X" and "stop Y" websites and blogs on the pros and cons of the candidates.

This would not be a truly "democratic" election, in that the choice of the Commission president would still be made by the European Council and the European Parliament. Under the rules in the EU Treaty, the European Council proposes a candidate for the Commission president by a qualified-majority vote, and there is then a simple majority vote in the European Parliament. If the European Parliament rejects the nominee of the heads of government, they have to propose a new candidate. Under these rules, rival candidates for the Commission Presidency would make it very difficult for the heads of government to force through a candidate which does not have the support of a majority in the newly elected European Parliament – rather like the Queen asking the party leader who commands the support of the majority in the House of Commons to form the government. Neither the centre-right EPP nor the centre-left PES are likely to have a majority of seats after the 2014 elections. As a result, these two political groups will have to offer something to the centrist Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe to win their support for an EPP- or PES-backed Commission president. The Commission is already a political coalition, but for the first time the political deal that constitutes this coalition would be transparent.

If a contest of the Commission presidency in 2014 really happened, attracted good quality candidates, and captured the imagination of the European publics, the EU would be transformed. The Commission would be reinvigorated, and the winning candidate would emerge with a mandate to pursue policy reform on several fronts. There would still be all the usual checks and balances in the EU, in that any policy proposals would still have to be approved by the national governments in the Council as well as the European Parliament, and decisions would be policed by the European Court of Justice and national courts. But, for the first time since Jacques Delors a significant proportion of the public might be able to name the person who holds the highest political office in the EU, while the people who preferred one of the losing candidates might even start to engage more with EU politics. Finally, the EU would have the injection of democratic politics it vitally needs to be able to tackle the huge policy challenges facing us in the next decade.

But how likely is this emerging democratic politics in the EU? I would say only about 20 per cent. Many European politicians resisted a contest for the Commission Presidency in 2009 and will probably try to stop it happening again in 2014. After all, the politicians who would lose most from this scenario would be the prime ministers of Germany and France, who try to run the EU from the European Council. The last thing they want is a Commission President with a rival mandate.

Nevertheless, things might be different in 2014. First, Barroso was standing for a second term in 2009 and so all the sitting prime ministers were reluctant to openly support a rival candidate against the person they had been doing business with for several years. In 2014 there will be a clean slate, and every side will be trying to win the highest EU office for one of their politicians. Second, in the face of a genuine existential crisis of the EU, Europe's leaders might see a more democratic EU as the only way to build the legitimacy they need for their policy reforms.

The EU is in crisis. But it is worth saving. If it was scrapped tomorrow, more than 70 per cent of it would have to be rebuilt exactly as it is. Our standards of living and our consumption and lifestyle choices are not sustainable without a continental-scale single market. European-level executive, legislative and judicial institutions are necessary to govern such a market, while a common set of rules and regulations are vital for a market to function fairly and effectively. We should also not forget that many other regions in the world are envious of what Europe has managed to achieve in a relatively short space of time. My hope is that Europe's politicians and policy-makers realise this before it is too late. There is time to save the EU, and the best way to do so is to be more creative about how to make the EU open and democratic, starting with a proper contest for the Commission Presidency in 2014.

This article is an edited extract from 'Where is the EU Going? Collapse, Fiscal Union, Supersized Switzerland, or Emerging Democratic Politics' which appears in issue 18.2 of PPR – IPPR's quarterly journal.