European elections and the appointment of the President of the Commission

One of the central issues of the upcoming European elections is the appointment of the next President of the Commission. The candidate proposed by the European Council, taking into account the results of the elections, should be appointed by the European Parliament.

Since 2014, to reinforce the link between candidates and elections, the European parties have been appointing their candidates for the Presidency of the Commission (lead candidates). The candidates have then presented their vision of Europe and their responses to transnational challenges.

These debates are certainly interesting, as they force the candidates to present their ideas and their recipes, but they still have a great limitation: they do not attract the attention of public opinion in the various countries. Firstly, there is a language barrier, which is difficult to overcome, and secondly, the leaders of national parties have little motivation, especially when they are candidates, to put forward the candidate of the European party to which they are affiliated.

The European Parliament had put forward a proposal, supported by the most federalist circles, to create a single transnational constituency where each European party would present a single list with its own single candidate. In this way, the leading candidate of the party with the most votes would have a popular investiture, a kind of European premiership.

In reality, there is another limitation, the absence of a single electoral system, each country organizes its elections internally as it sees fit. In addition, proportional voting certainly makes the European Parliament representative of national public opinion, and this is a good thing, but not necessarily suitable for electing the best candidate for President of the Commission, whose main quality should be his/her capacity of mediator between the ‘Senate’ (national governments) and the lower house (the European Parliament).

The future President of the Commission must, however, have the ability to coalesce a parliamentary majority, probably making concessions to the right and the left, only in this way he/she will be able to have a majority in the European Parliament, a majority that could lose during the term of office, in case the motion of censure is activated, as it happened, in 1999 with the Santer Commission.

The best example of the Commission President’s ability to compromise came in 2019. Ursula von der Leyen was not among the Leader candidates expressed by the European parties, but none of them had the necessary parliamentary majority to be elected. The European Council nominated Ms von der Leyen, who was confirmed by only nine votes. After that, she negotiated her government programme with the parliamentary groups after the elections, obtaining a solid parliamentary majority.

To conclude, as it is often the case in Europe, the ideal solution is not achievable and remains a goal, but there is (almost) always a sub-optimal solution that advances the democratic process and European integration.

In previous years, the President of the Commission was formally appointed by the European Council. In practice, the appointment took place in a private room of the Council, or more often in a small room in some hotel between two or maximum three Heads of State, you can guess the names! The Treaty of Lisbon put an end to this practice and the European Parliament, with the majority that will emerge from the ballot box, has a decisive role. The citizens’ vote will have an important influence on the future of Europe.

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