which president for which europe?

Article published on May 2, 2014
Article published on May 2, 2014

The European elections will take place in less than a month throughout the whole of Europe, yet not all European citizens are forthcoming with interest and involvement in them. A question now arises from this situation, who is responsible? Does the lack of credibility reflect a lack of interest in the entire political establishment or is it just focused on the EU?

The elec­tion of the Pres­i­dent of the Com­mis­sion is the per­fect il­lus­tra­tion of this as­sess­ment. For the first time , Eu­ro­peans will be able to elect the per­son who will head the EU's ex­ec­u­tive body over the next five years. If we go back to the last Eu­ro­pean elec­tions in 2009, it is pos­si­ble to re­al­ize that the sit­u­a­tion has changed. The "re-elec­tion" of José Manuel Bar­roso as head of the Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion in 2009 was not ac­tu­ally based on a purely de­mo­c­ra­tic process. The Treaty of Maas­tricht in 1992 pro­vided that in­deed the Pres­i­dent of the Com­mis­sion should be ap­pointed by mu­tual agree­ment be­tween the Heads of State and the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment must ap­prove their choice. How­ever in 2009, José Manuel Bar­roso was ap­pointed Pres­i­dent by the con­sent of Par­lia­ment. The Treaty of Lis­bon en­tered into force in De­cem­ber 2009, how­ever, could make some changes. Al­though de­mo­c­ra­tic am­bi­gu­ity is al­ways pre­sent be­cause once again it is the Coun­cil which will ap­point the new pres­i­dent "tak­ing into ac­count the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions" - TFEU -. If we are op­ti­mistic we could have a Chief Ex­ec­u­tive who would be des­ig­nated ac­cord­ing to the pop­u­lar vote. It re­mains to be seen how this will be in­ter­preted "tak­ing into ac­count the elec­tions."

In 2014, for the first time, we are going to have official candidates for the presidency. Numbering 6 in total and representing the major European parties they are competing at the moment to take over the leadership of the coveted Commission. It might be useful here, to paint a picture of the can­di­dates. If you listen to gossip in Brussels the two main candidates (which are the most likely to be appointed) are Mar­tin Schulz, currently President of the European Parliament and member of the Socialist Party (PSE), and Jean-Claude Jun­cker who is the party leader of the European People's Party (EPP) who are currently in the lead. The latter was the first President of the Eurogroup and recently defeated the French Michel Barnier in the party leadership contest. However, beside these two characters , four other candidates are also seeking to be heard. Guy Ve­rhof­stadt is the party leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The former Belgian Prime Minister who can be considered as the "third man", still has every chance of winning, the only real federalist he pleads for a more integrated Europe. Then follows two candidates of the European Green Party, the French anti-globalisation figure and former Vice-Chair of the Committee on Agriculture and Development of the European Parliament José Bové and the former German MEP Ska Kel­ler was chosen to represent the Greens alongside José Bové. Finally, the Greek Alexis Tsi­pras who will re­pre­sen­t the Party of the European Left (EL), has a well-documented political history given that he was asked to form a Greek coalition government in 2012, although it never happened.

These six players are facing each other in a campaign that is struggling to be visible to the European citizen. Is the debate that should take place in the public sphere but has not, lacking in interest? Feeble attempts have however been implemented. For example, on 9 April 2014, Jean -Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz "went head-to-head" in a debate in French and English broadcast on France 24 and Radio France Internationale. But rather than actually launch the campaign and debate, this event only showed how the distinction between the agendas of both major parties is small. In Europe it is consensus and compromise that are set, however the lack of significant differences between the left-wing and right and the inability the two candidates had in reaching a decision on an issue does not encourage the interest that this election could bring.

On Monday 28 April, 2014 a larger debate has been organized in Maastricht by Euronews between  4 of the 6 candidates. José Bové and Alexis Tsipras could not be present. It could have been considered a very good initiative; however the main TV channels did not broadcast the debate. France Télévision, for example, chose to block it, while the major national newspapers (LeMonde, ElPais, Repubblica, TheGuardian, BBC ...) did not even bother to mention its existence. Many things were said during an hour and a half of debate even if you could observe that the debate lacked substance and genuine political confrontation. Their political positions were virtually identical and once again it was compromise which came out on top. The debate focused on key subjects such as employment, economic policy, immigration policy and foreign policy in particular with regard to the issue of energy independence.

Ska Kel­ler, the Green candidate, advocated a system based on a “Green New Deal” explaining "today we need investments, our economy must be greener. The target of 20% renewables is ridiculous; it should be much more ambitious.” She concluded the discussion by underlining that "we need a Europe that cares for people and not big business." Jean-Claude Juncker for his part focused on the economic aspect by saying that "I am for the creation of a European minimum wage," but he did not want anyone "to spend money we don't have, hence why I'm pro healthy finances.” Martin Schulz appeared to oppose the policies of the past 5 years, explaining that he wanted to be the president of European citizens and not of European states. Finally, Guy Verhofstadt focused his analysis on his commitment to establish a genuine European federalism.

Even so, you could witness some demonstrations of disagreement and attempts at "aggression". For example, when Martin Schulz explained that in diplomacy you must find common interests and this must be applied to Russia, Guy Verhofstadt responded directly by saying that "It was very naive." Jean-Claude Juncker was himself attacked by the other three candidates on the composition of his party, the EPP, Ska Keller highlighted that there were members of the EPP party who voted against the measures in favour of women's rights while Martin Schulz took up Berlusconi’s intervention on Germany denouncing the party’s immobility. 

In conclusion, we can ask ourselves about the future legitimacy of the President of the Commission and their flexibility in responding to a more and more powerful Council. Guy Verhofstadt has confidence in the future of Europe though and the Commission, telling Cafébabel that “the change is that Parliament can now gather behind a majority and a candidate for the presidency of the Commission. It is a power that the parliament should use [so that the Commission can take back control of the council].” He therefore believes in the “This time is different”, slogan of the European Parliament for the elections in May. We hope he's right. There is less than a month until the elections with everything still to prove.