Thursday, May 22, 2014

The 2014 E.U. Presidential Debate:An Analysis

The election, or selection, of the E.U.’s chief executive in 2014 tacitly pitted democracy at the federal level against the equally legitimate prerogative of state governments to protect their turf through their direct involvement at the federal level. This tension exists institutionally in the European Council and the European Parliament, and in the problematic procedures for how the E.U. president is to be selected. In this essay, I contend that the European project has more to do in terms of how both the states and E.U. citizens both have a role in the selection.

Euroskeptics point to the democracy deficit as but one of the justifications for defending state rights against federal encroachment. So it is significant in terms of continued European integration that, in 2014, for the first time, the parties in the E.U. Parliament nominated their respective candidates for president of the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive branch. Although E.U. citizens could not vote directly for any of those candidates, the choice of representative necessarily involves a choice of party. Yet even this indirect, or parliamentary, democracy had to contend with the other major element of the E.U.—that which can be called confederal. Namely, the E.U. represents not only individuals, but also states. Whereas the European Parliament represents the former, the European Council represents the latter. In a system of modern federalism, wherein both the federal and state governments are semi-sovereign, both representatives of the people and officials of the state governments must be accommodated at the federal level. So it is fitting, though certainly not comfortable, that the European Council members—the state governments represented by their respective executives—are obliged according the 2009 Lisbon Amendment to “take into account” the choice of the European Parliament for President of the Commission “before selecting the new head.”[1] Of course, the choice of the Parliament is, in the words of The Financial Times, “the EU election result.” The implication of the Council having only to take it into account does not bode well for European democracy at the federal level.

It is no accident that in the 2014 presidential debate, Jean-Claude Juncker stressed that the state constitutions must be respected at the E.U. level even as Catalonia and Scotland bristle under two; he undoubtedly knew that the state governors would have a say on his candidacy even if the Parliament votes in his favor. Identifying this vote with the Parliament election, the five candidates were united on the stage in their firm belief that the state government officials in the European Council would be obligated to pick from among the five. Interestingly, the five did not hold as one would expect from a democratic standpoint that the Council would be obligated to select the candidate whose party does best in the election; not even parliamentary democracy is so direct, given the typical need to form coalitions.

The state leaders sitting on the European Council are of course themselves democratically elected, and from this basis they could assert their own imprint on the decision from democratic auspices. Moreover, the governors could point to the U.S. as evidence of just how real the risk of political consolidation is at the federal level once the direct involvement of the state governments at that level is weakened or removed outright. This occurred in the U.S. in 1913, when popular election replaced appointment by state legislature as the means by which U.S. senators are selected. Mandating that the European Council accept the will of the people as judged by the Parliament by limiting consideration to the five candidates selected by the parliamentary parties entails that the state governments cede their power to see to it that the next E.U. president be a person who could be expected to protect the states' turf in the face of baleful federal encroachment.

To be sure, other ways exist for giving both states and individuals a role in the selection of a federal president. In the U.S. the Electoral College exists to give weight to both the people and the states. Technically, the voters vote for electors, who in turn meet by state to vote or the U.S. president. While this system suffers from severe flaws, so too does the procedure governing the E.U.’s presidential election in 2014.

The five presidential candidates at the debate held in May, 2014 at the European Parliament in Brussels. The debate went from issue to issue, more or less in line with what people were tweeting about, rather than focusing on the "big picture" of the European Union. (Image Source:

The 2014 election included the first E.U. presidential debate, which brought with it the implication that one of the five candidates would be elected as president. The five said as much. For the state governors in the European Council to protect the state-federal balance of power by “overruling” the election result would be to expose the democracy deficit as all too real. With only 43 percent of E.U. citizens voting in the last E.U. Parliament election, the number would surely be less if the message in 2014 is that the results of the voting do not matter in the selection of the federal chief executive. That much of the debate centered around banking and austerity rather than the future direction of the E.U. itself suggests that the event would not stimulate much voter interest in the E.U.

Making matters worse, Martin Schultz, president of the Parliament and one of the five candidates, claimed during the debate that the E.U. is “not a federal state. We are a union of sovereign countries.” This ceased to be the case when the E.U. gained its first competency from the states. By the year of the presidential debate, the E.U. institutions such as the Commission, Parliament, and European Court of Justice had enough governmental sovereignty to render Schultz’s claim patently absurd. Contravening his own assertion, Schultz joined with the other presidential candidates in asserting that the “sovereign” state governments represented in the Council are obliged to rubber-stamp the Parliament’s decision as per the federal election. In the words of James Madison, the European Parliament is a national institution whereas the European Council is federal; the mixture of these two types is what we know as modern federalism. So it is odd, to say the least, not to mention oxymoronic, that the sovereign states must bend to a federal-level election and subsequent confirmation by a federal-level “national” legislature. In American terms, it would be like telling the U.S. Senators that they are obliged to vote for the result obtained in the U.S. House of Representatives; the U.S. Senate being based on federal principles and the House resting on “national” principles.

In conclusion, the E.U.’s basic or constitutional law on the selection of the chief-executive is inherently unstable. The states could lose a means by which they have to protect their prerogatives against federal encroachment, and E.U. citizens could come to perceive the democracy deficit as real (and themselves marginalized as voters in federal elections). As the case of the U.S. attests, maintaining a viable federal-state balance of power is fraught with difficulties over the long term. Pretending the states are still sovereign will not help the Europeans do better. The best chance lies with forsaking neither the ability of state governments to protect their portions of governmental sovereignty nor the place of democracy distinct at the federal level. Unlike confederalism, modern federalism is a system of government in which both citizens and polities are members, and the various procedures and institutions at the federal level should be geared to enabling both of the member-types to protect themselves and enjoy a pro-active role federally.

1. James Fontalella-Khan, “Fresh Powers Add Spice to European Parliament Election Battle,” The Financial Times, 8 May, 2014.