Lights and Shadows in European Democracy: the Appointment of the European Commission
In the picture: the new President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman to be appointed in this position.
The first task of the newly elected European Parliament is the election of the new President of the Commission, and, in a second stage, the full list of Commissioners agreed with the Commission President-elect. The Executive Body of the Union, so, is a direct expression of the political majority inside the Parliament, it matches the same term of office of EP members (5 years) and can be dismissed at any moment by the same Parliament.
What I just described is the well known parliamentary model for governance.
…in the European Union, there is some plus as well as some minus…. confirming its hybrid and experimental formula for governance. There are some shortcomings if we look at it in comparison to the state model and – yet – some improvements and positive innovations which come from being an advanced experiment in open governance, at least when some institutions are concerned.
For instance, few national institutions are so much online as the European Parliament, whose work (agenda, preparatory documents, committees’ activity, and plenary debates) are fully accessible. Few governments are so much scrutinized by their parliaments before the appointment. And if you have doubts about it, just follow online the hearings of the commissioners to be – in the competent Parliament’s committees – from September 30 to October 8. I can tell you that some of them could not pass the examination: a negative evaluation has prompted candidates in the past to withdraw from the process.
I wish I saw this in my home countries where governments come and go and usually some ministers are not qualified for the task…. but that is considered dramatically normal as political belonging wins over skills and performance.
But…let’s have a look at the shadows.
First of all, the two supranational bodies – a Parliament directly legitimized by European citizens and an independent Commission legitimized by the Parliament (just like many national governments) – have to co-exist and share their role with two intergovernmental bodies, whose role, even if balanced and circumscribed, is still powerful. These institutions are the Council and the European Council, directly representing, through their ministers and heads of government, the member states.
Even if a chamber representing the interests of states is a normal component in the federal systems and each member of the two bodies receives legitimacy from its own national democracy (being them governments’ representatives… that’s why it is so important for all that each member state remains a democracy), the composition of the two changes at any national election (or national change of government) and their continuity and coherence, as well as the transparency, aren’t exactly ideal.
The European Council, i.e. the heads of Member states, nominate a candidate for the post of Commission’s President, taking into account the European election results. Of course, they are willing to pick somebody who could win the confidence of the Parliament, yet the Treaty does not oblige them to indicate the same person chosen by the political groups as their candidate, as it happened with Juncker five years ago (spitzenkandidat). Unfortunately.
The Parliament needs to approve the new Commission President by an absolute majority (half of the existing MEPs plus one). Otherwise, the European Council needs to propose another candidate within a month’s time, acting by a qualified majority.
On 16 July 2019, the European Parliament elected Ursula von der Leyen the future President of the European Commission. She is the first woman to be President-elect of the European Commission. She is also the first President representing a coalition (S&D, Green, Liberal). Moreover, she is the first President committed to enshrining gender equality.
The Council, in agreement with the Commission President-elect, adopts a list of candidate commissioners, one for each member state. Even if they do not represent member states, in order to pursue the common interest of the Union and to respond only to the European Parliament, the role of national governments remains fundamental in designating them.
After the Commissioner-designate appears before parliamentary committees in their prospective fields of responsibility and each of them draws up its evaluation of the candidate’s expertise and performance, the full Commission, including the President and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, needs to be approved in a single vote by the Parliament.
After the President and Commissioners have been approved by Parliament, they are formally appointed by the Council, acting by a qualified majority. In the event of a substantial portfolio change during the Commission’s term of office, the filling of a vacancy or the appointment of a new Commissioner following the accession of a new member state, the Commissioners concerned is heard again before the relevant committees of the Parliament.
Is this procedure democratic? I would say so. Is the Commission legitimized as the Executive of the Union? Once again, I would say so.
Of course, it would be more if national governments opened up their own procedure (if any) to appoint candidates. Or if the Council became a more stable Chamber of States.
Are European citizens aware of these mechanisms? No, they are not. I doubt even the majority of national politicians and of journalists are, really.
Until the largest part of the population will still miss some important pieces of the puzzle, misperception will undermine the good functioning of European democracy as democratic links need to be felt and lived with. Awareness is the main ingredient missing in the European recipe… and of course yes, any recipe can be improved!