Reasons for the Socialists not to nominate a candidate for president

Neil Kinnock, Socialist former Vice-President of the European Commission (picture dushenka)

I’ve written a few articles lately on why the Socialists should nominate a candidate for president of the Commission in the run-up to the European elections this summer – here, for example – and have been asked why they might not do so. The case looks compelling, doesn’t it?

So here are six reasons why they might not choose a candidate.

1. Heads of government lose influence

The procedure laid down in the treaties is that the European Council (i.e. the heads of government) proposes a candidate and the European Parliament then approves that proposal. The EP has never yet rejected a proposal: the idea that candidates for president should be nominated as part of the election process implies that the EP would be ready to reject any proposal other than the one made at the time of the election.

Think about this from the point of view of a Socialist head of a national government. Under the current system s/he gets a say in who the Commission president will be (regardless of party) when the European Council makes its decision about whom to propose; under the new system, s/he would have a say, as leader of a PES member party, in the identity of the Socialist candidate, but would have no say in the choice of the Christian Democrat candidate for president. If the European election produces a centre-right victory, the opinions of that Socialist prime minister are effectively disregarded. Voters get more say: prime ministers get a bit less.

It is worth pointing out that the power of any individual prime minister over the appointment is less than it was. Since the Nice treaty came into force, the decision by the European Council is taken by qualified majority rather than by unanimity. This means that it is no longer open to a single prime minister to veto a candidate, as John Major did to Jean-Luc Dehaene in 1994.

2. The Commission president will be stronger as a result

At present, as mentioned above, the Commission president depends primarily for his/her nomination on the approval of the European Council. That means that the balance of power in the institutional system leans ever so slightly towards the member states. To move the principal decision about the next president of the Commission away from the European Council towards the European Parliament gives the Commission president a little more strength compared with the national governments. Conversely, it would make him/her a little more dependent on the European Parliament. Given that the major rivalry in the EU’s institutional system is between the Commission and the member states rather than between the Commission and the Parliament, this would, overall, tend to strengthen the Commission a little.

3. They might lose the election and be in a weaker position than if they didn’t fight it

It would wrong to overstate party political divisions within the European institutions. There is bound to be a coalition of some sort after the elections, given the systems of proportional representation in use and the wide range of political opinions among the European voters. In that light, even if there is a Christian Democrat president of the Commission nominated by the European Council, Socialists will still have a strong influence within the Commission as a whole. That would be part of the deal.

If, however, the Socialists rejected the idea of such a deal and chose to challenge it in the ballot box in June, they might find themselves with less influence in a subsequent EPP-led Commission if that’s what the ballot box finally produced. Given that the Socialists clearly start in second place (with only 217 MEPs compared to the EPP’s 288), challenging the status quo risks reducing their influence rather than enhancing it.

4. They can’t find a credible candidate willing to take the risk of losing

A realistic candidate for president of the Commission will have a substantial track record in government, as a prime minister or senior cabinet minister at national level, or within the Commission itself. To run for Commission president and not succeed would put a mark of failure on one’s CV. It is easy to imagine that potential candidates might be deterred by this, particularly given that a Socialist candidate will be starting from second place.

5. They can’t agree on a candidate

Rather than having too few candidates, there is the opposite problem of having too many. The opportunity to become the first popularly (if indirectly) elected president of the Commission might be very attractive, as might the simple fact of having created the contest (even if the Socialist candidate loses, s/he deserves to be remembered as the person who made such a contest possible). There is at present no obvious Socialist candidate, nor is there a procedure for choosing one. However, it should not be impossible to choose a candidate, nor is it too late to do so. The US presidential candidates were chosen at conventions held at the end of August or the beginning of September, nine or ten weeks before the election. We are still 16 weeks away from the EP elections in June.

6. The procedure is not in the current treaties

The Lisbon treaty puts the requirement that the European Council will make its nomination of Commission president taking into account the elections to the European Parliament in writing. The current treaties are silent on the subject. Some people argue that anything in the Lisbon treaty should therefore wait upon its ratification and entry into force before being implemented.

But this misunderstands the treaty. The significance of the Lisbon treaty is that it compels the European Council to take into account the elections to the European Parliament: the absence of such compulsion does not prevent it from doing so.

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