Saturday 14 November 2009

You shouldn't get to vote for the President of the European Council

The Foundation Robert Schuman is running an online poll on the 5 candidates for the post of President of the European Council (via Grahnlaw and Joe). It's important that there's a debate over the candidates - whoever's elected to the office will represent the institution of the European Council in the EU (like the EP President represents the European Parliament), and on the global scale the President will represent the EU (though probably in a largely ceremonial fashion, since the High Representative will have the most influence over foreign policy - in fact, the E.C. President's claim to represent the EU as a whole will largely rest on being able to speak for the consensus between the states).

But we need to distinguish the right to transparency from the right to vote.

There have been calls for the post to be directly elected - some Eurosceptic condemnation of the Lisbon Treaty was based on the fear that it created an unelected executive President of the EU, rather than the occasional chairman/woman role that it will actually be. If the office had really been an executive post, then the outrage at the lack of direct elections would have been understandable - after all, the electoral college that elects the President is made up of the governments of the member states, and though they have legitimacy as directly or indirectly elected bodies themselves, having an executive post elected by a twice-removed indirect method would have been too much. But then that's the point - it's not an executive President.

So, no, you shouldn't have a vote on who gets the job. Just as the President of the European Parliament shouldn't be directly elected (MEPs elect the post), so it is justified that the European Council elects its chairman. Direct elections for such an office would be pointless - why focus on making what is essentially the "Speaker of the Upper House", who doesn't even have a vote, directly electable, when increasing the accountability of the Commission and participation through the European Parliament are the real, substantive challenges?

That's not to say there are problems with the selection process; ideally the candidates would apply for the post, and be subject to an open and transparent debate in the European Council and/or an open interview before the European Council. Though there may be some diplomatic hang-ups about this level of openness in what is an intergovernmental institution (note that this means you can't always apply the same rationales to it as you can to the supranational institutions!), I don't think the argument that the selection process should be secretive and elitist can be justified:

"The bottom line is surely this: if the EU sees any merit in having big, serving figures given these big new jobs, then opacity is the price to pay."

This assumes that former and current government leaders form the only qualified group that you can draw on to fill the post, so you mustn't scare them off by opening the process so much that candidates risk losing face by not getting picked. While it's true that openness and transparency isn't likely to excite Europeans into caring about European politics (I don't see the performance of Barroso during Commission President's Question Hour being poured over each month on the news, do you?), and direct elections aren't likely to do better (after the novelty value wears off, and people realise that the post isn't executive, do you think that its election will even manage the turnout of the EP elections?), arguing that opagueness is "good" is just ridiculous. There may not be a cause to directly elect the President, but open discussion and debate of the roles and politics of the candidates and the institution itself has its own value.

We should be concerned about holding the European Council to the principle of transparency, not arguing for the vote when there's no firm ground for doing so.


  1. Some good points...

    But are you in favour of any top EU jobs being democratically elected in a Europe-wide poll? Commission President, maybe?

  2. I wouldn't be completely against the Commission President being directly elected, but my preference would be to have a parliamentary system. I think a parliamentary system would be more in line with the political culture of the member states, and having so much focus on a single office could be a bit polarising. Of course, that'd require a more coherent, active and effective party system in the European Parliament.

    Still, we can dream...

  3. Eurocentric,

    While the (hidden) presidential ambitions behind creating the post make it an anomaly, as if we needed a French presidential democracy in the EU, I strongly urge all EU citizens to participate in the Fondation Robert Schuman poll.

    Lively participation shows that EU citizens are interested and engaged, and that the Holy Alliance is not the model for the future European Union.

    When the time for reform comes, I agree that a parliamentary system, built on proportional representation is the right model.

  4. Hi, Conor!

    I've responded (sort of) to your points here.

  5. People should debate the issue, and a strong show of public opinion is good - after all, the E. Council should be concerned with picking someone who represents their institution well at home as well as abroad. So I think that participating in the poll is good - I wrote the post because I felt that poll was taking on too much of an "ersatz election" quality.

    @ Joe

    Thanks! (It might be a while before I can comment, though).