Transnational lists, lead candidate and the role of European Council

A constitutional approach

, by Stefano Rossi

Transnational lists, lead candidate and the role of European Council
Jose Manuel Barosso, 11th President of the European Commission (left) and Jean-Claude Juncker, current President of the EC (right). Photo Credits to Frontiera Rieti

In 1979 the European citizens elected for the first time their representative in the European Parliament. For the first time in human history a supranational body was elected directly by the people.

Since then, the problem was how to grant the EP a proper role in the institutional framework of the European Union, especially after the failure of the European Constitution proposal in 2005.

At this regard, it is useful to analyze the role and powers of parliament in parliamentary system, where the parliament has two main scopes: (i) to propose and create the legislation, and (ii) to vote confidence to government.

European Parliament does not have power to take legislative initiatives; it holds a weaker position than the Council in co-decision procedure. No vote of confidence is expressly provided by the treaties.

EU is not a State, however it shows certain typical aspects of a federal state, such as: the monetary union and other exclusive competences (e.g. international trade, agriculture, fishery, environment, etc.), the effective jurisdiction of the ECJ, a citizenship for its people, a common market, the primacy of the European laws and a Parliament directly elected by the citizens.

In this framework, EU shows a lack of democracy, mainly because the political lead of the EU is established by a non-elected body (the European Council) and because the separation of powers is not granted effectively. With regard to the first aspect, the member States have a strong impact on the European policies (trough the European Council), take some decisions without transparency, and often their decisions (trough the Council) supersede the decisions of the EP, expression of the citizen’s voice. With regard to the separation of powers, the European Commission is not a real and legitimate government of the EU, since it has non-executive powers (e.g. EU law enforcement) normally conferred to judiciary power, and it is the sole institution with the legislative initiative, usually granted also to parliament.

In view of all this, the upcoming European elections in 2019 may have a substantial role to play in shaping the future of European Parliament and the institutional framework of the EU, overcoming the criticality described above.

In 2014 European elections, each major European party selected a candidate for the presidency of the European Commission (Lead Candidate), with the understanding that the candidate proposed by the most voted European party would be elected President of EC. The EPP resulted the first party and the European Council was “obliged” to appoint Mr. Juncker as Commission President. This mechanism is not based on any legal obligation but relies on the principle that the European Council nominates the Commission President “taking account of the results of the European Parliament elections”. As an indirect consequence, the Lead Candidate practice creates a direct link between the result of the European election and the appointment of the Commission President. Since the Commission President needs the support of the majority of the European Parliament in order to be elected, the practice of the Lead Candidate (or Spitzenkandidaten) may shift the substantial power to choose the Commission President of European Commission from the European Council to the European citizens.

Moreover, this implies that the political balance and accountability of the European Commission shifts toward the European Parliament; with the practice of the Lead Candidate, the political legitimation of the Commission President substantially comes now from the Parliament instead of the European Council.

This is the reason why Mr. JC Juncker, even if he is a member of a conservative party, supported courageous political initiatives, compared to Mr. Barroso, who was “politically” selected and legitimate by the European Council. The political line adopted by the European Commission since 2014 clearly reveals the effects of this unwritten mechanism: while Barroso was the man of the national governments, Juncker is the man of the European Parliament.

The above reveals the political effects of the Lead Candidate mechanism. In addition, the Lead Candidate mechanism may strengthen the link and control between the EP and the European Commission. To clarify this theory, it is crucial to introduce the difference between the presidential and the parliamentary system. The main distinction is that in the presidential system, the people elect directly the president AND the parliament. Therefore, the parliament does not vote confidence to the government. In the parliamentary system, people vote just for the parliament; the government is appointed by a president not directly elected, with the confidence of the parliament.

Historically, the democratization of the modern states has implied the transfer of the political control of the government from the king to the people. In the parliamentary system, trough the confidence’s vote of the elected chamber to the government; in the presidential system, trough the direct election of the President.

Under this perspective, the lack of democracy of the EU is comparable with the lack of democracy of an ancient regime state, where the political head (the King / the European Council) is not politically responsible towards the citizens, since he is not directly elected, nor has the confidence of the parliament.

If the mechanism of the lead candidate strengthen the political responsibility of the European Commission vis a vis the European Parliament, we should consider the solidification of this practice as an historical step. A step toward a more democratic Europe, where the people choose their government, in a way similar to a parliamentary state.

But there is another reason to support the Lead Candidate mechanism. The chance for the European citizens to know the candidate they are voting for is certainly an empowerment of the vote’s right and of the transparency of European institutions, and may strengthen the European dimension of the European election. We have been claiming for years that the European elections should be really “European”, and not a barometer for the wealth of the national political parties, or a referendum on the national governments in charge. Now we have the chance to make a European campaign for a candidate which fights for the leadership of the European government, with a European political agenda.

Surely, the mechanism of the Lead Candidate system is not sufficient to solve all the democratic issues f the EU. But it is a step forward for the evolution of the European Parliament in a lower house which exercises a full legislative power jointly with an upper house (the Council), voting confidence to a real and legitimate European government (the Commission) formally appointed by a collegiate presidency (the European Council). Most of all, establishing the mechanism of the Lead Candidate does not require the amendment of the treaties.

Speaking about the European dimension of the 2019 election, people have talk a lot about the transnational lists. The project to dedicate the UK’s seats in the EP to transnational candidates has been rejected by the European Parliament last February. The purpose was to empower the European dimension of the election by creating a list composed by common candidates for all the European electors, while today the lists are formed on a national basis (even if it is possible to have foreign candidate, which the greens did with Daniel Cohn Bendit in Italy). The critics told that having transnational lists would deepen the gap between the European multilingual/traveler elites and the rest of European people more linked to their national tradition, language and way of life. Other said that it was a Macron’s strategy to create a safe space for the candidate of En Marche Europe.

The transnational list is quite a strange object in the constitutional experiences. It derogates the principle of the link between the candidate and a territory, weakening the political responsiveness vis a vis the electors. This does not seem to embody the EU’s motto “united in diversity”. Moreover, having few MEPs elected in the “European” college, and all the others in smaller college, may create a division of MEPs in rank “A” and rank “B”, which is not a good purpose for strengthening the political power of the EP.

In conclusion, even if the transnational lists have passionate most of us, their rejection is something we have to accept, at least for the next elections. On the contrary, there is a political window to consolidate the Lead Candidate mechanism, which is much more important for the path toward a more democratic and united Europe.

At this regard, the left parties are facing all over Europe a critical moment. The socialist family is losing votes quite everywhere, and the Brexit will have a negative impact under an electoral point of view for the socialists. Therefore, if the left wants to compete with the EPP, only a coalition with a single Lead Candidate of all the European progressive parties could have the chance to win the elections and make the Union pursue a progressive political agenda for the next 5 years.

But how could we create a common political agenda? For sure, a common proposal should take the steps from the increase of the European budget with own resources such as carbon tax and financial transaction tax. And how could we choose the common Lead Candidate? These questions are open and should be addressed within the next few months.

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