The EU’s reverse Annie Hall problem

Published in (Wellington), 11 September 2018

“I’d never join a club that would accept me as a member,” says Woody Allen’s character in Annie Hall. With the European Union, it is the other way around: The EU would reject new members as anti-democratic as itself.

Nowhere is the EU’s democratic deficit more visible than in its quinquennial elections to the European Parliament, to be held again in May 2019. That is because unlike national elections, European elections do not determine who will lead the government, the European Commission. The decision lies somewhere between voters, national governments and maybe even the European Parliament. Not quite the hallmark of representative democracy.

Like so many other things in EU politics, it’s complicated.

Directly elected since 1979, the European Parliament is the one EU institution with the strongest democratic legitimacy. Voters across all member states elect their representatives and send them to Brussels and Strasbourg, the two cities in which plenary sessions are held.

But this is where similarities with normal Parliaments end.

In national elections, there is a choice between candidates from different political camps each vying to become Prime Minister or Chancellor. And then, after the election, whoever cobbles together a parliamentary majority wins the mandate to govern. Especially under MMP.

With the EU, it has long been different. Yes, elections to the European Parliament would be held. But then it was for the heads of Europe’s various governments to agree on the next President of the European Commission. The European Parliament’s role was only to rubber-stamp that outcome.

That procedure was so manifestly undemocratic that five years ago the two main party groupings in European politics decided to nominate lead candidates in the 2014 elections. It was meant to make the process a bit more transparent. Former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker ran for the centre-right, while European Parliament President Martin Schulz was the centre-left’s candidate. The centre-right emerged as the strongest parliamentary group, and Juncker became President of the European Commission.

But if anyone thought this procedure would set a positive precedent for future European elections, such hopes were premature. After all, Europe’s heads of government had never been comfortable with a democratically legitimised Commission President able to challenge them. And they would have been annoyed more than once by Juncker, who had set out to be a “political” President from the start. Juncker wanted to be his own master, not just a servant of the EU’s member states.

Juncker’s retirement from frontline politics allows Europe’s national leaders to reassert themselves and push back on the EU Commission. In particular, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is eager to take control of the Commission while pruning its influence. There is no other way to read her support of Manfred Weber’s candidacy for the Presidency of the European Commission.

If you are wondering who this Manfred Weber is, the 46-year-old Bavarian is the leader of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament and thus head of the largest parliamentary faction. In EU politics, that makes Weber an important figure. Beyond that, he is a relatively unknown quantity, even in his native Germany.

Merkel’s intentions around Weber’s candidacy are easy to understand. She can argue that it is her country’s turn to have the Commission’s Presidency since the last German to hold that office was Walter Hallstein half a century ago (1958–67).

Merkel also senses that installing a German as the next President of the European Central Bank (another position to be filled next year) would be thwarted by Southern European resistance against German monetary orthodoxy. That rules out the Bundesbank’s president Jens Weidman for the ECB position, but by the EU’s logic it also strengthens Germany’s claim to the EU Commission’s presidency as a matter of balance.

Finally, by nominating a low-profile candidate such as Weber for EU Commission President, Merkel keeps all her options open post elections.

A clear victory of the centre-right European People’s Party is far from certain. Depending on circumstances and political arithmetic, Merkel could still dump Weber and nominate someone else in his place if needed. There are rumours that Merkel might want to send her long-time ally Peter Altmaier or German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen to Brussels. It is even possible (though unlikely) that Merkel herself might want to take the job as an escape route from Berlin.

For European voters, meanwhile, none of this matters. Under the electoral system, most voters could not vote for Weber or his opponents even if they wanted to.

That is because there are national party lists with national candidates but no genuine European parties. If you are French, Italian or Spanish and want to vote for Weber: bad luck. If you want to vote against him: bad luck, too.

And even if you are German and you could vote for Weber, you might still not get him. Once the elections are done and dusted, it will be for Europe’s heads of governments to once again determine which proposal they will make to the European Parliament. Parliament has no right to pick its candidate and make her or him Commission President.

It is complicated, except on the website of the European Parliament. There we can read that the EU’s “fundamental values are respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law.” And even more that, the European Parliament tells us “these values unite all the member states – no country that does not recognise these values can belong to the Union.”

That is all wonderful. But it would be even better if the EU itself was as democratic as the members it would like. And that is the EU’s reverse Annie Hall problem.

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