Wednesday 21 August 2019

John Bruton: 'Let the people decide who will be the next EU president'

Cartoonist: Ken Lee
Cartoonist: Ken Lee

John Bruton

Who will be the next president of the European Commission?

This is a decision that could set the European Council of heads of government on a collision course with the recently elected European Parliament, and France on a collision course with Germany. The present system is flawed in that it only gives voters an indirect, rather than a direct, say in who is Commission president.

Article 17 of the European Union Treaty says: "Taking account of the elections to the European Parliament, and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council shall propose to the Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission."

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It goes on to say the nominee must then obtain a majority in the European Parliament and if he or she does not, the council must, within a month, propose a new name.

In 2014, and again in the recent European elections, the parliament decided to go further.

It endorsed a process whereby the major parties would nominate a "lead candidate", who would then be supported as commission president.

In a sense this pre-empted to role of the European Council in picking the nominee.

In 2014 Jean-Claude Juncker was the nominee of the EPP and when the EPP emerged as the biggest single party (219 out of 751), he was nominated.

Only Hungary and the UK opposed him in the European Council. He was then elected by a majority vote in the parliament.

This "lead candidate" system was devised so as to allow each voter to have a say, through their choice of party in the election, in who would be president of the commission. It was a form of indirect democracy.

For the 2019 election the same process was followed.

The EPP proposed Manfred Weber as their nominee.

The Social Democrats nominated Frans Timmermans.

The Greens nominated Ska Keller.

The Liberals group, who do not like the lead candidate process, put forward a "team" of candidates including Guy Verhofstadt and Margrethe Vestager.

Weber won last week, in the sense his group has most MEPs (180). So he has a good case to be the nominee. But 180 is even further from an overall majority of the 751 member Parliament than Juncker was with 219 MEPs in 2014.

A system which says the party with the most MEPs shall have its nominee as commission president has the deficiencies of the British straight vote, a "winner takes all" system.

Second preferences do not count. All one needs to be is the biggest party to claim the job. Like the British electoral system, that is polarising by its nature.

Some argue the lead candidate system also upsets the balance of power between the parliament and European Council, in that it purports to tie the hands of the council on who it may nominate, and also it politicises the commission unduly.

Under the Treaty, the council must "take account" of the results of the European election in choosing its nominee, but the lead candidate system is not in the treaty. It does not oblige the council to pick the nominee of the biggest party.

On the other hand, credibility will be at stake if the council now rejects Manfred Weber.

The council cannot simply ignore the fact that the election was fought on the basis of the lead candidate system, and many voters were genuinely led to believe that in voting for a particular party they were also voting for that party's nominee for president of the commission.

Presidential debates took place between the lead candidates on the assumption that one of them would become commission president.

To replace that open, if flawed, system with a backroom deal to put forward someone whose name was not before the electorate at all would be a hard sell, no matter how well qualified the new nominee might be.

And that alternative nominee would still have to win a majority in parliament, to be elected. The outgoing parliament, in a formal resolution, said parliament would be "ready to reject" a nominee who had not been a lead candidate.

So the council would be taking a big risk if, at this stage, it decides to reject the lead candidate system.

There is a wider argument.

Despite the improved voter turnout, many EU citizens still feel EU decision-making is remote.

The European Council would need to come up with something much better if it decides to go against the lead candidate method of selecting the president.

In 2001, the EU heads of government asked the Convention on the Future of Europe (of which I was a member) to look at new ways to create a "Europe-wide democratic public opinion" when it drew up a new EU Treaty.

They specifically asked the convention to consider the direct election of the president, not by the parliament, but by the voters themselves.

They also asked the convention to consider whether some MEPs should be elected in Europe-wide, rather than in national, constituencies.

This would have given voters an opportunity to vote on European policies rather than just on the national ones that tend to predominate in European elections at present.

I regret to say neither of these proposals got serious consideration by the convention.

I argued strongly for the direct election by the people of the President of the Commission on the same day, but on a different ballot paper, to MEPs. Separating the two votes would preserve the vital separation of powers between parliament, commission, and the council.

The proposal failed to get support because many members of the convention felt a president of the commission, directly elected by the people, would be politically too powerful, even if his or her legal prerogatives were no more than those of the existing commission president.

The other idea, electing some MEPs on a Europe-wide list, did not get support either, chiefly because some of the existing seats would have had to be given over to the Europe-wide list and some existing MEPs might have lost out.

The looming impasse over the commission presidency shows we need to devise a better system.

I believe the best solution would be to have the commission president directly elected by the people of the EU under a proportional representation system with a single transferable vote (PR.STV). It is a simple system, once you get the hang of it.

It is used in by-elections in Ireland. It was considered as the replacement for the present UK system, in a referendum in the UK during the Tory/ Lib Dem coalition, but unfortunately rejected. If it had been accepted Brexit might never have happened.

Under PR.STV, people's second and third preferences are taken into account if their first choice does not win.

The importance of second preferences encourages candidates to appeal to as broad an electorate as possible. This reduces the sort of destructive polarisation we now see in UK and US politics.

I believe it would be the best way forward for European democracy.

Irish Independent

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