In January 2015, José Manuel Barroso will be gone. Finally! Not many people will miss the current president of the EU Commission, the most important position in the EU. Pro-Europeans are hopeful that a more charismatic and visionary person is going to take over his job. The crucial question is: Who is going to follow Barroso? Thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, the European Parliament (EP) will have a much bigger say in this decision. Thus, it will be EU citizens who will influence who will take over this post because for the first time ever the people will know the frontrunners of the major political groups in the European Parliament. Consequently, a vote at the European Parliament elections in May 2014 will contribute to the decision where the EU will head to in the future.
The “big four” in the European Parliament (EPP, S&D, ALDE and the Greens) have taken a wise step. They decided that the political group that will gather most votes in the EP elections in May 2014 should have the right to suggest the new Commission president. Although it is not in the treaties (the most important thing in the EU!), the EP has the de facto power to decide who will be picked. This is certainly a very good and democratic step because so far it were the head of states who were deciding about the most powerful position in the EU. Now it will be in the hands of the parliamentarians. A big step forward to democratize the EU!
With that decision, the European Commission will move from a body that is solely run as a technocratic institution into a much more politicized organization. Some think that such a development might be dangerous because the Commission will not be “objective” anymore. However, they are wrong. The Commission never ever has been objective in the first place (although it would claim otherwise), in fact it is per se impossible to take objective policy decisions. However, EU citizens hardly had the chance to influence what kind of path the union should take which is largely determined by the Commission. Earlier, it was the national governments who decided who will be the next president of the EU Commission.
Lucio Levi rightly argues on The New Federalist that EU citizens had no choice so whatever who would head the EU Commission, thus it is one of the root causes why the EU decision-makers seem to be so far away from its citizens. Through indirect democracy this will change. The 2014 European Parliament elections will bring a historic shift because finally the citizens of Europe have more of a say because they know what kind of person will head the Commission with the choice they make at the ballot box. And much speaks for an exciting race with political heavyweights. In the following, I would shortly discuss the possible candidates for the four main factions in the EP.
One faction, the Social Democrats (S&D), already have decided their main candidate. The decision who should follow Barroso six months after the European Parliament elections is according to them the current president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz from Germany. His first success was that the British Prime Minister, known for his anti-EU stance, announced that he will try to prevent that Schulz will become the new Commission president. Although a president of the EU Commission should of course be a president for all member states, it is not acceptable how Cameroon is questioning the basic principles of the EU, namely the freedom of movement. Schulz is known for his stereotypical “German” style of politics, he is loud, imposing and is to the point. Infamously, Berlusoni said to Schulz that he should take the role of a Nazi in a film back in 2003. However, throughout the European Parliament Schulz is certainly regarded as a political heavyweight who knows how to go about things.
The Liberals (ALDE) most likely will choose the EU commissioner from Finland, Olli Rehn. However, Guy Verhofstadt, the former prime minister of Belgium and the chair of ALDE, will challenge him. Speculations that also Guido Westerwelle, former foreign minister of Germany, will run are not very much likely. The final decision only will be taken on 1 February 2014 at the liberal “primaries” in Brussels. The Greens have not decided either, it might be a leadership team made out of Rebecca Harms, a German MEP and the anti-globalization hero from France, José Bové. The old legend of the Greens, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, will be gone, he will certainly be missed.
Most analysts still wonder as well who will be the frontrunner for the conservatives (EPP) which will be decided early March 2014 in Dublin. Although current opinion polls suggest that S&D might overtake the lead of the Conservatives in the European Parliament, they certainly could successfully defend to be the major group in the EP and thus claim the position of the president of the EU Commission. At the moment, much speaks in favor of the former prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who headed Luxembourg for 19 years but surprisingly lost the elections earlier this year. He told Le Monde on Wednesday that he would be ready when he is asked to do the job. For such an experienced politician like him that is a big statement to be made. Although the past proves that names that have been dropped too early would not work, it might be different now. In any case, also Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and French EU commissioner Michel Barnier would like to obtain the job next to many other options as Jon Worth points out on his blog.
Barroso’s two terms in office as the president of the EU Commission were not paved with many successes. He was characterized by his weakness throughout his tenure and therefore liked by the head of states of the member states. Because the weaker the EU Commission is, the more of a say they have in the decision-making process in the EU. To be fair though, Barroso’s performance during his second time in office was better than the first one.
During the last three elections it was the Conservatives who dominated the European Parliament. For the first time since the 1994 elections, the S&D might win back the number one position. A matter of concern remains however the threat from extremist groups, may they be from the right or the left. However, particularly right-wing populists may gain for the first time a significant force. But the participation of EU citizens at EU Parliament elections never has been as important as it will be in May 2014. A strong candidate can be chosen who is not just a puppet of the member states. And hopefully it will be a candidate with a vision for Europe and wants to shape the European integration project instead of just reacting to various crises.