Trading Away European Democracy: The European Parliament and Commission Presidencies

July 7, 2014

European top jobs are being appointed these days. On Friday, 27 June, Jean-Claude Juncker, was nominated by leaders of EU Member States to be the next President of the European Commission. Only David Cameron and Viktor Orbán — Prime Ministers of the UK and Hungary, respectively — voted against Juncker’s nomination, resulting in a 26-2 vote. His nomination must now be approved by a majority of the component members of the European Parliament (at least 376) in a vote scheduled for 16 July. If he fails to obtain a majority, a new round of consultations would be required in order to find another candidate.

Turning into the European Parliament (EP), Martin Schulz has continued his brash race to power at all costs — and has succeeded.

In a vote last Tuesday, 1 July, he was re- elected President of the EP, winning 409 out of 612 valid votes cast in the first ballot. There were only three other candidates: Sajid Karim (European Conservatives & Reformists) with 101 votes, Pablo Iglesias (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) with 51 votes, and Ulrike Lunacek (Greens) with 51 votes. 111 of the 723 votes casted were blank or invalid votes.

Schulz should have been prevented from achieving the absolute majority needed to be proclaimed EP President. But the office of EP President has sadly ended up being included in the same kind of ‘horse-trading’ that typically has accompanied the appointments of European Commission President, European Council President, and High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy. This has led to a shameful deal between the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), which will likely make final approval of Juncker as Commission President by the European Parliament dependent on Schulz’s re-election.

Schulz’s strategy was well-planned, the result of other attempts to gain power. During May’s elections, when the EPP came out ahead of the Party of European Socialists (PES), Schulz had expressed a determination to ignore the results and showed total contempt for the Treaties of the European Union (TEU). And on election night, 25 May, he made a bitter speech in which he claimed that the choice of who gets the Commission Presidency “is not all about arithmetic, but about who has the best programme”. He seemed ready to force himself into the Presidency because he knew best (in good old Trotskyite fashion).

Once he realized that most EU leaders were thinking of supporting a Juncker nomination, Schulz then claimed the right to be 1st Vice President of the Commission — in tandem with Juncker. (Schulz didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that the TEU only allow the President of the Commission to have powers over other Commissioners.) But when German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected this idea and refused to nominate him as the German Commissioner, Schulz then moved on to a third plan: to be re-elected for a second term as Parliament President. Not content to take his chances by simply seeking the nomination of the S&D Group, Schulz additionally sought to increase his control over the S&D Group by re-imposing himself as their chair (which would have served as a nice fall-back option had he failed to get re-elected as EP President).

Some members of the media have already spoken out against these undemocratic machinations, decrying Schulz’s insistent attempts to cling to power. He has never once been considered a reasonable candidate for EP President. And not only has he abused the privileges of his office by seeking to take control of the administration of his party’s officials, but he has also misused public funds (cf. Twittergate).

It is also rather unprecedented for an EP President to get a second term. From the first direct elections in 1979, when there were only nine Member States, there was a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that the Parliament Presidency would alternate every two and a half years in order to reflect the diversity of the EU. With Schuz, this informal agreement has been forgotten.

The EP’s Rules of Procedure (15.2) even state that in the election of President, Vice Presidents and Quaestors, attention should be given to ensure an overall fair representation of Member States and political views. But in the 10 years since the EU was enlarged to include 13 new Member States from Central and Eastern Europe, only one person from one of those new Member States has held the EP Presidency (Jerzy Buzek from Poland). With this exception, there has never been a President from any other Member State to have joined the EU since 1986.​

The EPP declared that they would support Martin Schulz; and so they did. Had Schulz been forced into a second ballot (something which would have weakened his overall legitimacy) there would have been a chance for better candidates to emerge. But the distasteful Juncker-Schulz deal would have completely fallen apart. As things stand, we will now have to out up with another two and a half years of political horse-trading at the expense of democracy.