In defence of democracy and the interests of Europe
Although the lyrics to one well-known tango song claim that "twenty years is nothing", in this case the last twenty years have seen far-reaching changes
Twenty years ago, when the European Council had to replace Jacques Delors at the head of the European Commission, Jean-Luc Dehaene was the chosen candidate of almost the entire Council. I stress the word "almost" because the then Prime Minister of Belgium was rejected by one of the twelve Heads of Government that made up the European Union at that time: British Prime Minister John Major, who had every right to veto the candidate of the immense majority because the Treaty required unanimity. Consequently, Jean-Luc Dehaene did not become President of the European Commission.
Although the lyrics to one well-known tango song claim that "twenty years is nothing", in this case the last twenty years have seen far-reaching changes.
As far back as 2000, the Treaty of Nice abolished unanimity, instead stipulating that the Council’s proposal would be adopted by a qualified majority. There was a political reason for this: with a Europe of twenty-eight states on the horizon, unanimity would have slowed down the process considerably, if not blocked it entirely.
Some of us considered this progress to be insufficient. In 2002, on the eve of the Convention at which the Constitutional Treaty was drawn up, the European People’s Party held a meeting in the Portuguese city of Estoril, at which the former President of the European Parliament José María Gil Robles, German MEP Elmar Brok – who was to be our spokesman at the Convention – and I, as chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to the Convention, presented a proposal stating the case for taking the result of European elections into account when the Council proposed its candidate for President of the Commission to the Parliament. In what was to become section 47 of the conclusions, we stated that “This would give European political parties the opportunity to present their own candidates in the framework of the campaign for European elections. It would ensure a more personalised election campaign and increase democratic control and support of the European Commission”. Our proposal was accepted by the Convention. The phrase “and after having held the appropriate consultations” between Council and Parliament was incorporated into the Constitutional Treaty and is today reflected in Article 17.7 of the Treaty of Lisbon.
Those aspirations that began to take form in 2002 were reflected in the recent elections to the European Parliament, when the five major European parties (EPP, Socialists, Liberals, Greens and Communists) presented their candidates for President of the European Commission. The EPP’s nomination was the result of hotly contested primaries, in which the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, beat the other esteemed candidate, Commissioner Michel Barnier.
It should therefore come as no surprise that, following the European elections of 25 May, the spokespersons of the EPP, Socialist and Liberal Groups in the European Parliament, with 479 votes (about 64% of seats) declared that the choice of the majority group, Jean-Claude Juncker, should be the candidate proposed by the European Council to try to obtain investiture by the Parliament. Even those who voted against Juncker uphold his right to be proposed by the Council. As well the legal arguments I mention above, there is another reason: pure common sense. At these elections we told voters that their vote would be decisive in choosing the President of the European Commission. Not being aware of the election result or proposing a candidate who was not among those designated by the European political parties would, quite frankly, constitute an electoral scam. Surprisingly enough, it is precisely those who accuse the Commission of being “unelected bureaucrats” who are now complaining about the democratic election of its President!
Once this issue has been clarified, I think the important thing is to focus on the objectives for the next five years and to ask for a firm and resolute commitment to these objectives from the future President of the European Commission. After five years of sacrifices as a result of the most profound economic and financial crisis of its history, the European Union is now on the road to recovery. We should devote the coming years to growth, increased competitiveness and job creation. In the days to come the European Council will have to decide on its priorities for the upcoming legislature and determine whether Jean-Claude Juncker agrees with them. If so, Juncker should then be proposed by the European Council for parliamentary investiture. In my opinion, not only should this investiture debate decide on the candidate, but – just as importantly – it should also establish a parliamentary alliance between the main forces of the European Parliament; those that, legitimate political differences notwithstanding, share a common view on the necessary progress of European integration. This would give Europe a guarantee of the stability and security that we so urgently need today in order to meet tomorrow’s challenges.
Iñigo Méndez de Vigo
Secretary of State for the European Union
Article published in spanish newspaper ABC, 24 june.