Bring people power to the Commission presidency


The European Commission is not exactly a government, but it is more than just a secretariat or an administration. It proposes legislation, it guards treaties, it rules on competition policy and on state aid, and it implements European Union policy across a range of activities.


To pretend, as British governments sometimes do, that the European Commission is just a technical and regulatory body, not a political one, flies in the face of constitutional theory and confirmed practice. If all it deals with is administration, why did successive governments appoint Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and Chris Patten as European Commissioners? Whatever criticisms can be made of them, not even their worst enemies could describe them as mere technocrats.


For a reforming Labour government in the future, committed to growth through public investment, promoting a green economy, keen to reduce VAT if possible and looking for structural support for regions currently being blighted by the policies of the Conservative-led coalition, a strong and constructive relationship with the European Commission will be crucial.


The next Commission, which comes into office in 2014, may be less dominated by conservatives as incumbent governments of EU member states pay the price for unbalanced austerity measures. Most of these incumbents are on the right.


If the successors to the Commission led by José Manual Barroso, the former Portuguese Prime Minister who has been Commission President since 2004, recognise that the answer to Europe’s sluggish economic performance cannot be yet more long-term wage deflation and public spending austerity, then we may see a Europe-wide push for growth.


As Jacques Delors showed, an active Commission President with a clear vision can shape the Europe of tomorrow.


The Lisbon Treaty recognised that the Commission is a political body and tried to confer some democratic legitimacy on it by giving the directly-elected European Parliament the formal right to approve the Commission President and the whole Commission team.


Importantly, when heads of government put forward a name for the Commission presidency to MEPs, they are obliged “take account” of the outcome of elections to the European Parliament. How can you take account of these results unless, when the elections take place, potential nominees are a part of the actual campaign?


In 2009, there was a half-hearted attempt to focus the election on the choice of Commission President. The centre-right European People’s Party made it clear that, if it became the largest group in the new European Parliament, it would propose a second term for Barroso.


A majority in the Party of European Socialists felt that Barroso did not deserve a second mandate and wanted to put up a socialist candidate against him. This was vetoed by the British, Spanish and Portuguese members of the PES. Barroso’s economic liberalism and general desire to do the bidding of national governments had gone down well in London. More mundane geographic or national considerations explained his Iberian support.


The failure of the PES to support a left-of-centre candidate gave Barroso a clear run and ensured that competing visions of Europe’s future played no part in the 2009 elections. A disastrous turnout and electoral outcome ensued.


The socialists have belatedly recognised that they will need to run a candidate for the Commission presidency in 2014. Discussions between various parties are underway as to the method and timetable for selecting the left’s nominee. Meanwhile, the EPP says it will choose its candidate at a congress in the autumn of 2013.


It seems that PES discussions are considering different possibilities for deciding on its presidential hopeful, ranging from the selection of a candidate at a party congress through to open primaries in the various member states. It is likely that an internal working group will report in the autumn and that the PES Council, its main decision-making body, will choose the method of determining a candidate before the end of the year.


The worst outcome would see a “personality” foisted on European socialists by a conclave of party leaders or international party secretaries and then rubber-stamped by a congress of handpicked delegates.


If this happens, an opportunity to bring a modicum of democratic vitality into the European political process will have been lost. Far from galvanising activists and supporters before the next European elections, ordinary party members will have been told that they are excluded from key decision-making


By imposing, say, a former Prime Minister – and electoral disappointment means the left has these in abundance – the party hierarchies will have closed off a vital discussion about a European programme and European choices. That would mean the debate during the next European election campaign could be focused on national issues and the kept under the rigid control of national parties.


Should such a farrago lead to an even lower turnout, at least the risk of raising uncomfortable questions about the EU would have been avoided.


There is an alternative. In the summer of 2013, candidates should be invited to put themselves forward. They should have to demonstrate that they a certain minimum level of support – perhaps the backing of 10 per cent of the socialist MEPs from at least four member states. Arrangements should then be made for them to hold public hustings with party members and supporters in as many regions as possible.


Then, according to rules laid down by the national parties, a primary should be organised. This would be binding on local delegates for the subsequent party congress to determine the nominee and adopt the programme on which to fight the European elections. Further, the delegates to that congress should be elected by party members in the regions, not selected by the grace and favour of national party leaderships.


In France, there is a campaign among Young Socialists in favour of open primaries. That may be a step too far, at least for 2013-14. But the most important thing is to have a procedure for choosing the left’s candidate for the next President of the European Commission in an open and democratic manner. That means letting party members and supporters have the final say.


There are sure to be moans about organisational costs, although the budgets for the European parties are being sharply increased. Is it really so difficult to organise a few hustings meetings, followed by a ballot of party members? Or is greater democracy in Europe to be denied on grounds of expense?


In throwing open the process by which the political leader of the world’s most powerful multilateral executive is chosen, by forcing candidates to declare, by questioning them on their programmes and vision for Europe’s future, EU socialists, including the British Labour Party, would be taking ownership of European policy for the first time.


Following this course of action would not be the European Union’s “Barack Obama moment”. But it would the first stage in making European elections a genuine debate about the ideological choices facing the continent. It would involve hundreds of thousands of party activists for the first time in European decision-making. It would give European elections a truly European theme. And there might even be an increase in turnout.


People have a right to know what is being done in their name. The first step must be that Labour Party leaders tell the membership exactly what is going on in these procedural discussions in Brussels, how they want to see the next President of the European Commission chosen and what reforms are required to ensure that the Party of European Socialists becomes an organisation where the members take the big decisions. At Labour’s next annual conference, the delegates should have the final say on the way forward.


2011 is turning out to be a momentous year for the cause of democracy in the world. In Britain and Europe, we still have a journey to make.


Julian Priestley was secretary general of the European Parliament from 1997 until 2007

Published in Tribune Magazine, April 18th 2011.



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