In moments of political transition, initial signals make all the difference, because they set the tone for the process that follows. As new leaders take over the European Union’s core institutions, the first signs are not promising – and in particular those coming from the European Parliament.
The EU is undergoing this succession process while besieged by well-known internal and external challenges: demographic, social, and economic pressures abound, while Europe is more a geopolitical chessboard upon which global powers are playing than a player in its own right. And yet, at a time when the EU desperately needs to be able to act effectively, and is in great need of a realistic but forward-thinking vision, it seems simply to be engaging in more political jockeying. Here, the European Parliament has been ground zero.
That is the message of the confirmation process for the new European Commission president – a process that began in early July, when the European Council nominated Ursula von der Leyen for the post. Von der Leyen was a compromise candidate between the EU’s member states, acceptable to both the most powerful countries and the traditional spoilers. She possesses many strengths, not least her deep understanding of European approaches to defense and security, a topic that will be at the forefront of the next EU mandate. She has also proven her ability to navigate tricky political waters. But for the European Parliament, von der Leyen’s nomination was unwelcome, because her name was not on the shortlist of candidates that it had pre-announced.
According to the European Parliament’s so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, the European Council should nominate the “lead candidate” from the political group winning the most seats in the European elections. This process was drawn up by Brussels insiders prior to the 2014 elections as a way of carving out more influence for the European Parliament than EU treaties stipulate. When the Council disregarded the (non-binding) system, members of the Parliament – which must approve the Commission president by an absolute majority – expressed their outrage. The Parliament threatened to derail the nomination, and von der Leyen’s candidacy was taken hostage by a system that no longer corresponds to reality.
When the Spitzenkandidaten system and the European Parliament’s confirmation powers were developed, the Parliament was dominated by two political groupings: the European People’s Party, and the Socialists and Democrats. Today, those two groups combined do not have a majority. Instead, five groups each hold at least 10% of the seats, and no single group holds more than 24%.
In the week leading up to the parliamentary vote, the political groups extracted concessions. For the liberals, who had resisted her candidacy, von der Leyen promised to make their Spitzenkandidat, Margrethe Vestager, a vice president of the new Commission, alongside the current vice president (and another Spitzenkandidat), Frans Timmermans.
For the similarly resistant Socialists, von der Leyen vowed to introduce legislation to establish a fair minimum wage in all EU countries. Yet even with these compromises, von der Leyen still had to make deals with Italy’s Euroskeptic Five Star Movement and the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers.
More broadly, von der Leyen pledged to support initiatives that would enhance the European Parliament’s power, including the Spitzenkandidaten system. More important, she promised to aid MEPs’ efforts to secure the right – now reserved by treaty for the Commission – to initiate legislation. This right is a cornerstone of the EU’s current institutional balance of power.
With that, von der Leyen secured a paper-thin majority. Perhaps fittingly, her first address was almost entirely motherhood and apple pie – filled with insipid personal references and canned lines about Europe. It indicated no awareness of the likely consequences of her concessions: that they will make the EU even less effective.1
Yet the European Parliament is unfazed. Despite being fragmented, it shows unity in continuing to reach for more authority – and this at a time of clear intergovernmentalism, with national capitals dictating EU decision-making. It has become abundantly clear in recent years that even ostensibly appealing initiatives – such as banking and energy unions – get nowhere without buy-in from member states.
The European Parliament has obtained its current powers by elbowing its way into relevance and into the treaties. It has been remarkably successful in doing so, going from a parliamentary assembly that served as little more than window dressing to a full-fledged influencer and co-legislator. But now that it has arrived, the Parliament must move beyond this phase of expansion and begin to show real leadership.
Giving the European Parliament more authority, at the expense of the Council and particularly the Commission, will only weaken further the EU’s capacity to develop and implement policy, while shifting the fragile and fundamental institutional balance of power. This will fuel Europe’s all-too-frequent blame game, with national governments decrying faulty EU-level policies, and EU bodies criticizing weak country-level implementation. The resulting gap between expectations and performance will lend additional support to claims that the EU is an inefficient and bloated enterprise.
The European Parliament is today a mature institution. It should show that maturity not by flexing its muscles and fighting for more territory, but by providing the EU with much-needed vision and direction. Europe needs leaders. The European Parliament can be such a leader, but good leadership requires modesty, sacrifice, and, above all, a willingness to put Europe’s interests ahead of one’s own.
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