Jason OMahony - Irish political blogger, Irish politics, EU politics

A President for Europe: How it could work.

Posted by Jason O on Jul 30, 2010 in European Union

eu-flagSo, here’s the thing: If people like me keep saying that the best way to deal with the EU’s democratic disconnect  is an elected president of the EU, then it is incumbent upon me to try and explain how it would work, and how we deal with, in particular, the “who the hell are these people on my ballot paper?” issue.

By the way, I use the phrase “democratic disconnect” because I feel the old stock answer, democratic deficit, is inaccurate. It’s not that the EU is undemocratic, it’s that its democratic system is so different from what democracy is in the members states (i.e. people win and lose elections, and therefore power) that it is not recognizable to most European voters as democracy. That’s the appeal of merging the Commission and Council Presidents, and then asking Regina in Milano and Ralf in Helsinki to decide on who gets the job? It puts the people’s man at the very top, with his or her own mandate separate from the leaders, and deals with the personality orientated reality of life today, where people invest their confidence in an individual. Barack Obama is, for example, as much a symbol for his opponents as his supporters, in that reelecting or removing him in 2012 will have an effect on what policies the US follows. Europeans do not currently have that choice. Instead we have a permanent three party coalition in the European Parliament that remains no matter what the results. We need winners and losers. 

So, we have the position. How do we elect him (or her)? The key is the nomination process, that is, how candidates should be chosen to appear on the ballot paper. We set a rule that each member state’s national parliament can nominate three candidates, and that all member states let their parliaments have a free vote on deciding those three nominations. It would mean that each parliament could hold a convention day, inviting each candidate to address them, and quiz them on the issues relevent to that country. Chances are that candidates would visit each country a number of times, speaking at meetings to parlimentarians. Indeed, some parties will actually ask their party members to decide whom they should support, and the candidates would address those meetings, gaining more media coverage and gradually entering the public conscience.

 Alternatively, national parliaments could decide to devolve the choice to the people, letting the public vote on the state’s three nominations. How would the public learn about these people? This is where the European parties come in. A French socialist seeking the PES nomination would sit down with the Irish Labour Party, or possibly others, and seek their endorsement, or the endorsement of individual politicians, all of which can be included on the ballot paper as a means of guiding voters. This (endorsements)  is what happens in US, local well-known leaders “introducing” the candidates. If Brian Cowen endorsed, say, Nick Clegg for President, or Enda Kenny endorsed Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel, it would not be long before Irish voters would get their measure of the candidates. This would also aid the process of getting media coverage for these unknown candidates. 

Let’s also not forget that the European parties would want to be pretty stupid (not beyond the realms of the impossible, I accept) to attempt to nominate candidates who are either complete unknowns, or incapable of connecting with voters in other countries. It would also be interesting to see the effect of language. A party that nominated a candidate who could only speak Greek, for example, would be at a serious disadvantage.

The nomination process would require a candidate for the European ballot paper to have gathered 20% of the 81 available nominations, which would limit the number of actual candidates to not more than five whilst at the same time ensuring that all successful candidates would have had to win a single nomination in at least 16 member states, ensuring a broad appeal. European parties would cooperate to ensure that they have the votes in the different parliaments, with, say, FDP, VVD,Venstre and Fianna Fail leaders all coordinating to ensure that their MPs vote for a common agreed Liberal candidate. 

Having nominated their candidates, the parties would each be required to nominate three vice-presidential candidates. This is to allow for the candidates to build a platform ensuring both gender representation but also geographical balance, giving voters a better chance of having a connection on the ticket with a nationally known figure. If elected, these VPs would automatically become those member states commissioners.  

The election would be by Alternative Vote. Whilst this would favour the campaign being fought out in the six most populous states, it should be born in mind that the nomination process actually favoured the smaller states, and so one balances out the other.

It’s not a perfect system, but it addresses a key need: At the end of the process, European voters will sit in pubs and restuarants and cafes and some, not all, will have opinions on who should be president. More importantly, they’ll be able to do something about it through their ballot papers. Finally, most of this can be done through national legislation, without a change in the treaties, with the council agreeing to be bound by the outcome, hence avoiding another sodding treaty.   

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