A President for Europe: How it could work.

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.   

26 thoughts on “A President for Europe: How it could work.

  1. Pingback: Enda, here’s a 5-point EU plan | Plain Talking

  2. EUobserver, one of Europe’s leading on-line news agencies, has published an article today on the Campaign for a PES Primary entitled: “Socialists want US-style primaries for commission president candidate”

    Their reporter, Leigh Philips, writes:

    “EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – European social democracy is in the doldrums and the members of the continent’s centre-left think that a major change at the top of the Party of European Socialists is the solution.

    After a rout of the centre-left in last year’s European elections, activists with the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) have launched a campaign to push for US-style primary elections within the party to select their candidate for the presidency of the next European Commission in 2014.

    Frustrated with the failure of the PES to nominate any candidate at all ahead of the June 2009 elections, a pair of long-time activists have rolled out a movement that is proposing that the members of the various social democratic parties across Europe vote to choose who the party will nominate as its presidential candidate.

    The “Campaign for a PES Primary” was kicked off on 26 July by Desmond O’Toole, a member of the Irish Labour Party’s Central Council, and Jose Reis Santos, a Lisbon city councillor, and, according to the pair, has met with a “huge response.”

    Rest of article at: http://euobserver.com/9/30615

    Regards … Desmond.
    Co-ordinator, PES activists Dublin.

  3. But surely more open Europarty competition connected with a presidential candidate (and primaries) would encourage more activist and member engagement with European politics (and lead to better campaigns), a more pro- and anti-government style of EP, and actually push the Europarties to reshape themselves as they sort themselves out on more ideologically coherent lines and overall policy? Of course there are big “if”s, sinces campaigns differ in quality, but I think that it’s something that can improve and develop with time.

    On the other hand, I think a directly elected president would be left trying to push proposals through based on just his/her personal political authority. The president would have to deal with more grand coalition politics without a “winning block” in the EP that is politically wedded to it. Politics under a directly elected president wouldn’t necessarily involve less grand coalition politics or bring better, more politically coherent policy (after it’s ran the guantlet of Council and the EP). So I think that a parliamentary model would be better than a presidential one.

    @ Desmond – this is a great initative! Good luck & keep it up!

  4. Possibly, but I’d wager that national governing parties would actually want to be onside with an elected president, whereas who cares what happens with the EP?

  5. Jason, please, your proposal wouldn’t solve these kinds of problems either!

  6. Good questions, Jason. I can’t answer them for definite at this time, but I can say that in the last EP election a significant amount of PES money went into funding the Labour Party campaign in Ireland as did funding from other European political groups go to FF and FG. You may have noticed that a large proportion of the posters Labour put up had the PES logo on them. In addition, the Labour Party signed up for and fought on the PES European election manifesto.

    So, there has already been a significant element of integration of the Labour and PES campaigns last year. This would suggest that the candidate that the PES agree to run for Commission President will also have a profile in the EP election campaign in Ireland in 2014. However, I’m speculating as such decisions are made elsewhere!

  7. Don’t get me wrong. I can see where the PES campaign is coming from. My problem is that it’s such an “inside the beltway” solution. You may well succeed, and have conventions and eventually nominate a candidate. But I still bet that come 2014 the name recognition of the PES candidate as PES candidate for Commission President will be derisory, and turnout will still remain at levels that question the democratic legitimacy of the EP.

    Let’s cut to the chase: If you succeed, how much of Labour’s campaign budget will be spent on putting up posters of the PES candidate? Percentage wise?

  8. My mammy also says, “Better to light a candle than curse the dark!”

    The question of whether the EP speaks for the people of Europe is a really loaded one, and as usual you have put your finger directly on the core issue; what you previously termed “democratic disconnect”. It’s that disconnect that has EP elections turnout at 43%.

    Rather than abolish the only directly-elected institution in the EU, PES activists in the Campaign for a PES Primary are proposing that the contest for EP seats be made more directly relevant to European citizens by a sharper political delineation between the competing parties and through the democratic selection of party candidates for the Commission Presidency.

    The selection of high-profile, credible candidates by the Europarties will serve to dramatise and personalise the debates. The use of national primaries to select the PES candidate will help galvanise party members around European politics (an ongoing challenge) and contribute to the creation of a momentum for a stronger European discourse in the main EP elections.

    And my key point is that this can be done within the existing treaties, whereas what you are proposing is a task for a much later day 🙂


  9. Desmond, You genuinely believe that the EP really speaks for the people of Europe? Fair enough. Admittedly, a Dail elected with only 43% of the vote would still be a Dail, I suppose, although I suspect it would cause a political crisis for turnout to fall that far. My own feeling is that the abolition of the EP and the EESC is worth considering.

  10. Jason, as my dear mammy says … “You may as well dream here as in bed.”

    There is zero likelihood of us getting to vote directly for the Irish nominee for Commission President. The only place that I’ve heard that idea canvassed is on this blog. That’s fair play to you, Jason, for coming up with an innovative idea, but in the meantime PES activists are pushing a proposal that is being widely discussed within the Party of European Socialists and which has a fair chance of being adopted.

    Diverstiy is great. I love it. “Unity in Diversity” and all that. But for the emerging head of government in the EU, the Commission President, to attract a meaningful democratic mandate, a common process across the EU is essential. It has fallen to the PES to make a reality of the need to provide the Commission President with a democratic mandate.

    Desmond O’Toole
    PES activists Dublin.

  11. A while? Admittedly open presidential primaries were generalised in 1968 in the US, but closed primaries (only involving activists) became the preferred mechanism for nomination as from 1832. Only 54 years after the US were founded. And don’t forget that the US were inventing something new when they elaborated this very specific nomination scheme, they didn’t even have any role model to follow. The word ‘primary’ probably didn’t even exist at that time.
    That’s won’t be the same for us: presidential primaries, open or closed, are considered as an established nomination mechanism, they are the rule in many countries, notably in Europe.
    Do you believe Europe will need 800 years to become a true democracy, just because the UK needed 800 years from the Magna Carta to the universal suffrage to become one? We’ve just adopted our “Magna carta”, does it mean we have to wait another 800 years?

    Concerning your national approach of demanding more democracy for the EU: well, why not, but has such an approach ever succeeded elsewhere before? There could be one example: Germany has achieved more involvement for its national assemblies in EU decision-making than the average EU country. But this ensued from an authoritative decision of the German constitutionnal court based on theoretical considerations, certainly not from civil society’s pressure.
    A good counterexample: the direct election of the European Parliament in 1979, seen as a supranationalistic measure, passed anyways at EU level, not at national one.
    And finally, is it so much easier to make oneself heard on EU issues through a national campaign than through a trans-European one? I don’t think so, because EU issues remain EU issues. They only trigger indifference, no matter where the campaign is run…

  12. Nah! Easier to get my own member state to pass a law giving me the right to elect our nominee, on the same day we elect our MEPs. After all, we have referendums whilst other member states don’t. To each their own. That’s the wonderful diversity of Europe! Consider this: What’s more democratic: A million Irish voters voting for a nominee who doesn’t win, or an unknown nominee just turning up to claim the prize on the day as happens now? If two or three states start having votes, and are adamant that they will block a nominee who did not even contest the primary in their state, then our employees on the Council will have to start paying attention. Especially if, say, the Brits or the Poles were to get involved. Don’t forget, it took a while for primaries to take off in the US.

  13. If you’re a hopeless optimist, why don’t you simply call for a revision of the treaty to create a directly elected EU president? One has to take the initiative… and I think many wouldn’t be against.

  14. Desmond, you’re quite right, politics is the art of the possible, and a lot of what I want is far fetched.
    My problem is that when I came into politics in 1988, a DUP/SF coalition, a female (Labour) president of Ireland, freely available contraception, divorce, a black president of South Africa, a black US president, gay rights in Ireland, FF led coalitions, the end of communism and a single european currency were all far fetched too.
    Perhaps I’m a hopeless optimist.


  15. Thanks for your response Jason, but for such an astute observer of the Irish political scene, I must admit I find your suggestion that national governments might consult their peoples on who to support for Commission President, outside of a specific EU treaty requirment to do so, just a tad far-fetched. Julien-223 has already dealt with this issue, so I won’t go back over that ground. However, I would like to take up the issue you raise about party membership and mandating party leaders.

    At it’s Congress in Prague last December the PES, which is a federation of national member parties, adopted a resolution committing all of its member parties to put one, agreed candidate forward as the PES candidate for the Commission Presiency at the next EP elections in 2014. The battle to ensure that all PES member party leaders, whether in government or in opposition, unite behind one candidate has therefore been won. The task now is to determine HOW that candidate should be chosen.

    Party membership is not as “vague and pointless” as you suggest. In my 30 years of political activism I have been a member of the Irish and UK Labour Parties and the French Parti Socialiste, and can attest that all three have very clear rules about what constitutes party membership. The same can be said of the other PES member parties, but if you know different I’d welcome any info you have.

    So how might a PES Primary work … well, one could foresee an electoral college being established within which national party delegates have a share of the total vote equivalent to the QMV arrangements (already provided for in the statutes of the PES). Primary elections would take place in each country/party with delegates being apportioned according to the proportion of votes the candidates secure in each primary or indeed, on a straight up/down vote. A convention of the PES to select a candidate would then take place in much the same way that US conventions meet to select their presidential candidate.

    The real point in these proposals, Jason, is that all of this is achievable within the existing treaties, whereas your proposals would require changes both to EU treaties and to the law/constitution in member states. Can you guess which option is the more likely?

    If politics is the art of the possible, I’ll take a parliamentary system with an indirectly elected Commission Presdient, the candidates for which are selected by party primaries, over a never-likely-to-happen federal, presidential system. Sorry!

    Regards … Desmond.

    Desmond O’Toole
    Co-ordinator, PES activists Dublin.

  16. Jason,

    I completely agree with your main proposal: a single, directly elected EU president would be the best answer to the democratic disconnect (nice expression). But it doesn’t seem realistic at the moment. Neither through treaty change, as you said, nor by asking member states to make up a sort of direct election by changing 27 different national frameworks. I agree that nothing, even the Lisbon treaty, prevents them from consulting their citizens about who they should support as candidate. But do you really imagine that our 27 egos in the European Council will ever consult us? Do you really imagine that our national parliament would then devolve such a designation process to the people? If institutions were ready to consult us, they would already be ready to rewrite the treaties, which they are not! Member States don’t launch collective initiatives outside of a treaty. If they ever did, the EU would not exist.

    Coming back to presidential primaries: primaries wouldn’t require a change in EU treaties nor in national legislation. They just need the good will within European parties. That’s why a situation in which the “Labour in government in Ireland or Denmark or Sweden would announce that they could only support a candidate who had won a primary in their state” seems irrational: either national parties fully accept to take part to a primary with the possibility that their candidate could lose, or they simply decide to steer clear. But there is no choice in-between, no compromise possible. And if they chose to turn down the offer, they run the risk of facing internal pressure from party activists, and of being pointed at as responsible for the Europarty’s failure in the election.

    Finally, referring to “the party membership rule” as vague and pointless is commonplace. Europarties are just like national or local parties: they are full of people with thousand different minds about everything. You know better than me that there are plenty of different or even opposite views within the US democratic party, within the French PS, or even within far-right parties.

  17. Desmond,

    Thanks for your comment. You make some very valid points. However, I disagree with the fundamental point that the EP somehow chimes with European parliamentary traditions. The fact is, most european countries would not tolerate a political system that gave them the permanent coalition that the EP gives. We have to stop trying to dress this up. The EP as a legislature and oversight of the executive is quite successful, but the idea that it speaks for the collective voice of ordinary Europeans is a con. Even if the PES candidate appeared on the ballot paper beside Proinsias de Rossa, you can’t honestly tell me that people voting in Finglas or Donnybrook for Proinsias are equally voting confidence in Martin Schulz as President. Direct election is the only way of forcing the media to engage. Ask yourself this: At what level of turnout do we say that the EP has lost all legitimacy?

    Nor do I accept that the Lisbon treaty prevents this. There is nothing to stop any member state government consulting its own people before supporting a candidate. Secondly, the party membership rule is so vague as to be pointless. If Tony Blair is a socialist, and Brian Crowley a liberal, then anything’s possible. Or put it another way: If Labour in government in Ireland or Denmark or Sweden announced that they could only support a candiate who had won a primary in their state, are you honestly saying it it would be more democratic to stop them? It’s this dangerous democratic doubletalk that has started to emerge since Nice 2 which is the biggest threat to this union.

  18. Hi Jason … you’ve raised some critical issues about “democratic disconnect” and offered some interesting ways forward. The problem with what you’re suggesting, however, is that it would require (a) a new EU treaty … and we know where that will take us, and (b) significant legislative and constitutional changes in the member states. In addition, I agree with Ralf that your proposals do not chime with the parliamentary traditions we have in Europe and our general indisposition towards concentrating power in presidential hands (France and Russia excepting).

    If the intention of your proposals is to give a “face” to the EU with a better and clearer democratic mandate than the current clutch of presidencies possess, then there is an alternative option you might wish to consider.

    Under current treaties, the member state governments are required to nominate as President of the European Commission a person from the pan-European party that secures the most seats in the elections to the European Parliament. That person must then secure a majority of the votes in the Parliament before assuming office (TEU Art 17.7). Last year, the EPP let it be known that José Manuel Barroso would be their candidate, but the PES failed to unite behind one candidate for that position. The discussions that took place in both these leading parties were of the form that we have become used to in the EU when it comes to filling senior positions, i.e. deals done between prime ministers behind closed doors. The result was a European Parliament election that failed to rise above the level of 27 national discourses, notwithstanding the excellent work that the PES, in particular, did in creating a pan-European manifesto.

    An alternative that is currently gaining considerable ground in the Party of European Socialists (PES) is that the PES candidate for Commission President in 2014 should be selected by all of the members of each of the member parties of the PES (including the Irish Labour Party). In other words “PES Primary Elections” to choose our “face” to lead the PES into the next European Parliament elections.

    While this may not meet all of the objections you have raised, it at least has the distinct advantage of being achievable within the scope of the existing treaties. PES activists have just launched a Campaign for a PES Primary (http://campaignforapesprimary.blogspot.com/) that will bring this issue to the pan-European PES Council that is to take place in Warsaw later this year. We are also running a campaign on Facebook in order to assemble a large amount of support to reinforce our arguments. You can join that Facebook campaign at http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=139773746044558

    Regards … Desmond.

    Desmond O’Toole
    Co-ordinator, PES activists Dublin.

  19. I agree that merging the Council and Commission Presidencies makes sense; the Council President is essentially symbolic (though with some agenda-setting, informal power thanks to the public attention the post receives). I also think that having foreign leaders shake hands with so many presidents weakens the EU (certainly in the eyes of the US).

    I don’t support a federal EU, but I’d nonetheless like more democratic accountability over the Commission – and a directly elected President would deliver that. However, an alternative (as a compromise) might be to require nominations for Commission President to be published BEFORE the EP elections. At least that would avoid situations like the frankly embarrassing one-horse race in 2009.

  20. Jason,

    I think it a very interesting suggestion and certainly food for thought. I believe as you that there is a disconnect between the citizens and their european leadership but without a change in treaty I’m not sure if this election process will help enough. In my view there are at least two basic flaws with the current setup that aren’t addressed.

    One aspect is basically the impression that the union is not following the principles of Rule of Law, that leaders and countries can with impunity disregard agreements without consequences.
    The other aspect, which is more relevant to your text, is, as you say, that there are no win or lose elements of the union. Put in another way, when a citizen gets mad (or glad) with the union, there is no one to blame (or praise)! Is it the directly elected MEPs that did it? Is it the appointed commission? Is it our own national leaders? Is it the leaders of another nation? When things are not going the way you want there is no one to vote out of office to change the direction. I think this is tha main problem of the disconnect.

    By opting for a mix of international and supernational processes the idea was (I guess) to have everyone in the room and have a stake in the decisions. Instead no-one owns the decisions and accountability suffers. I think we need a real federal system to achieve the accountability that gives the union the credibility it needs..

  21. Amazing proposal. I’ve promoted it to the Blogging Portal’s home page. Thanks!
    And I like the use of “democratic disconnect” rather than “democratic deficit”, it reflects much better what the real problem is.

  22. Jason,

    A functioning representative democracy, with accountable government, naturally requires that the European Parliament does not need over-sized majorities to change legislative proposals.

    I agree with you: The European Union rots from the ground up if it is not reformed from the foundations up.

    But this may require more than electing one leader.

  23. Ralf, here’s a prediction: The next European Parliament will be dominated by an EPP/PES coalition, possibily with ALDE support. I don’t know whether the Democrats will hold the House and Senate in November, or whether the Tories or Labour will win the next election in the UK, or whether the UMP or Socialists will win the Elysee palace. But I do know that the 2014 EP elections will almost certainly result in the EPP/PES carving up the spoils. It’s democracy of a form, but not a form of democracy that most Europeans recognise, or, judging by the falling turnout, actually care about. I genuinely believe that in a presidential election, at least one candidate will take a moderate eurosceptic stance, recognising that at least 40% of Europeans have doubts, and that will be far more of a debate about our continent’s future than any EP election. See, we have to address the many valid criticisms that many moderate eurosceptics have about the union. Failing to do that will lead only one way, towards the break up of the union. What many in Brussels fail to grasp is that this union will rot from the ground up if we are not careful.

  24. You’re not the first eurosceptic who has assumed that somehow I make a profit out of being pro-european. Just google some of the remarks made about me during the Lisbon campaign. Is it really so difficult to imagine that people volunteer their time and effort for free because they believe in something? Why do eurosceptics not get that? Of course, maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe eurosceptics are all paid to be eurosceptic, and so assume everyone else is on the take.

  25. “Its not that the EU is is undemocratic ” ?


    Just how much are the chums in Brussels paying you for this ?

    Kind regards

  26. Jason,

    Are you really sure that your proposals are less complicated and more apt to increase the level of democratic accountability than the current lack of connection between voters and EU level top posts?

    In my view, the main task of the Europarties is to present political alternatives and front runners to the voters in the elections to the European Parliament.

    All except the EPP failed miserably in 2009, but they can hardly be as stupid again in 2014.

    It is more important to create a politically accountable executive (government) for the EU than to elect one individual, who would chair two unaccountable institutions (Commission and EuropeanCouncil) like today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *