The creation of the office of President of the European Union was one of those perfect storm moments that occurs in politics. As an idea, it drew relatively little support, but many of those who supported it did so with a vigor bordering on fanaticism. When that was mixed with the hubris of national politicians who thought it didn’t matter and the short-termism of a political system that only sees policy as a quick solution as opposed to long-term strategy, political tectonic plates started to move. The final key variable was the European Parliament, which had amassed power almost silently like a dog chained in a basement who has grown huge and strong because nobody in the house realizes that they have all been feeding the dog. Politicians stung by accusations of being “undemocratic” had thrown one power after another at the once rubber-stamping talking shop without grasping that all the combined powers were in fact creating a powerful transnational parliamentary assembly. When the parliament itself named an elected president as its price for treaty change the pols rolled over, once again assuming that it could be finessed with some retired prime minister doing a lap of honour. That was assuming the system even got off the ground, given how vague the details in the actual treaty were.
The problem for the “It’ll never happen” brigade was that this was Europe, and for every European thought there’s a well-funded committee that starts working out the details with almost self-pleasuring enthusiasm. Immediately, the committee ran into a problem. It wasn’t hard to figure out what powers would be held by the new office: the committee rapidly concluded that the simplest thing was to directly elect the commission president, with the president of the council acting at a intergovernmental balance.
The big challenge was the same issue the Americans had discovered when they wrote their constitution. How do you balance population with nations? Directly elect the president by votes and you end up with the big six countries, who have two thirds of the population, dominating the election campaign. This sounds perfectly democratic, except for the fact that Europe is not a single nation but a federation of sovereign nations. The flipside of the problem was that if you set up a requirement that a candidate required a majority of the 27 member states you could then end up with a president elected by countries making up just over 10% of the population.
After much heated debate, and with some gnashing of teeth, the drafters decided that the Americans were right: only an electoral college could meet the two competing demands of democracy and national sovereignty.
The great compromise was to allocate each state a number of votes proportional to its population, with a minimum to ensure that tiny states like Malta, Luxembourg and Estonia still had a seat at the table. This made up 50% of the seats in the college. The second half of the seats in the college was divided equally among all member states. The electors filling the seats in each perspective country, normally well-known politicians or public figures would be named on the presidential ballot alongside the candidate they supported as a handy guide for voters.
Finally, the committee made the controversial proposal that ALL of a states votes would go to the candidate who “carried” a majority of the votes in using the Single Transferable Vote where voters voted by preference, and their preferences were redistributed as they indicated until one candidate secured half the votes.
On meeting, if no candidate had secured a majority of the votes in the electoral college, the candidate with the lowest votes would be eliminated, and the college would vote again. This would continue until one candidate secured a plurality over all other votes cast, and that candidate would be deemed elected President of the European Union.
The committee then examined how candidates for the office would be nominated. Again, there were two competing pressures. On the one hand, the electorate had to be given a fair and broad choice. On the other hand, a ballot paper filled with dozens of unknown candidates would almost certainly make a mockery of the election.
The compromise assumed that a ballot paper offering choices from the top six or seven political families in Europe would suffice. Additionally, the committee also concluded that the nomination process, by involving the national parliaments, would permit the public to get to know the candidates better in the run-up to the election, as each national parliament would make the nomination day a very media-focussed event with national politicians proposing and seconding their favoured candidates. The committee finally ruled that to be included on the presidential ballot a candidate needed to receive the backing of one fifth of a national parliamentary chamber in one fifth of the member states. They also permitted the European Parliament to nominate an additional three candidates.
Finally, to allow for greater coalition building and regional and demographic balance, the committee proposed that each presidential candidate also name a senior and junior vice president, allowing for a ticket.
The proposal was not well received by a large element of the European Council who were not enthused at the idea of even creating the position in the first place.
But as with the gradual evolution of the European Parliament, yet another policy proposal started to win momentum, especially as the parliament started to see the idea as a way of flexing its own muscles. There wasn’t a single parliamentary group leader who didn’t daydream of being elected the next president of Europe, and so when the next treaty revision summit came around, the parliament had its redline.
It is quite remarkable that the national governments didn’t just kill the proposal there and then. But Europe, being the complex multi-faceted place it is, had dozens of other variables in play. The outgoing French president, seeing a future for himself as a future George Washington with better teeth, backed the idea. The actual federalists in the Bundestag saw it as a logical progression. The Italians supported it in return for tougher EU border controls, as did the Greeks and the Spanish. Every country that had a greater policy priority traded their support in return for a policy opt out on X or increased regional funding on Y. The Poles, who many assumed would oppose it, just happened to be going through a period where they had a well-known and respected president and started thinking about the first president being a Pole. The small nations, the Irish, the Dutch, the Portuguese fancied themselves as offering the candidates of least resistance. Even the Hungarians decided not to oppose it on the belief that they spoke for far more ordinary European voters than the liberal elite of the Berlaymont and so this could be a tool.
Some states did threaten a veto, and so at the last minute the French President offered yet another American compromise: member states could opt out of the actual election, and their national parliaments could choose that member state’s delegation to the electoral college.
And so, suddenly, it was agreed.
With 18 months to go to the 2029 European Parliament elections, the race was on.
In Brussels, the major groups in the parliament all met to iron out the candidate selection procedures. Would they support a free for all, or endorse specific candidates who would then go before the national parliaments? The party congresses were heated, as pragmatists (“We have to run someone people have heard of!”) went up against the purists (“Gaston has been an MEP for 30 years. He knows co-decision procedure inside out!”).For once, the national parties, which tended to take little interest in the arcane warfare of the Strasbourg parliament decided to step in, primarily because many of them quite fancied the position themselves. The EPP were first out of the trap, nominating a former model and acolyte of Silvio Berlusconi who was belittled until she submitted herself to an in-depth interview where she, in fluent French and English revealed that her modelling had paid for a well deserved degree in European law. The Socialists nominated a former Finnish prime minister who had become briefly globally famous for being too hot. The centre nominated the former two-term President of France. The Greens nominated a globally famous young activist now in her twenties. The far-left nominated an aging Spanish leftist once seen as the future of the European left, and the far-right, to every one’s surprise, bypassed the usual aging beasts and nominated a savvy and articulate young female Swedish MEP. The eurosceptic conservatives nominated a Polish MEP obsessed with trans issues.
Within days, the far-right, far-left and eurosceptics had split as rogue candidates announced they too would be seeking the nominations.
The national conventions, as they became know, surprised, many in the national media by how entertaining they were. Whilst no one in Finland really cared who the Cypriot parliament nominated, it was a big deal in Cyprus to see what became known as “the caravan” of candidates and their campaigns arriving, meeting with their sister parties and others, getting public endorsements of denunciations. Some of the candidates thrived in the chaotic carnival nature of it, whilst some wilted. But slowly they moved across Europe, until one after another each nominee was declared, the one upset being the failure of the former French RN leader to oust her Swedish rival.
The campaign itself was relatively short as opinion polls began to put a shape on the contest. The far-right candidate was leading with a quarter of the vote, follow by the centrist on 20% and the unsmiling Green on 15%. The rest of the candidates failed to break into double figures. The two front runners finally ignited the public’s imagination and that of the media, as “The Battle for Europe” between the centre and the far-right.
The first debate, hosted in France but carried across the continent, was a stilted affair given the need for simultaneous translation, but it confirmed and accentuated the polls and who the battle was really between. After a third debate, both of the lead candidates crossed into the early 30s in the polls and the media decided, to huge protest from the other candidates, to hold a one-on-one debate between the Frenchman and the Swedish woman.
It was quite the spectacle, as both candidates, articulate and quick-witted, switched easily from French to English and back. She was quick to disarm the far-right tag, dismissing the Holocaust deniers and anti-semites as weirdos (although havering on the anti-vaxxers) but also arguing that her position on defending European values and securing Europe’s borders was “the most mainstream of mainstreams in Europe”.
Viewers polled during the debate were unable to declare a winner through most of the debate until the former president went on the attack over Russia. She wobbled, talking about provoking Moscow. He didn’t, instead backing Ukraine and being very clear that Ukraine’s fight was Europe’s fight, and that “every Russian tank destroyed by French artillery or Swedish anti-tank missiles operated by the Ukrainian army is one less tank menacing Europe.”
The dial finally twisted narrowly in his direction.
It became very apparent that the argument that there was no such thing as a European demos as simply not true. The issue of defence, energy security, climate change and immigration polled consistently as important to voters across Europe, and both campaigns focussed on them. The media outside Europe, in the US, UK and Asia also paid a lot of attention on the election. Large chunks of the UK media denounced the former French president and declared that the Swede would win in a landslide. The leader of the Conservative party called the election “undemocratic” and declared “thank God we don’t have to vote in it.” She said she would oppose moves by the EU to force the UK to rejoin and also demanded the removal of the Northern Ireland Protocol and warned that she would insist the new EU president scrap it.
Neither Brexit nor the UK were mentioned during the campaign.
The night of the election was when all those graphs and articles in Europe’s media about “the Irish voting system” finally came alive, and across the continent counting began, and patterns emerged quickly. It was indeed a two horse race, with ironically Ireland being the one country that struggled to give prompt results which led to much on line sniggering.
The former president and the MEP led in nearly every state with both most scoring in the 30s. In France there was a major surprise when the RN refused to endorse the Swedish MEP following her defeat of their former leader, and so low turnout among RN voters allowed the former French president to carry his home country on the first round. In Sweden, he came in third as the Green battled it out in her home country against the far right, finally carrying the member state.
The worries about a messy electoral college evaporated as additional counts turned the final result into a clear two-candidate battle. The Swede carried Italy and Greece as anti-immigrant votes put her over the top there. She narrowly lost Austria. Hungary had originally announced it would use the opt out and that the Fidesz prime minister would allocate Hungary’s electoral votes but a mass demonstration forced a u-turn, with the Swede narrowly carrying the country.
Elsewhere, the former president cleaned up, especially on the Russia issue. He easily carried Finland, the Baltics, Romania, and Germany. Belgium split, with Flanders backing the far-right, but overall the country went to the centrist, as did the Netherlands, and Denmark. Spain was close as the far-right backed the Swede over African immigration, and Portugal gave him a majority of the votes needed.
Ireland reported a first count just after the Swede conceded.
The president elect took to the stage with his Italian and Estonian vice presidents.
“My fellow Europeans…”