Europe needs an accountable president

A Federal Union paper for the European constitutional convention

The European Commission should become the executive of the EU

The European Parliament should elect the European Commission

The presidency of the European Council should rotate among the member states

Introduction

1. The European Union is a unique and pioneering international system. It has a mixture of intergovernmental and supranational features, set up after the second world war to establish a shared democracy amongst the countries of Europe. This was to replace the secret diplomacy that had failed so dramatically in the recent past.

2. As time has passed since then, the EU has acquired new powers and attracted new member states, and the diplomatic methods of decision-making (secrecy, unanimity) have slowly been replaced by democratic ones (openness, majority voting). It now needs to go further towards becoming a parliamentary democracy with a legitimate and effective means of taking and implementing decisions.

3. This paper outlines how to establish democratic and effective political leadership for the EU.

4. Federal Union, on whose behalf this paper has been prepared, was founded in 1938 and campaigns for federalism for the UK, Europe and the world. It believes that democracy and the rule of law should apply to states as well as within them.

Europe must speak with one voice

5. When the European Coal and Steel Community was first established, it was based around a High Authority, an independent executive charged with allegiance to the common European interest rather than individual national interests. This is a model that has worked well: the most successful policies of the European Union have been those which have been led by the European Commission.

6. As the EU’s powers have grown, the need for an effective executive has grown rather than diminished. The European Commission must be empowered to fulfil this role.

A democratic mandate for the European Commission

7. A weakness of the European Commission is that it lacks a strong democratic mandate. This is something that should be rectified. The European tradition is for parliamentary democracy: executives take power as a result of their parties winning elections. That system should be applied to the European Union itself. The Commission would acquire greater legitimacy; the European elections would acquire more importance.

8. This proposal need not cut national governments out of the process: the nominated president and other members of the European Commission might still require approval by the European Council. Furthermore, the balance between the different institutions in the policy-making process still leaves considerable power in the hands of the national governments, so there is no risk that the European Commission might become too powerful an executive at the European level.

9. Lastly, the consensual nature of European party politics – with six main groupings from 15, soon to be 25 or more, member states – will prevent any single party domination of the Commission. In particular, the condition that a two thirds majority is required to dismiss the Commission will protect it from undue pressure from one side only with the European Parliament.

The European Council should represent the member states

10. An important conclusion is that the European Council cannot fulfil the role of providing political leadership. It is important that the presidency of the European Council should continue to rotate every six months. Member states must have a stage to voice their opinions on the future direction of the EU; the EU can never completely abandon its origins.

11. However, an elected president or permanent chair of the European Council would not help. Such a position would conflict strongly with that of the president of the European Commission. Consider the proposed personal specification: a former head of a national government. This describes the two most recent presidents of the European Commission, Jacques Santer and Romano Prodi.

12. The difference between these two posts lies in their legitimacy and accountability. The president of the Commission would be elected by the European Parliament, following the results of the European elections, and confirmed in office by the European Council. The president of the European Council would be chosen only by the European Council itself: the European Parliament, directly elected by the citizens, would have no role whatsoever. The president of the Commission reports regularly to the European Parliament and can be removed from office. There would be no equivalent accountability for a president of the European Council.

13. Furthermore, even if the post of president of the European Council is created, the post of president of the European Commission will still exist. The exclusive right of legislative initiative, the right to propose and control the budget, the responsibility for the execution of EU competences: these will still lie with the Commission. A president of the European Council would actually have very little constructive actually to do.

14. If making the European Union more democratic, effective, accountable and closer to the citizen is an objective, then the European Commission needs to be clearly recognised as the political executive of the EU. The articulation of the common European interest cannot be done on any other basis.

Conclusion

15. Any political entity requires effective and accountable leadership. The European Commission has proven itself to be indispensable in the success of the European Union. This role should be developed, along with its accountability to the European Parliament, to provide the EU with the future leadership that it needs.

March 2003

About the Author