All political party candidates for the European Commission Presidency are known since last Friday when the majority of European People’s Party delegates in Dublin designated Jean-Claude Juncker from Luxembourg as their top man. The social-democrats put forward the German Martin Schulz, who made his political career in the European Parliament. Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt will defend the blue liberal colours, while the Greens opted for a Franco-German duo, with José Bové, the alter-globalizer farmer from France, and Ska Heller, a multi-lingual German MEP in her early thirties and one of the surprises coming out of these primaries, together with the far left Alex Tsipras who is a member of the Greek Parliament.
Discussions on the EU’s democratic deficit tend to be waged in terms of the presence (or not) of democracy in Brussels decision-making. But various types of democracy exist, and democracy itself is a relative category. On a side-note related to this, the Economist’s democracy index includes 13 of the 28 EU countries in the category “full democracies”, with 15 others such as Italy, Hungary and Romania are in the second-best “flawed democracy” group.
What does the process of appointing the candidates for Commission President and their profile tell us about the type of democracy that is emerging in the EU? In terms of electoral politics and access to top positions, elite bargaining has been the dominant mode of operation in the EU, as opposed to a more pluralist bottom-up process. But a major change of the new procedure for appointing the Commission President is that this bargaining has been brought forward in time and more into the open. All observers understood which national liberal parties supported Verhofstadt and which ones Olli Rehn, and what this implied in terms of their preference for the management of the Euro-crisis and the question of more or less European integration. Indeed the division may have been such that a deal before the party conference was important for the party’s unity.
In the EPP, media reported on which national parties supported (mostly) Juncker and (to a lesser extent) Michel Barnier, the French Member of the European Commission in charge of financial regulation. The number of votes gathered by outsider Barnier in the secret ballot testifies to some internal party resistance against national leaders. The good thing is that the party conference had a choice, even though not a programmatic one. The Greens stayed away from party bargaining and gave a vote in open primaries to everyone who registered on their website.
As a final result, voters are presented with a menu of established members of the Brussels crowd. Verhofstadt was already a member of the European Council when the Treaty of Nice was negotiated in the year 2000. Juncker’s first major EU experience as Finance Minister came in the early 1990s with the creation of the Euro at Maastricht. Martin Schulz has been a Member of the European Parliament for twenty years, and became its President in 2012.
But the big difference is that these EU insiders emerged from party politics. Advocates of having stronger political parties at European level got a boost from this primary season, as all parties managed to unite behind one leading candidate. Once the votes will have been counted on May 25, the question will be whether national leaders will follow party preferences in appointing for the top positions.
The strengthened role of political parties in the EU is hardly surprising. National democracies in Europe are mostly governed by party filters in terms of broad policy choices and access to decision-making. Some of these parties are governed in a centralized manner, while others allow more internal debate. The gatekeeping role of parties distinguishes European democracies from the American one, where fund-raising can be more important than party support for candidates to make it to the top.
Now that the candidates are known, the challenge is to have a debate on the policy preferences that differentiate them, and what actions they commit to take once in office. Here lies a real danger for the months ahead: if the electoral campaign would be dominated by the clash between anti- and pro-EU forces, the differences between left and right will drown in a noisy and emotional debate on the meaning of belonging to Europe versus national identity. But then again, perhaps the identity debate is the first one to have, before one can start discussing policies. Whoever thought that a more democratic process would clarify once and for all these key questions should take consolation in the fact that democracies are better at organizing how to live with differences than settling them.