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Presidents and Parliaments: choosing the next President of the European Commission

06 Aug 2009

At around midday on 18 May last, smoke was seen billowing from the top floor of the Berlaymont, the building housing the European Commission’s Brussels-based headquarters. Speculation that this was some sort of fumata bianca heralding the re-appointment of José Manuel Barroso as President of the European Commission proved unfounded. The somewhat more prosaic source of the smoke, it later transpired, was an internal fire that spread from the basement to the roof. Yet in the absence of other names being proposed for the job, it is little wonder that his election is seen as “inevitable”.

Inevitable or not, any candidate for the post President of the Commission must jump a few hurdles yet before arriving at the finish line.

The first hurdle is political. Although the European Commission is independent from national governments, the presidents and prime ministers of the EU Member States (collectively called the ‘European Council’ when national leaders meet to discuss EU affairs) are responsible for nominating a single candidate to run for President of the European Commission. A variety of factors influence this decision: political affiliation; views on European integration; ability to speak several of the EU’s official languages; and, of course, experience. Several candidates are normally considered, reflecting the diversity of opinions among national governments, as was the case in 2004. Ultimately, however, the European Council will decide upon a single candidate.

Being one of the most influential jobs in Europe (along the lines of the kind of jobs that get advertised in The Economist), there are normally several CVs to consider, but in 2009 José Barroso was unique in that he faced no ascertainable opposition. His incumbency in the post was undoubtedly a key factor in dissuading alternative candidates. Nevertheless, this seemingly favourable position was offset by reports at the beginning of the year that certain national governments may not have been so keen to reappoint him for a further five-year term.

However, at the meeting of the European Council on 18-19 June, national leaders agreed to unreservedly nominate José Manuel Barroso for a further mandate as President of the Commission. This important decision fell by the wayside in Ireland, overshadowed by the agreement Irish Guarantees on the Lisbon Treaty.

This brings José Manuel to the second hurdle: a vote on his candidacy by the European Parliament. The European Parliament’s 736 members (a fairly daunting panel, as far as job interviews go) will vote by secret ballot on whether to approve José Manuel Barroso as President of the European Commission.

But in 2009, a further factor complicates José Manuel Barroso’s course to the presidency. Uncertainty as to which treaty rules will govern the EU from the autumn of 2009 have started to impact upon the day-to-day running of the institutions. The European Union is currently standing before an institutional fork in the road: one path, created by the Treaty of Nice in 2001, leads in one direction; the other path, created by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, leads in another. No-one can plot with any certainty where either path leads, although all national governments in the EU and a large majority of political parties in the national parliaments of the Member States seem to favour the new path built by the Lisbon Treaty.

This institutional uncertainty has already led MEPs to postpone their vote on José Manuel Barroso’s candidacy until September 16 at the earliest. The vote could have taken place in July, following the formal decision of the European Council. But MEPs, wishing to flex the institutional muscle of the European Parliament, decided to delay the vote until the autumn of 2009 and perhaps until it becomes clear as to whether the Lisbon Treaty’s reforms will be approved (notably by Irish voters, who go to the polls on 2 October in a second referendum on the Treaty).
The Lisbon Treaty makes a key change when it comes to the vote on the candidate for president of the European Commission. Whereas current rules only require a simple majority among the number of MEPs present on the day of the vote, the Lisbon Treaty changes this provision, requiring an absolute majority among the total number of MEPs (i.e. at least 369 MEPs must be in favour).

As José Manuel Barroso’s political ‘family’ (centre-right conservatives) only have 265 MEPs in the European Parliament, it is clear that they will need to build alliances across party-political lines in order to secure an absolute majority of MEPs in favour of President Barroso, should the Lisbon Treaty come into force later in the year.

This, however, is easier said than done. Although the socialists have formed a legislative pact with the centre-right in the European Parliament for the 2009-2014 legislature, the centre-left are apparently opposed to President Barroso, although they have yet to propose an alternative candidate. The Greens are actively organising support to reject President Barroso’s candidacy. The liberals have not made any formal decision thus far, although Guy Verhofstadt (current leader of the liberal group in the European Parliament and himself a former candidate for the post of President of the Commission in 2004) is a possible candidate, along with former commissioner, Mario Monti. Both candidates were chosen by the European Democratic Party in May this year as possible candidates for the presidency of the European Commission.

So it is feasible that a ‘traffic-light’ coalition of socialists, liberal and greens, may be able to field an alternative candidate and block Barroso’s re-election, but this alliance would only amount to 323 MEPs in total – 46 short of an absolute majority.

Whatever way the alliances form among MEPs, it is clear that such ‘voting pacts’ across party-political lines will entail a trade in political promises. Whether this enhances the EU’s democratic credentials is open for debate – but it certainly gives greater impetus to cross-party negotiations, which at least dilutes the potential for tra

As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.

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