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Selecting the Next President of the European Commission

18 Oct 2013

One year from now, many of the EU’s institutional parameters will be set for the following half decade – the 8th European Parliament will be in session and the new College of European Commissioners will be on the verge of taking office (1 November 2014). However, for the moment, the field is wide open to candidates for the powerful position of President of the European Commission and speculation is rife, in particular because the rules of the game have changed since President Barroso began his second term in 2010. 

This blog considers the process of selecting the European Commission President. It examines the changes in the Treaty wording, compares the interpretations of the principal EU institutions and assesses the likely implications on voter behaviour, the politicisation of the Commission Presidency and the balance across the institutions.

Treaty Provisions

Next year is the first time that the selection of the European Commission President will be conducted under the Lisbon Treaty. The relevant articles of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) pre- and post-Lisbon Treaty are laid out below.

Pre-Lisbon Treaty Post-Lisbon Treaty

TEU Article 214 (2):

The Council, meeting in the composition of Heads of State or Government and acting by a qualified majority, shall nominate the person it intends to appoint as President of the Commission; the nomination shall be approved by the European Parliament.

TEU Article 17 (7):

Taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for President of the Commission. This candidate shall be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members. If he does not obtain the required majority, the European Council, acting by a qualified majority, shall within one month propose a new candidate who shall be elected by the European Parliament following the same procedure.

It is clear from these articles that the role of the European Parliament has changed with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty – where previously it ‘approved’ the Council’s nomination, it now ‘elects’ the President by an absolute majority based on the proposal of the European Council. However, a divergence has emerged between the different institutions as to how these new provisions should be implemented in practice.

Conflicting Interpretations

As the mandate of the current College of Commissioners nears its end, the differing interpretations of the Treaty, between the European Parliament on one hand and the European Council and European Commission on the other, have become both clearer and more pressing.

1) The European Parliament

The European Parliament has forged ahead on the basis of its reading of the Treaty and introduced a significant innovation in its preparations for the Parliament elections (22-25 May 2014): the fielding of a single candidate for the position of Commission President by each of the European political groups during the election campaign. Thus when casting their vote for particular parties or MEPs in the elections, European citizens would also indirectly endorse their preferred candidate for Commission President. The Parliament hopes that this will give added visibility and importance to the elections, increase voter turnout and enhance European democracy by increasing the citizens’ connection with those making decisions on their behalf at EU level.

Based on this unilateral approach, some political groups in the Parliament have already begun the process of selecting their candidates to succeed President Barroso (although Barroso himself has refused to rule out a third term). It is the prerogative of each group to define their own internal selection process, or indeed to decline to put forward a candidate. The Party of European Socialists (PES) and the European Green Party (EGP) have already announced the details of the procedures they will follow. The EGP will choose two candidates (one male, one female) through an online vote open to all Europeans over 16 years old “who share Green values”.

The European People’s Party will announce its candidate in Dublin on 6-7 March 2014 but further details will not be released until early 2014. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) and the European United Left/Nordic Green Left also intend to put forward candidates.

The ECR Group is unlikely to put forward a candidate and will instead hope to gain votes through opposing the system as a whole. The Group is in favour of the European Council retaining the right to choose the Commission President. The Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group (EFD) has yet to decide whether to field a candidate.

2) The European Council and European Commission

According to the European Parliament, once the outcome of the Parliament elections is known, the designation of the Commission President will be a done deal. However, indications from the European Council, which stands to lose out significantly under that scenario, are that some of its members do not agree with the Parliament’s interpretation of the Treaty. In an interview with Der Spiegel, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, stated: “The European Parliament and the European Council should be jointly responsible for the election of the president […] It’s true that this is already the case today, and I don’t want to change that, either.” Remarks by the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, conform with the view that the new Treaty wording does not necessitate a significant departure from previous practice. In a debate in Brussels on 10 October 2013, Van Rompuy said: “You don’t have to look for solutions to things that aren’t a problem. To go and look for ‘faces’ to guide the EU: that’s not a solution.”

Vice President of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, has also given an interpretation of the selection process which differs from that of the Parliament. According to her speech to the Union of European Federalists in September 2013, following the European Parliament elections the President of the European Council will act as a “go between” in what she clearly states is a “negotiation” between the Parliament and the European Council.

Potential Implications

The uncertainty around how to reconcile the conflicting interpretations outlined above will most likely persist until the crunch period following the elections. However, it is already possible to analyse some of the most significant implications of any major shift of power from the European Council to the Parliament in relation to the selection of the next President of the European Commission. These include potential changes in voter behaviour (turnout and voting patterns), the politicisation of the role of Commission President and challenges for achieving balance across the institutions.

1) The theme for the Parliament’s overarching communications campaign around the election is “This time it’s different”. Even if the procedure envisaged by the Parliament is pursued without any major obstacles, to what extent is this likely to buoy voter turnout? Turnout has declined steadily since the first direct election to the European Parliament in 1979 to a low of 43% in 2009. The latest European Parliament Eurobarometer survey (conducted in June 2013) reveals interesting insights in relation to turnout. 55% of those polled across the EU said they are more likely to vote if European political parties present their candidate for European Commission President ahead of the elections (36% said they are not). The planned U.S. style head-to-head debates between the leading candidates in spring 2014 may also contribute this trend – if they are suitably promoted and broadcast at national level. 

2) The implications for voter behaviour beyond turnout may also prove significant. If the prospect of (indirectly) electing the Commission President appeals to voters, as the Eurobarometer findings above suggest, they are likely to cast their vote on this basis. This would favour the two largest groups – the EPP and the Socialists – as they are the only groups realistically vying to ‘win’ the elections and therefore have their candidate named Commission President. This outcome would reduce the diversity of representation in the European Parliament, or at the very least shift the balance even more towards the two main groups. It may also favour groups that put forward high-profile candidates, despite the experience gained from Herman Van Rompuy’s Presidency of the European Council, which shows that a less conspicuous consensus-builder may be more suited to leading the main EU institutions.

3) If the ‘race’ for the Commission Presidency takes off, it will also politicise the position to a greater extent than ever before. The eventual President will ‘represent’ the voters of one particular political group in the European Parliament, but a large majority of EU citizens may feel alienated. For example, if the system had been used in 2009, the Commission President would have been chosen on the basis of the EPP winning the election with 36% of the vote, leaving 64% of voters feeling that President Barroso was not ‘their’ President. This may not represent a worsening of the current connection between citizens and the European Commission, but it certainly does not constitute the major leap forward in democratic legitimacy that some claim.

4) It is also worth considering what impact the Parliament’s envisaged selection process could have on the carefully-constructed balance at the top of the EU institutions. Currently, a majority of the main positions – Commission President, European Council President, President of the European Central Bank and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – are decided in a bout of horse-trading between Member States. While the process is often criticised, it seeks a balance between right and left, small and large Member States, men and women. With such a prominent position as the Commission Presidency carved out of this equation, would balance become more difficult to achieve? 


2014 will be a year of major change in the European institutions. As the specific roles and relative powers of the different institutions bed down post-Lisbon Treaty, it appears that conflicting interpretations exist on the procedure to be followed for the selection of the next President of the European Commission. The political groups in the European Parliament are each selecting their candidates on the basis that the group that polls best in the elections next May will have their candidate appointed with near-automaticity, and they are banking on this to ignite voter interest in the elections. With seven months to go until the elections on 22-25 May 2014, a variety of outcomes remain possible, both in terms of the person selected and the relative influence of the different institutions over the outcome.  

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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