Political parties should nominate a candidate for European Commission President in the 2014 EU elections and display their European political party affiliation, the EU Executive recommended yesterday (12 March).
According to European Parliament sources, the Commission's move did not come as a surprise as disenchantment with the traditional European political families appeared to grow following national elections in Italy and elsewhere.
At the 2009 European elections the average turnout in the 27 member countries was 43%. It was the lowest in Slovakia with 19.6% and Lithuania with 20.4%, and the highest in Belgium, where voting is obligatory, at 91%.
Parliament sources told EurActiv that MEPs feared that if nothing was done, the next European elections could look like the last Italian elections, with new parties such as the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo or Pirate parties taking centre stage.
On 12 March, the European council of ministers approved a request by the Parliament to have the elections moved to May 22-25, earlier than the June date that was initially foreseen.
The reason behind the change is to increase voter turnout, as many Europeans take their holidays in June. Another reason appears to be that MEPs from the liberal ALDE group, which initiated the change of date, want to give to their political group leader Guy Verhofstadt an advantage in his quest for the Commission top job.
As EurActiv reported, the liberal European family is struggling to find a candidate for Commission president because NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a Danish liberal, is tipped to get another top job, as European Council President.
It is unlikely that members of the same political family would command two of the EU's highest offices.
As Rasmussen's mandate at NATO expires in July 2014, elections in May 2014 are expected to favour Verhofstadt. A liberal forum in May this year is expected to nominate the liberal candidate or candidates for the European election race.
The Party of European Socialists (PES) is also busy preparing for the election. At their September congress in September 2012, its leader Sergei Stanishev said that PES affiliates across Europe would unite in their candidate nomination for Commission president, and that they would devote 2013 to the process of selecting the candidate.
Parliament President Martin Schulz, who enjoys considerable support in the centre-left political circles of many countries, is leading the race for their candidature. Privately, the socialists have high hopes of winning the European elections by scoring better than the centre-right European Peoples’ Party (EPP) and thereby installing Schulz in the Commission top seat.
It is less clear however who the EPP group nominate. EPP members discussed the preparation for the European elections at a group summit in Cyprus on 11 January, but are yet to take any major decisions. The EPP insists that it has pioneered the process of nominating a candidate for Commission president since 2004 - after the elections - and again in 2009 - ahead of the elections.
On both occasions, they named former Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Barroso their candidate. A third nomination of Barroso is not to be excluded since Commission Vice President Viviane Reding advocated his renomination, despite being viewed as a possible EPP candidate herself.
The Commission recommendation adopted yesterday is backed by a new Eurobarometer survey which found that 84% of people think turnout in European elections would increase with more information about the EU’s impact on their daily lives, parties’ programmes in the Parliament and about the elections themselves.
Also, 73% believe more information about candidates’ European political affiliations would encourage people to vote, while 62% think having party candidates for Commission president and a single voting day would help bolster turnout.
The President of the European People’s Party (EPP) Wilfried Martens warmly welcomed the recommendation of the European Commission, which calls for European political parties to nominate their candidate for Commission President ahead of the 2014 European elections, as well as to indicate European party affiliation on national ballots.
“The recommendation by the European Commission to have European political parties nominate candidates for the function of President of the Commission, ahead of the European elections, reinforces in a very positive manner a process that has been embraced by the main European political parties, and especially the EPP. In fact, the EPP pioneered this process […].
“Furthermore, the Commission’s recommendation to indicate on the national ballot papers the affiliation with European political parties, is a very important step in encouraging the European democratic process and triggering broader public interest in the 2014 elections. As Commission Vice President Viviane Reding has rightly said, we need to ‘strengthen people’s voice in European democracy’; the time has come to create a genuine European public space for debate,” Martens concluded.
Following the Commission's recommendation, MEP Andrew Duff (ALDE/UK) said:
"The Commission is right to back Parliament's call for the political parties to nominate their candidates for the next presidency of the Commission. The arrival of party political champions on the scene will dramatise the European Parliamentary election campaign across Europe, and offer the voters a real choice between competing policies and personalities.
"It would also be a useful innovation if the logos and names of the European political parties could appear on the ballot papers."
- 22-25 May 2014: European elections to be held in all 28 member states