Van Rompuy scorns direct election of Commission president

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Having public candidates for the Commission presidency during the next EU elections is not the panacea for Europe’s credibility woes, says European Council President Herman Van Rompuy.

While European parties look for figureheads for their EU election campaigns, the president of the European Council feels this will not resolve Europe’s democratic deficit.

“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,” Van Rompuy said at a debate last Thursday (10 October).

The Belgian politician was debating the future of the European Union at an event in Brussels. Joining him in the debate were former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González and former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors.

“Our problems are not institutional; we can do plenty within [the remit of] the existing treaties,” he said.

The Lisbon Treaty, that went into force in 2009, stipulates that the next European Commission president will be chosen “taking into account the results of the European elections”.

Several European parties are in the process of designating candidates to lead their EU election campaigns and thus run for the Commission presidency. Putting ‘faces’ on EU politics is aimed at stoking public interest in the upcoming elections, the first to be held since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty.

The idea could also tackle the EU’s another European election issue;  turnout has been falling since the first direct elections of the European Parliament in 1979. In a recent poll, 55% of Europeans said they would be more inclined to vote if they had a say in who would become the next Commission head.

Van Rompuy has dismissed this initiative in the past, saying that politicising European elections in this way would “organise the disappointment in advance”. He feels the whole effort is doomed to fail unless the Commission was given more powers over the member states: “If this is not going hand in hand with large powers for the Commission, then forget it.”

Facing election euroscepticism

Giving his predictions for the upcoming May 2014 elections at the conference, Van Rompuy warned of a surge in eurosceptic votes.

“There will always be a grand majority in Parliament to move Europe forwards, but they will face a much more difficult time than before,” the European Council president said.

Pro-European politicians should stick their necks out, he said. “We don’t defend the results of the European Union anymore. If the people campaigning [for EU Parliament seats] are really the people who want to fight for the European Union, then it will work. If not, I’m scared of the outcome,” he said.

Analysts have debated the possible impact of rising euroscepticism on the next Parliament’s make-up. “We have seen such eurosceptic pressures popping up in past European election campaigns as well – and they never quite met the expectations,” Isabell Hoffmann of the Bertelsmann Stiftung said in an earlier interview with EurActiv.

“The European Parliament will be able to continue their work with a higher number of eurosceptic MEPs,” Janis Emanouilidis of the European Policy Centre (EPC) said. “They probably won’t form a coherent group in Parliament.”

Anti-European themes are likely to be a feature of the upcoming election campaigns, with trust in the European Union is at an all time low, according to a eurobarometer survey from July.

Timeline: 
  • Nov. 2013-Jan. 2014: European Greens party's open online primary in which two figureheads for campaign are elected
  • 13-15 Dec.: Party of European Left Congress in Madrid
  • 19-20 Dec.: ALDE pre-summit meeting to discuss commission presidency candidate(s)
  • Feb. 2014: PES congress electing the candidate and adopting a common campaign manifesto
  • 6-7 Mar. 2014: EPP (Centre-Right) Congress in Dublin
  • 22-25 May 2014: European parliament elections in all 28 member states
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