Van Rompuy opposes direct election of the EU’s top leaders

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Directly electing the European Commission President at the 2014 EU elections would “organise the disappointment in advance”, said European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. Directly electing his own successor would be “even more absurd”, he added in comments that are likely to irritate proponents of increased democracy in the European institutions.

Van Rompuy's statement, made at a public conference in Brussels on Wednesday (28 November), runs in direct opposition with the EU's major political families, who in their majority, would like to “give faces” to the next European elections in May 2014.

But Van Rompuy warned that the “huge legitimacy” stemming from the direct election of “a European top candidate” at the next European elections could be counterproductive.

The European Council President spoke at a conference on the future of the European Union organised by the Belgian Foreign Ministry, the Bertelsmann Foundation and the King Baudouin Foundation.

The forum was aimed at discussing the Final Report of the Future of Europe Group in a wider circle, which included EU affairs pundits, MEPs and civil society representatives.

The self-appointed Future of Europe Group consists of the foreign ministers of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain. [more]

According to the proposal by the 11 ministers, one key step to increasing the democratic legitimacy is that each political party nominates a top candidate for the next European Parliament elections, who would also stand for the post of Commission President. The idea is shared by the three largest political families (see background).

‘A huge legitimacy’

But Van Rompuy said he had already warned the ministers at a meeting held on the sidelines of the last General Assembly of the United Nations in September.

“I said it in New York: you give this man or this woman a huge legitimacy. But if you keep the same competence for the top job, you organise the disappointment in advance,” Van Rompuy told the audience, where two of the ministers were sitting – Germany’s Guido Westerwelle and Belgium’s Didier Reynders.

Van Rompuy said the whole effort was doomed to fail, unless the Commission itself would be given more powers vis-à-vis the member states.

“If this is not going hand in hand with large powers for the Commission, then forget it,” he said.

Van Rompuy added that he had also heard that “some mention” the direct election of the President of the European Council, his own job.

“This is even more absurd. Because then you create a figure which is a real rival of the President of the European Commission, also directly elected. He has to create compromises among the leaders. And you give him a legitimacy even higher than of the participants in the Council. So how can he find at the end of the day compromise or consensus?” Van Rompuy said.

'Gadget institutional changes'

Van Rompuy livened up the atmosphere by alluding to his own job, created by the Lisbon Treaty.

“We have in the Union a tendency of solving problems by creating new institutions, new jobs. It was only once a success: by creating the permanent President of the European Council. I don’t know other good examples,” he said amid laughs.

In November 2009, Van Rompuy was elected by heads of state and government as Council President largely because of his capacity to be a discrete and consensual EU top operator.

The Council President also appeared to pour cold water over appeals for another EU treaty change.

“We have to be careful when we speak about treaty changes,” he said, adding that a lot could be achieved within the current legal framework. “Even on own resources we can do a lot within the European treaties,” he stated.

“After 2014 we have to say precisely what we want to change in the treaties, and not embark on what I call, when I’m in the wrong mood, gadget institutional changes,” Van Rompuy said.

‘Cultural prejudice’

Van Rompuy said he was “concerned” about the cultural prejudice in the Union and the psychological differences between North and South. But he added that he had discovered at the last summit on 22-23 November that there was neither a homogeneous group of the net contributors, nor of the net recipients.

“Half of the net contributors, not only in numbers, but in importance, are not asking for rebates. And almost all of the net recipients were not complaining about the level of the cuts I proposed,” Van Rompuy said.

Even in the so-called North there was “a huge cultural difference” among the countries, Van Rompuy argued. On whether or not the Union should help Greece, there is a huge debate in the Netherlands, but only a minor one in Belgium, Van Rompuy said. Similarly, he said that in France there was practically no debate on Greece, while in Germany Greece was in the heart of the political debate.

“So it’s much more complicated that North and South,” he said.

Squaring the circle of the EU budget

Van Rompuy basically expressed optimism that it would be possible to reach agreement, rather sooner than later, on the EU budget for the period 2014-2020. He compared the magnitude of the task with the adoption of national budgets. In his country Belgium, the budget for 2013 was recently adopted after 18 hours of heated debate.

“With Jean-Luc and Didier not in the same government, but in the same country, we did budgets with five partners, with six partners," said Van Rompuy, referring to former Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene and Didier Reynders, former Deputy Prime Minister and former Minister of Finance, currently foreign minister, both of whom were present at the debate.

"But imagine you are in a country with 27 parties around the table, and you have to make a budget in a few hours. It is more than a caricature to say that you can realise that in one go,” Van Rompuy said.

He continued by saying that each of those countries was representing a coalition government. “So I don’t know how many parties are around the table,” he said.

In addition, the EU budget has to receive the approval of the European Parliament, and is a budget for seven years – no country has such a budget.

“If we succeed to have an agreement in two stages, I will consider it a major success. I don’t exclude it. As the French President said, 'C’est jouable', it’s doable,” Van Rompuy said.

27 egoists?

Van Rompuy strongly objected to the stereotype that the heads and government of EU countries behave like “traders at a Turkish market”, as one politician recently described them.

“There are no 27 egoists around the table. Of course if you are a Prime Minister or a President, you have to defend your national interests, that’s why you are elected for. But at the end, you have to take into account the European interest, because in the end it’s also your interest. And we are not saying it enough,” Van Rompuy said.

He also said he found the heads of state and government very different on the first day of the summit, when the bilateral “confessionals” were held, and on the next day.

“Those who are around the table Friday at lunchtime, most of them were fully aware of the European interest also. There will always be a mixture of these two kinds of approaches,” Van Rompuy said. 

Timeline: 

May or June 2014: European Elections

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