The campaign leaders of Europe's four main political parties have pledged to "put a face" on next year's European election by designating their own candidates for the European Commission presidency.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Committee of the Regions on Wednesday (16 October), the campaign leaders of the four main European political parties promised to each designate a candidate to succeed José Manuel Barroso after the May 2014 poll.
All parties now have their selection processes in place, with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) the last to reveal their plans, on Wednesday.
The Party of European Socialists (PES) earlier disclosed their own nomination process with a final list of candidates expected on 6 November, while the Greens had earlier announced an "open online primary" that would culminate in February with the nomination of two campaign co-frontrunners.
The centre-right European Peoples Party (EPP) has refrained from big announcements, at least until after the Christmas holidays, but the party has said it will select a candidate at its congress on 6-7 March in Dublin. On 13 November, the party is expected to discuss the profile of potential candidates, with details on the process expected to follow early January.
The nomination processes are part of the European Parliament’s longstanding wish to personalise and politicise the EU elections by showing a clear outcome for voters at the May 2014 poll.
Yet, the specifics of what will happen after election day are still far from clear.
In the post-election phase, the European Council of heads of states still holds the privilege of nominating its candidate to lead the European Commission, “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament and after having held the appropriate consultations”. The chosen candidate will then “be elected by the European Parliament by a majority of its component members” (Article 17.7).
Despite the vague wording, campaign strategists believe politics can fill the gap. “Sometimes – if you do it right – the political can exceed the legal,” said Brian Synnott, communications coordinator of the PES campaign. “Part of the strategy is to maximise expectations: if people expect their candidate to take on the lead position [of Commission president], it is difficult to turn this around.”
But Synnott also acknowledges that the outcome is unpredictable. In theory, the European Council of heads of states is expected to take the winning party's candidate into consideration for the Commission nomination at a summit on 26-27 June. But they could also decide to circumvent the winning party's candidate, potentially triggering a squabble with the European Parliament that could last all throughout the summer.
“It is a flaw in the system,” said Didrik de Schaetzen, campaign leader at the ALDE. “It could happen… and it would be a bummer.”
Moreover, the procedure itself remains controversial. Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, who is tipped to play a mediator role in the post-election nomination process, has consistently called into question the Parliament’s attempt to raise the stakes of the EU elections. Last week, he said that looking for "faces" to guide the EU was “not a solution”.
Van Rompuy's says that voters would be disappointed because the Commission's democratic legitimacy does not match its actual powers and competencies.
Former President of the European Commission Jacques Delors has sided with Van Rompuy. In an interview with RTBF last week, he warned: “What will happen if candidate wins the elections but does not please two or three governments [in Council]? We will face disappointment and outcries that we are undemocratic.”
Delors himself stated his preference for former World Trade Organization director general and former EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy to succeed Barroso. Lamy is a member of the Party of European Socialists (PES), which appears likely to nominate Parliament President Martin Schulz as its candidate. Another name that carries weight with EU pundits is the managing director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde, part of the centre-right EPP political family.
Despite the calls for caution of Van Rompuy and Delors, European Parliament and political parties say they are determined to stick to the process. In the case of post-election disagreement, discussions could heat up considerably.