Brussels Briefing

Jan 10, 2024

Visible Democracy

The EU’s consensus-driven stumble toward choosing institutional leaders is more democratic than the alternatives.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attends a news conference following her meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the Delegation of the European Union in Beijing, China April 6, 2023.
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As Ursula von der Leyen gears up to run for a second term as European Commission president, she’s also for the second time skipping the European Parliament elections set for June 6-9. The former German defense minister opted not to run for the 27-country legislature, even if she seeks a new mandate from her party and from member state leaders to continue in her current role.

Democracy is not diverted because of a lack of direct elections for the European Union’s executive branch. Delegated decision-making is, in fact, one of the system’s greatest strengths. Voters will have more ultimate say over who runs the Brussels bureaucracy if they do not come face to face with the candidate list. Since presidents and prime ministers are the best-known and most accountable politicians in their respective member states, it makes sense that they should come together, as they do, to pick the EU’s guiding hands.

Looking Good Vs. Working Well

Europe is still struggling with the tradeoff between political processes that look good and those that work well. Von der Leyen’s 2019 ascension is a textbook-worthy case study. The election cycle was set up to be a victory lap for the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process, in which each of the major cross-border political families chose a top pick and those candidates faced off for the top job. It’s elegant on paper: Voters choose a local political party, the local party chooses a political family, the family chooses a candidate, and the winner ascends to the top of the EU heap. This theoretical Champions League acts as a playoff bracket between top vote-getters like the Conservatives, the Socialists, the Greens, and the Liberals.

Reality did not cooperate. The system got a test run in 2014, when Luxembourg’s long-time prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, went up against the likes of Belgian liberal Guy Verhofstadt and German Social Democrat Martin Schulz. But Juncker’s accumulated political capital set him well ahead of his rivals, who had support from their political parties but not necessarily their home countries. For all that, Juncker’s victory seemed to align with what the lead-candidate process promised, prominent voices like Germany’s then-Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear that the leaders would assign jobs to suit themselves, not just because the parliament elections said so.

Old-fashioned Backroom Bargaining

While the 2019 slate featured some shiny names, the personalities did not line up with what the amalgamated voters’ representatives were willing to accept at the helm of the European Commission. The European Parliament fought with the EU leaders. The French and the Hungarians fought with the mathematical stitch-up. And most dysfunctionally, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), to which von der Leyen belongs, fought with itself.

This meant that a famous EU personality like Margrethe Vestager, the liberal alliance’s contender, could make little use of her limelight because her party group came in third in the total vote. Meanwhile Socialists & Democrats’ (S&D) Frans Timmermans drew about 20 percent and the EPP’s Manfred Weber pulled in the most parliament seats with nearly a quarter of the pre-Brexit 750-seat total. Weber may have technically won but he wasn’t especially his own party’s first choice, for all the work he put into claiming the Spitzenkandidatslot, let alone the continent’s favorite.

Enter von der Leyen, waiting in the wings: a compromise candidate put forward not by Merkel and the EPP, but by French President Emmanuel Macron, affiliated with the liberals, and Hungary’s iconoclastic Viktor Orbán, long at odds with the EU over principles like media freedom and judicial independence. Because she was EPP, von der Leyen could pass muster with the conservative wing, while also gaining enough support from other corners to seem like a true consensus builder. Choosing her also paved the way to strike a deal divvying up other plum assignments like the head of the European Council, the head of the European Parliament, and the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs post. At the end of the day, the centrists parties teamed up to help von der Leyen get through her parliament confirmation, alongside right-wing populist MEPs from Poland, Hungary, and Italy.

Know thy Candidate

Letting leaders haggle out who will lead the commission allows small member states to have a bigger say in who gets the top jobs than if prospective presiders need to run campaigns. Such stumping necessarily focuses on bigger states and the most widely spoken languages. But even in Germany and France, the countries most commonly cited as administrative kingmakers, avoiding a ballot lets more people be represented in the final outcome.

That is because heads of state and government are the best-known politicians in their system. Citizens turn out to pick their country’s leader, and they tend to have a good sense of who is running and what is at stake. The winners, therefore, stand on democracy’s highest hill, even in countries where election oversight still has a lot of room for improvement.

In contrast, very few voters can name their European Parliament member, and given how the system is designed that is unlikely to change. The EU-wide vote, which will next take place June 6-9, picks winners through a system of proportional representation, filtered through specific national procedures. Parties win seats based on their share of the vote, often making it hard to keep track of who is on the list and who made it over the line.

Election turnout reflects these differences. In 2019, just over 50 percent of voters showed up at the EU polls, the highest level since 1994. National contests can be significantly higher—for example, general elections in France and Germany routinely get participation rates of more than 70 and sometimes 85 or 90 percent.Poland’s October election had a turnout of 74 percent, the best rate since post-Communist elections began in 1989.

People know their leaders and leaders thus feel beholden to their people. Even anti-government parties can have a strong democratic foundation. Populism, after all, is a movement that is designed to appeal to voters’ emotions, and therefore democratically rooted even if it is often at odds with governing. From a democratic perspective, it is a decidedly mixed bag—as US government analyst Patrick Liddiard wrote in a 2019 paper for the Wilson Center, populist parties often lack accountability once in office. At the same time, they bring new actors and policies into the political sphere and hold the promise of democratic renewal.

Widen the Net

The populist parties that helped put Ursula von der Leyen in office in 2019 can therefore be seen as stalwart representatives of their voters’ sentiments, regardless of how well they follow through on their promises at home. They bring clear political views to the EU table and help ensure that smaller countries can make their voices heard, even if listening to those voices constructively proves challenging for the centrist core that so far has held control.  

The Spitzenkandidaten process will likely continue for at least one more cycle, whether or not it translates into who eventually gets the gigs. Politico reported that the EPP will accept applications for its lead spot—presumably including one from von der Leyen, even if she’s not a candidate for a parliament seat—up until February 21, with an endorsement to be made during meetings taking place on March 6-7. As of early January, pre-election polls showed the centrist parties maintaining a comfortable lead but also a surge for the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) alliance. The incoming parliament will have 720 members, up from 705 after the UK departed.

The 2024 race was thrown into further relief when European Council President Charles Michel, a Belgian liberal, told Belgian media that he plans to run for the European Parliament. If elected, he would have to step down from his job organizing leaders’ summits in mid-July, rather than staying until the end of his two-and-a-half-year term in November. In turn, EU leaders would need to name a replacement quickly or face Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán during any interregnum, because Budapest holds the EU’s rotating presidency during the second half of this year.

Such wrinkles accentuate the EU’s need to strike a grand bargain dividing up the plum posts. Typically, top roles such as the council and commission presidents and the EU High Representative foreign policy chief are divvied up among political parties and geographic regions to promote feelings of getting a fair share. The EU Socialists have been angling for the council slot, given the likelihood of a von der Leyen repeat, but a wild card like former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi could also enter the ring.

Beyond the Usual Suspects

Allowing leaders to debate among themselves helps these bargains take shape and also allows talent to emerge from beyond the usual suspects of past election winners and other career campaigners. While Juncker was well known to his former peers when they backed his move to the European Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters, as was his predecessor, former Portuguese Prime Minister Jose Manuel Barroso, other Brussels bosses have had more diverse pedigrees.

The legendary Jacques Delors, who died on December 27, 2023, at age 98, hailed from well off the beaten path, yet managed to not only become a leader in Brussels but help the EU usher in the euro and build its all-important single market, making the bloc the global force it is today. “What was remarkable was that Delors did not come from the privileged French elite of énarques, graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration, whose expectation is that they will run things, or from a powerful party political powerbase, but had fought his way up through ability, application, and hard work,” according to his obituary in The Guardian.

As Delors was laid to rest, EU political noteworthies of all stripes gathered in Paris to pay their respects. Even Orbán showed up, despite his recurring role as EU spoiler on everything from the joint budget to support for Ukraine. His appearance shows that both the commission top job and the seat at the EU leaders’ table bring tremendous cache that leaders want to carry back to their voter bases.

The European Parliament elections will send an important emotional signal for how citizens are feeling about the EU project, and the results will have long-lasting implications beyond the next five-year political cycle. Those emotions should not, however, be the sole basis for floating a candidate to the top of the Brussels pantheon. To find a true consensus, national decision-makers from all 27 member states will need to negotiate with all the democratic mandates at their disposal.

Rebecca Christie is a senior fellow at Bruegel, the Brussels-based economic think tank, and the Europe columnist for Reuters Breakingviews.

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