The European Commission and its presidency – are they worth fighting over?

Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg is the clear front-runner for Europe’s top job. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

There’s a battle royal going on between European Union heads of state about who will become the next president of the European Commission. In the wake of the elections to the European Parliament, political leaders are now locked in debate about who should be the new head of the Commission. The parliamentary elections have taken on greater significance because – for the first time – transnational parties have nominated candidates for the presidency. Now, a new-look European Parliament will have to vote to approve whoever the European Council decides to choose.

These candidates have taken part in TV debates broadcast across the European Union and have been promoted as part of the election campaigns of some parties in the EU’s member states. But why has this link between EP elections and the Commission presidency come about and what are the roles of these two institutions (the Commission and Parliament) in the EU?

The EU’s institutions are sometimes seen as distant and complex. This is partly because they do not map precisely onto the sorts of institutions we see in national political systems. Nevertheless, the EU has many similarities with systems of governance seen at the national level. The European Commission can be thought of as the executive branch of government in the EU. For much of what the EU does – outside of the Common Foreign and Security Policy – the Commission is the sole initiator of policy. Each year, the Commission sets out its plans for legislation in an annual work programme.

Martin Schulz is the main opposition to Juncker. EPA/Julien Warnand

Many of these proposals then make their way into the EU’s ordinary legislative procedure which starts with the Commission drafting a piece of legislation. This might be on some aspect of regulating the single market, such as proposals to limit mobile phone charges or rules for mutual acceptance of professional qualifications. The draft is then passed onto the two institutions that form the EU’s legislative branch, namely the Council of the EU (made up of ministers from each member state) and the European Parliament.

The Commission reacts to amendments made by the Council and the EP and can choose to withdraw a piece of legislation during this process. Ultimately though, the Council and the EP must both agree for legislation to go through, at least when the ordinary legislative procedure applies.

Beyond this, the Commission is a powerful actor in the EU’s competition policy. It reacts to anti-competitive practices and assesses mergers and state aid to companies. The Commission has powers to enforce EU competition law as it did in March 2013 when fining Microsoft for failing to promote a range of web browsers beyond Internet Explorer. A further role for the Commission is as the EU’s external representative in world trade negotiations via the World Trade Organisation through which the 28 EU members sign deals as a single market. Overall, then, the Commission’s primary function is as an initiator of policy in the EU, giving it an agenda-setting role alongside its powers in competition policy and external trade deals.

The European Parliament can be thought of as the lower house of a bicameral legislature in the EU. It has to find agreement with what is effectively the upper house, the Council of the EU, for many areas of EU policy. The Lisbon Treaty(since December 2009) extended the EP’s veto powers to areas including the costly agricultural policies of the EU as well as justice and home affairs policies.

In short, getting the Parliament’s agreement is now essential for much EU legislation. The Commission can, in theory, propose what it likes, but without the EP’s agreement – in many areas of policy at least – the legislation will not become law. The EP is also critical in deciding on the EU’s annual budget and it has to approve budgetary agreements for several years ahead. Negotiations for the 2014-20 spending plans saw the EP threatening to use its veto with a compromise reached only after difficult discussions. Nevertheless, finding majorities will be trickier in the new EP as the three largest transnational party groups into which members of the EP (MEPs) form now have a smaller proportion of the seats than previously.

Key role at stake

Finding majorities in the EP is also crucial for its role in choosing the Commission President. The EU’s Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (article 17) says that “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament” the Commission chief should be proposed to the EP by a majority of the European Council (made up of the heads of government of the member states). This candidate “shall [then] be elected” by an absolute majority in the EP.

There is some disagreement over this process. Five of the transnational parties in the EU each selected a candidate for the Commission presidency. Their intention was that the candidate from the party with the most votes should be voted on by the EP, thus establishing a link between European elections and the choice of Commission president. The centre-right transnational party, the European People’s Party, secured the most votes and therefore expect their candidate, Jean-Claude Juncker, former Luxembourg prime minister, to be voted on by MEPs.

Nevertheless the heads of government have been unable to agree on this. David Cameron and the Swedish and Hungarian prime ministers, oppose Juncker. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has been lukewarm in her support for him. Those opposing the EP’s plans argue it is up to the European Council to decide who to propose and that “taking into account the elections” does not mean the European Council is forced to pick the candidate put forward by the largest party. Alternatively, those arguing for a link between EP elections and the Commission Presidency view it as part of reducing the democratic deficit by ensuring that votes in the elections affect the choice of Commission President. Voters in the UK may have known little of this given that, of the four largest British parties, only the Liberal Democrats stood behind a particular candidate (Guy Verhofstadt) and this was given little publicity.

Whatever the outcome, there will be criticisms. If Juncker is supported by the European Council and the EP, some will argue that the choice of a pro-integration Commission President runs against the signal sent by voters who have elected more Eurosceptics to the EP than previously. If someone other than Juncker fills the role, many will argue that the EU has lost an opportunity to link European elections to the choice of the Commission’s president. Dealing with the democratic deficit in the EU continues to be as difficult as ever.