Sophie in’t Veld is a Dutch MEP from the Democraten 66 party, part of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament.
Prominent politicians from the center-right European People’s Party issuing a video message in support of the election campaign of their EPP friends in Croatia: What could possibly be exciting about that?
As the European political families are more closely knit than ever, it seems the most natural thing in the world that they play a visible role in national elections as well. So far nothing special.
But the appearance of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the video clip, part of the campaign of Croatia’s HDZ party ahead of a parliamentary election on Sunday, triggered a wave of indignation and criticism. Many in the European Union expect the head of the Commission has to remain politically neutral, and not to be visibly partisan.
Of course, von der Leyen could and should have foreseen that her appearance in the video message would be controversial. She is surrounded by some of the smartest people in Europe, capable of reminding her of the Commission’s code of conduct, in case her own judgment is failing. The Twitter-ostracism was predictable.
However, the issue is not straightforward. What is the nature of the top job of the European Commission? What creature is the Commission? Is it a technocratic, intergovernmental civil service merely implementing the decisions taken by the member countries? Or is it a fully-fledged political body, the political leadership composed on the basis of European elections?
The problem is: It’s both and neither. For decades this Jekyll-and-Hyde ambiguity worked well. But the tension between the technocratic and the political side is growing.
The member countries like to treat the Commission as a technocratic, intergovernmental body. They want to keep a very firm grip on the selection of the president and commissioners. That’s why the fledgling political effort known as the Spitzenkandidat process, which aimed to give citizens a say in the leadership of the EU institutions, was killed and buried after the European Parliament election last year.
After the Parliament meekly accepted being sidelined, national leaders sighed in relief and swiftly went back to the traditional backroom horse-trading to appoint the political leadership of the European Union, a procedure about as transparent as the election of the pope.
But not even that level of opacity can hide the fact that the process is, and always has been, profoundly and utterly party-political. Members of the Commission and the president are not selected because they are outstanding civil servants or technocrats. They are overwhelmingly politicians: former ministers, prime ministers, members of parliament, each of them with a party affiliation.
Political families like the EPP sit at the negotiating table when European top jobs are shared out. The confirmation hearings of the would-be Commissioners in Parliament are about the quality of the candidates, but they’re also about party politics.
At the national or local level, the political nature of leadership selection is self-evident. When people enter the voting booth, they know what to expect from the candidates. And if their preferred party does not win, they will accept it, because the process is clear and unambiguous. Government leaders are supposed to serve the nation as a whole, but everyone recognizes they are politically affiliated.
In European politics, we urgently need the same clarity and honesty. The European Commission is a political body, made up of politicians, making policies to respond to political questions. And as the world is rapidly evolving, and the European Union is evolving with it, it is ever-more disturbing that hundreds of millions of citizens have no say in the choice of their political leadership.
It is urgent that the union quickly transforms into a mature parliamentary democracy, where candidates and parties have to present their propositions, and compete for the support of the voters.
Parliament backed von der Leyen last year, expecting in return proposals for making the EU more democratic. But all that has followed since was silence.
Von der Leyen has shown her partisan colors. It’s time for her to display her democratic colors. She threw her support behind the EPP in the Croatian election. Will she also be the champion of a European parliamentary democracy?