A year has gone by since the last elections to the European Parliament. One significant innovation in those elections was the Spitzenkandidaten exercise.
Vice President Timmermans and I reached the point where we touched on that perennial topic of the still existing deficiencies of European democracy, resulting, inter alia, in widespread indifference as expressed in the low turnout to the last European elections – 2014 scored the lowest turnout ever.
Here is an edited transcript from the interview.
Weiler: […] Part of the problem is that when people go and vote for the European Parliament, they are not really being offered a real political choice (the way, for example, yesterday they were offered in the United Kingdom – Labour or Conservative.), neither as regards the policies that will be pursued nor as regards who will govern them. So the delicate question is whether the Union in its processes needs to become overtly more political? Do you think the bold, even though limited, experiment of the last elections to the European Parliament with the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’, who delivered here in this space [the Salone dei cinquecento of the Palazzo Vecchio] one of the televised debates, should be pursued and perhaps deepened as one of the ways of addressing that problem of citizen disengagement?
Timmermans: Yes, first of all … the core of the problem also refers to one of my favourite authors, Hannah Arendt, who … actually, if you bring back the essence of some of her writings [says] ‘ It is not the anger of the minorities that hates us, it is the indifference of the majority that makes things difficult’: and here we have a problem at the European level because institutions that are made to represent the people through direct democracy, or like the Commission through other means, are very often very, very far removed from the political perceptions of the citizens. There is no (not yet) European ‘demos’, European political focal point, and we will need the engagement at the national level to make sure that we will bring people closer to what is European decision-making; so the odd contradiction between … there are …. there is the ‘supernational’ level and there is the national level, and what we are doing is trying to take away from one, or trying to resist taking it away from one … We are in this together! The only way forward is for national governments and leaders to take the responsibility for the European project, and stop blaming Europe for everything that goes wrong and taking credit for everything that goes right; and we at the European level should indeed, I think, be more focused towards making our institutions more political.
I was myself sceptical of the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ idea, right? I criticized it publicly several times and I am happy to admit it here today… I was wrong! Because of the Spitzenkandidaten idea, we now have a President of the Commission who is not appointed by consensus in the European Council, but who was appointed and elected by the European Parliament, by a political process. The European Council had to accept that political process; it makes the President of the European Commission far more independent than I have seen in the past. And Jean-Claude Juncker is a political leader who takes this very seriously indeed, and you can see this in the dynamic between the Commission and the European Parliament, between the Commission and the European Council … Let me just refer to what Jean-Claude said about migration; this was not consensual language as far as the European Council is concerned. He took his position in a political way; he took his leadership role in a very straightforward way and gave us a leadership role in the migration debate.
Weiler: Ladies and gentlemen, it is not every day that you sit next to a politician who is willing to say ‘I was wrong!’
The jury is still out on the importance – also for the future – of that bold exercise, though in my eyes it was a critical first step towards a more political Union, indispensable for a more democratic Europe. Democracy without meaningful choice, politics without ‘politics’ – are both empty.
It is thus appropriate to recall the unsung hero of this exercise, Martin Schulz, the current President of the European Parliament. The idea of a Spitzenkandidaten-type exercise had been canvassed here and there over the years. But as the Italians say, Nove parlano, uno fa! Nine talk, one does! It was the indefatigable effort, commitment, energy and political determination by Martin Schulz which more than any other single factor brought this development about. All of us, at least those who believe it was a positive development (to which we may now add Frans Timmermans) owe him a debt of thanks. The full story is told in the recent book, The Making of a European President, by Julian Priestley and Nereo Peñalver García. Well worth your time to read.