Agata Roderick ParkesMartin Schulz has been announced as the Party of European Socialists (PES) candidate for the post of President of the European Commission for the May 2014 elections. Agata Gostyńska and Roderick Parkes argue that he risks becoming an easy target for the centre-right if the left isn’t careful to avoid a narrative implying a potential centralisation of power.

The Party of European Socialists (PES) has named Martin Schulz, current President of the European Parliament, as its ‘candidate designate’ for the May 2014 elections and thus for the post of President of the European Commission. The move reflects a long-standing agenda to increase the importance of the European elections and to give citizens greater incentive to vote: the Lisbon Treaty stipulated that EU leaders take into account the outcome of European elections when nominating the Commission President and the Socialists now wish to strengthen their hand in that process through the nomination of a lead candidate.


Credit: S&D ITRE Delginiesse (CC-BY-SA-3.0)

As Julian Priestley has argued in the Political Observatory , this move ought to benefit both the EU and the party families that follow suit. Voters naturally expect their electoral choices to be reflected in the make-up of the executive. This is how Prime Ministers and Presidents are usually elected at the national level. Thus, it is only right that the nomination of the Commission President should reflect not just the electorate’s general choice between left and right, but its specific choice of personality. The reform should make the EU more responsive to citizens. Meanwhile, the party families that follow this path will enjoy a strong central mouthpiece in the election campaign; they can show themselves to be giving voters clearer choices; and they will gain a stronger hand in the intergovernmental negotiations on the selection of a candidate for Commission President.

Yet, some on the Left fear that they have stumbled into a trap set by their political rivals. It was the Christian Democrats who, in 2002 – during the EU’s Constitutional Convention, backed the idea of linking the outcome of the European elections with the nomination of the candidate for the Commission President. Yet, it is the Christian Democrats who are today distancing themselves from the idea of nominating a top candidate. As such, the Christian Democrats, unlike the Socialists, will be able to lead a decentralised electoral campaign focused on popular national personalities rather than a single European figure. They will also be able to dip into a broader range of candidates when negotiations for the post of Commission President begin. In this way, they will avoid unintentionally giving rise to any notion that they are bent on promoting some kind of centralised, supranational vision of the European Union.

That may turn out to be a serious problem for the Socialists. Potential supporters who were initially put off by Schulz’s personality, his brand of Social Democracy or even his nationality, may eventually be won over to the idea that the PES’s nomination of a top candidate strengthens the weight of their vote along a left-right axis. However, they will still feel that it reduces their choices in other ways: a vote for a party which ascribes to the principle of having a top candidate could potentially be read as a vote in favour of organizing the EU in a more centralised way. This is compounded by Schulz’s own reputation for pushing for an assertive European Parliament. These days, not everyone would want to endorse that position.

Nevertheless, another narrative is possible here. The nomination of lead candidates by party families could just as well serve a rather different logic, one rather removed from the idea of a centralisation of power. In this alternative reading, it would prevent the emergence of a dominant Eurozone caucus in the European Council, rebalancing slightly in favour of the Commission as the guardian of the common interest, as well as improving national parliaments’ capacity to scrutinise EU proposals.

Preventing a Eurozone caucus in the European Council

When Brussels began intruding into sensitive areas of economic policy, national leaders demanded a greater say in policymaking. It was hoped that regular summits would calm the financial markets but also safeguard national interests. The downside has been the emergence of a core of eurozone leaders who dominate decision-making. The use of intergovernmental agreements outside the EU framework to forge deeper Eurozone cooperation may only strengthen the exclusionary dynamic. In this context, the nomination of top candidates by EU-wide party families should reduce the likelihood that any caucus of Eurozone governments would also dominate the choice of the next Commission President.

Restoring the credibility of the European Commission

The European Council’s prominence has also undermined the Commission. Since the financial crisis began, it has found it hard to stand up for the interests of small states and non-eurozone members, and for the European interest in general. And with larger member states setting the tone, it is struggling with its new tasks of monitoring national budgetary policies. This could change thanks to the new, more personalized nomination process. The Commission might, for example, be able to use the legitimacy derived from the link to the European elections in order to strengthen its leverage when it comes to encouraging structural reforms in member states. This legitimate Commission would also have more clout to wrest its right of initiative back and put forward an attendant system of growth instruments to sweeten the pill.

Strengthening links between national parties and parliaments

A vote for a lead candidate need not be understood as a vote in favour of a stronger or bolder European Parliament, but rather in favour of greater cooperation and coordination between participating parties at national and European level.  The choice of a common face for the 2014 campaign requires greater efforts to reach common positions on a family programme. This matters because national parliaments are set to gain a greater role in EU policymaking, with Anglo-Dutch proposals to give them a ‘red card’ over Commission initiatives likely to accelerate this trend.

Of course, one cannot expect voters to engage with the subtleties of these constitutional arguments and to reward the Socialists, and other participating party families, accordingly. Nevertheless, this analysis suggests that not only pitfalls but also benefits are within the reach of those party families that make the most of the available democratic potential. This is not least because the victory of a lead candidate could help prevent a concentration of power in the hands of a few national governments.

This article was first published as part of Policy Network’s work on The politics of European integration.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the authors 

AgataAgata GostyńskaPolish Institute of International Affairs
Agata Gostyńska is a senior researcher at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in Warsaw.

Roderick ParkesRoderick ParkesPolish Institute of International Affairs
Roderick Parkes is the head of the EU Programme at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) in Warsaw.


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