None of the Above: Europe’s Leaders Should Reject the Spitzenkandidaten

By nominating someone else to chair the European Commission, leaders would make clear they are still in charge.

German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg during a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, December 17, 2010
German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg during a meeting of the European Council in Brussels, December 17, 2010 (The Council of the European Union)

When Europe’s leaders meet on Tuesday to discuss who should replace José Manuel Barroso as European Commission president, they would do well to look outside the group of candidates put forth by the major parties in the European Parliament. Not only are there more qualified alternatives; nominating someone else would confirm the European Council’s primacy among the institutions of the European Union.

The four biggest blocs in the European Parliament — the conservatives, Social Democrats, liberals and Greens — each nominated a Spitzenkandidat for the European Commission presidency. Only the conservative and social democrat candidates, Luxembourg’s former prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, and the German president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, stand a chance of getting the job. The liberals lost so many seats that it is hard to imagine government leaders will pick Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian premier, instead.

The European Council nominates a candidate; the parliament is then supposed to confirm its choice with a vote. That has led the major parties in the parliament — always keen on expanding its power — to demand a final say. Which is exactly why leaders should defy them and nominate a candidate of their own.

Juncker, for one, dares leaders to ignore him. Asked about some countries’ reluctance to appoint a European Commission president who seems to believe the answer to every crisis in Europe is more Europe, the Christian Democrat said, “I don’t care. I’m not on my knees. I won the election.” This in spite of losing sixty seats.

The European People’s Party did get a 28 percent plurality of the vote but even in coalition with the liberals, the traditional kingmakers in the assembly, it lacks the support to get its candidate elected. The party will likely pursue a “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats — which could give Schulz another shot at the job.

Schultz himself argued that it is “much too early to discuss who will be the supporter of whom” and pointed out that without the Social Democrats, “no majority is possible.”

But he is even more of a believer in the European project than Juncker. Governments in Britain, Finland and the Netherlands would rather not hand power to man who intends to take more power from them.

There are better candidates. Enrico Letta, the former Italian prime minister, is a centrist and a pragmatist. He is a proponent of the European Union but understands that the recent crises, and the mounting Euroskepticism they have produced, should at least give countries pause to wonder if deeper integration is still the best way to go.

Another Italian, Mario Draghi, is already head of the European Central Bank. Leaders might not want to give two of the top jobs to the same country. In which case the prime ministers of Denmark and Finland, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Jyrki Katainen, are fine alternatives. The former is a social democrat, the latter a conservative. Both have been in office since 2011 and are hankering for another job.

As long as leaders nominate someone other than one of the Spitzenkandidaten, they would make clear that Europe is still primarily governed by them, and the national governments they represent, rather than a body only one in four Europeans bothered to vote for this weekend. Europe is not the union most parliamentarians in Brussels and Strasbourg would like it to be — nor should it be. It is a community of nations and should be led by someone who is elected by their national governments.

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