Europe’s Ancien Régime Returns

Anton Jäger and David Adler

On 2 July, after three days of negotiations, the European Council ­– formed of the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors of the European Union – emerged from their boardroom in Brussels to announce the names of the EU’s next top technocrats. The high offices of the EU – including the presidencies of the European Commission, European Council and European Central Bank – had been vacant since the European Parliamentary elections in late May.

Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, was nominated for the job at the ECB; Charles Michel, a former prime minister of Belgium, for head of the Council; the Spanish minister Josep Borrell for foreign envoy; and Ursula von der Leyen, a former minister in the German government, for head of the Commission. Until last week, her candidacy was pending approval from the European Parliament, which – among its very limited powers – can choose to accept or reject the Council’s nomination. It accepted.

The EU has been plagued by its democratic shortcomings since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Five years ago – at the height of Europe’s political crisis, with movements for leaving the EU mounting across the continent – attempts were made to remedy the democratic deficit by introducing a system of ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ or ‘prime candidates’ for the presidency of the Commission. Each party in the European Parliament would be able to put forward a Spitzenkandidat for the presidency of the Commission, and the Council would give serious consideration to the Spitzenkandidat of the party that won most seats in the Parliamentary election.

The authority of this informal arrangement has always been in dispute, with a significant section of Eastern member states contesting its necessity. Still, the procedure was a minor but hopeful step towards greater democracy in the EU. In the course of this year’s campaign, the Spitzenprocess provoked a healthy, if partial, debate among candidates seeking to replace Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the Commission.

It now looks as if Juncker will be the first and last of the Commission presidents to be elected through the Spitzensystem. In the course of this month’s negotiations, Merkel and Macron compromised in the face of Eastern European pressure and ditched Spitzen altogether. Instead, they fortified the grip of national governments – France and Germany, above all – on European decision-making. Von der Leyen was nobody’s Spitzenkandidat.

To say that von der Leyen was ‘nominated’ by the Council and then ‘elected’ by the Parliament is a stretch. It may be more accurate to say the EU’s new leaders were ‘coronated’, much like after a papal conclave. They weren’t put to a public test, but selected in an atmosphere of intergovernmental informality.

All of this can be justified procedurally: Merkel’s conservative grouping clings on to its majority in the European Parliament, and both Merkel and Macron have a democratic mandate from their national voting publics.

Still, it doesn’t look good – and not only from the Spitzen perspective. The CVs of the nominees suggest the EU is at an advanced stage of institutional rot. As managing director of the IMF, Lagarde was convicted of negligence in 2009, but served no prison time and left with no criminal record (Macron, running for president soon afterwards, said this was ‘unacceptable’). Borrell was fined for insider trading last year, and was forced to step down as president of the European University Institute in 2012 when it came to light that a Spanish energy company was quietly paying him €300,000 a year to lobby on its behalf. As Germany’s defence minister, von der Leyen bumbled from crisis to controversy; criminal investigations are currently underway in her department related to the improper use of outside consultants. Michel, for his part, has never made clear his plans for the Council post and lost the confidence of the Belgian parliament last year.

No matter: the ugly bunch march on. At the press conference that followed the Brussels negotiations, the summit chairman and outgoing president of the Council, Donald Tusk, praised the nominations as a step forward for the EU. Their gender balance, he argued, signalled progress. (‘After all,’ he bizarrely added, ‘Europe is a woman.’) The following Monday, factions in the European Parliament known for their Euroscepticism – the Five Star Movement, Law and Justice, the Tories – narrowly voted for von der Leyen. Labour, too, in a creative interpretation of its ‘remain, reform and rebel’ strategy, gave its assent. And in the end, powered by pledges of support from the ‘big two’ Europarties – the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) – von der Leyen passed.

Some commentators have tried to explain the sudden rise of populist movements by suggesting that we are living through democracy’s ‘midlife crisis’, a period of political angst that will give way to acceptance. Others claim that we have advanced to a ‘post-democratic’ era, in which the institutions of democracy have exhausted their use completely.

The politics of the European Union, however, look increasingly pre-democratic. In this new Ancien Régime – much as in the old one – officials condemn petty theft while absolving themselves of more serious crimes. Countries that wish to join the EU are instructed to scrub their institutions of corruption before they can even be considered for accession. Without the slightest hesitation, however, the EU now promotes candidates with a clear record of kickbacks and other dirty deals, as long as they are already senior members of the political class.

For European progressives, these appointments at least have the benefit of clarifying the stakes. Populism might have been a convenient bugbear to European leaders in a time of acute crisis fighting. That time is over. Sovereign indifference now seems to hold sway. A coherent strategy is required to match this pre-democratic moment, one that focuses first and foremost on re-opening channels of citizen representation. Because when it comes to the EU, nothing is more revolutionary than asking for a little democratic reform.


  • 26 July 2019 at 10:16am
    ledmatt says:
    "‘After all,’ he bizarrely added, ‘Europe is a woman.’"

    Probably referring to the mythical Europa.

  • 26 July 2019 at 10:11pm
    Carl Jordan says:
    So glad to see this in the blog. I’ve been a subscriber to the LRB for thirty years and only in the last few months have I considered cancelling. It pains me that such a good paper should have succumbed so easily to the post-defeat hysterics and histrionics of those who voted for the United Kingdom to remain locked into a dictatorial, corrupt, federalist street gang in order to assure their supply of expensive sandwiches and choice of fifty varieties of olive oil.

    • 30 July 2019 at 8:33pm
      Hotspur says: @ Carl Jordan
      I don't think I indulge in hysterics nor am I prone to be histrionic, although I did vote to remain. As for the perceived lack of democracy in the appointment of EU officials I suggest the text of paragraph starting " "To say that von der Leyen was ‘nominated’ by the Council and then ‘elected’ by the Parliament . . "could be adapted by only changng names etc to cover the 'appointment ' of B Johnson as UK prime ministeras follows:
      "To say that Johnson was ‘nominated’ by the Conservative Party and then ‘elected’ by the Parliament is a stretch. It may be more accurate to say the UK's new Cabinet were ‘coronated’, much like after a papal conclave. They weren’t put to a public test, but selected in an atmosphere of intra-party informality."

      Not much choice for us in the UK, whichever party or Brexit policy you support.

  • 28 July 2019 at 6:14pm
    Goedele De Keermaeker says:
    It is a commonly known fact that the result of the Brexit referendum was at least partly due to left wing voters who see the EU, as a big anti-democratic conspiracy. This image sticks to the EU, especially in the Anglo-Saxon press. The contribution by Jäger and Adler is a typical example. At a time when Brexit creates a deep crisis of democracy and of left wing politics in Britain some people seem to want to prove that their anti-EU stance was right. The position of the European parliament and its limited powers, has always been their main argument against the EU. Yet this is only half of the truth and one can hardly argue that the EU became less democratic during the last 30 years. Rather the opposite is true. Since the late 1970s and especially after the Maastricht Treaty the parliament development from a mere advisory body, to a body with substantial power on legislation, and indeed appointing and controlling the EU Commission. True, the powers of the EU as a whole grew enormously too, but the long term development is thus rather in the direction of more democracy than less. Of course the EU is no full fledged democracy, it is rather in a ‘pre-democratic’ phase indeed. But if we want to evaluate the democratic level of the EU the preposterous comparison with the papal election (a totally undemocratic procedure of an obscure institutions) is not very useful. Rather we have to see how national governments, and ministers are selected in Europe. Except for some elected presidents (e.g. France), these appointments are always the result of informal inter- or intraparty negotiations, afterwards confirmed by parliament. Spitzenkandidate is no general democratic practise, it is an informal arrangement. British commentators, especially, should take a close look to what happened in London in recent days: a prime minister was appointed by a Queen (not exactly elected) after an internal vote in a party that had only had 10 percent of the votes in the most recent elections, and does not command a majority in parliament. The new prime minister did not even ask for a vote of confidence in parliament, somthing he would have had to do in most other European countries.So it is London, not Brussels where there is a problem of regression from democracy to ‘Ancien Regime’ practices. The authors are right to ask for more citizens’ involvement in EU-politics, but do not give any suggestions on how to do that. And there also: this is not a typical EU problem, but one that we find back in all modern democracies. It is a little bit easy to project all the troubles our democracies go through on the EU. Before you know it you are supporting a nationalist agenda.

    • 29 July 2019 at 7:59am
      Graucho says: @ Goedele De Keermaeker
      Never the less there will be a general election, sooner rather than later as things are shaping up, and if the electors of Uxbridge and South Ruislip decide that Mr. Johnson has not lived up to his promises he will find himself out of parliament, never mind No. 10. This cannot be said of the appointees mentioned in the article.

    • 30 July 2019 at 7:35pm
      John Cowan says: @ Goedele De Keermaeker
      What's so undemocratic about the papal elections? Popes gain office (in practice) by a two-thirds vote of the cardinals. That's much more democratic than how CEOs gain their offices. If by "undemocratic" you mean that it's not done by a vote of all Catholics, then of course not, but why should it be?

    • 30 July 2019 at 11:22pm
      fbkun says: @ Goedele De Keermaeker
      You seem to be under the impression that the fact that the French president is elected makes France an example to follow. Yet a French president supported by no more than 20% of the electorate can nominate an entire government (prime minister included) made of minions from his/her party --- not to mention the fact that the French parliament has virtually no power. Some example (and I'm French)...

  • 29 July 2019 at 6:31am
    Graucho says:
    Another democratic deficit that pervades not just the EU, but also some of its member states, is the party list system of electing members. It is a recipe for corruption. The value of the way the U.K. does things in Westminster elections is that when a character like Neil Hamilton turns up, not even the party machine in one of the safest Conservative constituencies in England can save him from the voter's disdane. Now, alas, the additional member system for the Welsh assembly, a watered down party list system has allowed him back.

    • 30 July 2019 at 7:33pm
      John Cowan says: @ Graucho
      So use the system where the citizens have two votes, one party-list and one district-based. The party-list vote determines how many seats each party has; the district-based vote determines who fills those seats.

    • 31 July 2019 at 5:54am
      Graucho says: @ John Cowan
      What a good idea.

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