Europe’s Ancien Régime Returns
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.