The new European Commission and the future of the EU
Patrick Bijsmans (Maastricht University)
It already seems ages ago that we had the kick-off of the European election campaign here in Maastricht on 29 April. The Maastricht Debate, as it was called, brought together the Spitzenkandidaten of five of the European party groups. The most prominent absentee was EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber, who attended a birthday party instead. His absence did lead to speculation as to whether or not this was the real reason for his absence, one of the suggestions put forward being that this may be a sign of the EPP hoping to demote the Spitzenkandidaten system.
Nearly five months later and the Spitzenkandidaten system indeed seems to be more death than alive. French President Macron’s opposition to the system in absence of transnational lists was important, even though Europe’s leaders have never been a fan of the idea. But the new Commission President-elect, Ursula von der Leyen (VDL), at least is a member of the biggest party group, the EPP. Earlier this month VDL presented the proposed team of Commissioners and their portfolios. The European Parliament is now gearing up for its hearings of the European Commission nominees, starting on Monday 30 September.
The fact that the number of women in the Commission has gone up so substantially – from 8 to 13 – certainly is great news. But the composition of the new Commission has already led to some debate and commentators are speculating on who will not survive the hearings in Parliament. Questions have also been raised about what will happen to the Commission’s tough stance on the rule of law in Hungary and Poland when Frans Timmermans is no longer in charge. And then there are the lofty and sometimes unclear titles of some of the portfolios, such as ‘An Economy that Works for People’, ‘Democracy and Demography’, ‘International Partnerships’ and, of course, the new post of Commissioner for ‘Protecting our European Way of Life’.
These questions and issues are important, and we should applaud the fact that the European Parliament takes its democratic duty seriously and will be critically assessing these questions and issues during its hearings of the Commission candidates. But what seems to be less debated right now, but arguably has become more important than ever, are questions about the future of Europe. In particular, although the expected Eurosceptic surge was more modest than many had anticipated and election turn-out has gone up, questions about Europe’s democratic arrangements remain relevant.
If and when the debate about the future of the EU continues, two questions regarding its institutional set-up need to be addressed. The first concerns the role and composition of the European Commission. Is the Commission meant to be a bureaucratic actor, the composition of which should not depend on election outcomes? Or should it become a nascent European government, in which case its composition should depend on those elections? Linked to this is the matter of the size of the Commission, which is not a new question at all, but one that deserves further discussion given that some of the new posts again seem to amount to a rather limited job description.
The second question concerns the European elections themselves. Whether or not the Commission is seen as a bureaucratic or a political actor, isn’t it time that transnational election lists finally become reality? While citizens would still be able to elect national politicians, transnational lists might push politicians to move beyond their national focus, which would deepen the transnational European public sphere. What’s more, it might further increase the quality of MEPs, because we could vote for more experienced politicians – former prime ministers even – when our national political parties choose to nominate less experienced or frankly outlandish candidates.
However important, right now it doesn’t seem that these issues will be addressed in the short run. If only because some fear that they will open a box of pandora when it comes to EU reform. But there also still is this one issue that hasn’t been resolved yet (and that I’ve managed to avoid so far): Brexit. Until Brexit happens – or is off the table completely? – the debate about the EU’s future will remain low-key. But Europe will have to move on, with or without our British friends.
The views expressed in this article reflect the position of the author and not necessarily the one of the Brexit Institute Blog