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Europe’s Next Leadership: Unknown, Unelected, Unloved

Europe’s system of horse-trading to choose leaders has produced non-leadership.

November 5, 2013

EU Parliament. (Credit: Botond Horvath -

For a continent that has spent decades rejecting the Führerprinzip, Europe is today obsessed with its lack of leadership.

In every capital, editorialists bemoan the absence of leadership. For months, it was hoped that a strongly re-elected Angela Merkel would fill the vacuum.

But it is now clear the next coalition government in Germany will remain cautious, inward-looking and unwilling to open the German purse to promote growth in Europe.

Instead, Europeans must wait for next summer to see if a new leadership for Europe will emerge. It is the most important moment in Europe’s history since the Treaty of Rome.

The European Commission under the two-term José Manuel Barroso, a former Portuguese prime minister who had previously distinguished himself by trying to be close to George W. Bush, is seen as the weakest in decades.

The President of the European Council, an innovation under the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, has made little difference. Herman Van Rompuy, a former Belgian prime minister, has used the skills of compromise and conciliation honed in the complexities of Belgian politics to keep 28 EU national leaders together but has not impacted on Europe.

Like the Commission president, the Council president is nominated — not elected – to the post. The European Parliament is elected, but is not loved and now convinces just two in five European citizens to vote in its election.

The European Parliament will stay pro-European

Next summer, all the elected and selected leadership posts in Europe come up for grabs. 766 members of the European Parliament have to be elected. The Presidents of the Commission, the Council, the Parliament, the Eurogroup and the EU Foreign Minister have to be chosen.

France’s president François Hollande has told the Nouvel Observateur that “Next May, the European Parliament could be for the large part composed of anti-Europeans. It would be regression and a threat of paralysis.”

Hollande is trying to stir his socialist party into action. The latest opinion polls show Marine Le Pen’s extreme right Front national with 24% of the votes in the European Parliament elections.

But in Britain, the latest European Parliament election polls gives the Labor Party 35% compared to 22% for the anti-EU United Kingdom Independence Party. The ruling Conservatives, like the ruling Socialists in France, are coming in third.

The European Parliament election is always a moment for a protest vote against governments in power or a vote for loud-mouthed populist politicians who rant against capitalism, Muslims, the EU itself, or in the case of Hungary’s Jobbik party against Jews.

This underscores that there is an ugly side to Europe’s self-proclaimed virtue as a region of tolerant intelligent politics, especially when compared to the Tea Party Republicans in the United States. People with baser instincts obviously exist anywhere.

The important point to remember is that, independent of Hollande’s woes in France, the overall dominance of the European Parliament by mainstream democratic and broadly pro-European parties will be maintained.
Not united in protest against Europe

The anti-EU parties are split. Syriza in Greece is on the left, while the Alternative für Deutschland is hostile to the Euro, but otherwise supports neo-liberal economics and a stronger EU internal market.

Likewise, the Dutch PVV party headed by the fanatical Muslim-hating Geert Wilders is not on the same page as UKIP. The latter simply wants the UK to quit the EU and has no other major policies to speak of.

It is worth remembering that in France in the 1960s and 1970s, the communists scored up to 25% in elections on a platform of hostility to Brussels. The Commission was seen as a tool of western capitalism. The Communist vote was also a protest vote against immigrants coming in and “taking” French jobs.

Marine Le Pen today uses similar language, albeit from a far right rather than a far left standpoint.

The real choice that matters for Europe

The real challenge will not be to secure a European Parliament free of anti-Europeans, but to choose a set of executives that can lead Europe out of its current morose state.

This is Hollande’s real opportunity and Merkel’s real challenge. To devote serious thought and invest serious time in discussing with fellow EU leaders how to find a quartet of presidents – Commission, Council, Eurogroup and Parliament – as well as the Foreign Affairs representative.

These are the individuals who must work in consort to lead Europe out of its current state of economic stagnation, if not misery. It is this lack of dynamism and direction which gives rise to extremist scapegoating politics particularly against “foreign” faces.

The last three Commission presidents – Jacques Santer, Romano Prodi and José Manuel Barroso – were chosen by British prime ministers who waited until other candidates exhausted their votes. They then stepped in with a man favored by London.

But the power to veto that enabled Britain to get its way in each case has been given up. Moreover, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has marginalized British influence in Brussels with his In-Out referendum pledge which many in Europe think will lead to a British exit from the EU.

Instead, the European Parliament has new powers to propose a candidate in line with a majority of MEPs. The decision to nominate lies with the 28 national government leaders grouped in the European Council, but the European Parliament can veto a nomination they do not like.

The Rubik’s cube of candidates

All 28 heads of government have to choose a President of their Council and the 17 Eurozone government heads have to choose a President of the Eurogroup. Finally, there is the EU’s foreign affairs supremo, again a choice by majority vote of the 28 heads of government.

It is far more complex than a papal election as the Rubik’s cube of candidates gets turned and turned. Balance needs to be established between north and south, between big and small countries, between old and new Europe.

Sadly, it isn’t just a matter of picking the best-qualified candidates, such as Poland’s energetic foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, who is busy learning French to charm Paris.

There are also 28 Commissioners to be nominated from each country. Everyone agrees the Commission is absurdly over-staffed – bigger than the US or UK cabinet, with four times as many members as the entire Swiss government.

But which country will forego the right to have their man or woman in Brussels even if Commissioners swear an oath to serve the common European cause and leave their national political preferences at home?

In the past, too many duds have been sent to Brussels as a reward for loyal services to the governing party or to find a job for a dumped prime minister or minister.

The best Presidents of the Commission have not been former prime ministers but men like Jacques Delors or Roy Jenkins who never made it to the top rank in national politics but shone in Brussels.

To be sure, Europe cannot outsource the choice of its leaders to a headhunting agency. However, the existing system of horse-trading in private late night corridor deals has produced the current non-leadership that has let Europe drift close to the rocks.

If Hollande and Merkel are serious about wanting the EU to work well in the future, they should begin now by deciding how to decide the EU’s next leadership. There is barely six months to go.


For a continent that spent decades rejecting the Führerprinzip, Europe is obsessed with its lack of leadership.

Next summer, all the elected and selected leadership posts in Europe are up for grabs.

The last three European Commission presidents were all chosen by British prime ministers. Thankfully, no more.

Figuring out the mix of Europe’s leaders is far more complex than a papal election.

Sadly, it isn’t just a matter of picking the best-qualified candidates. Overall balance matters most.

Poland’s energetic foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, is busy learning French to charm Paris.

The best Commission Presidents never made it to the top rank in national politics, but shone in Brussels.