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Posts tagged with: Martin Schulz

Why the Spitzenkandidat process is the best thing to happen to EU-level representative democracy for years

topcandidates-partycoloursLet’s get the caveats out of the way first. I know the way the parties selected their Commission President candidates was imperfect. I know that none of the candidates has really shone. I know this process has not been dealt with with the same degree of seriousness right across the EU. I know that I am writing this before the European Parliament election and we do not know what is going to happen after the election and whether the political parties will stick with their candidates. And this whole thing may yet derail, and I’ll amend my views accordingly if it does.

But for now the Spitzenkandidat process is the best thing to happen to EU-level representative democracy for years. Here’s why.

For the first time there is a clear connection between the legislature (the European Parliament), and the executive (the European Commission). This makes the European elections more like elections for a national parliament, and more understandable to voters. Vote left, get a boss of the thing that’s from the left. Vote right and get a boss of the thing from the right. “But they can’t actually do much!” might come the reply. Well look at the Mayor of London for comparison – a position with little in the way of formal power, but plenty of scope to influence politics if filled by the right person. EU politics is not the only level of politics with a credibility gap.

Secondly, the parties and their candidates are actually mounting campaigns. Not perhaps at the level of national campaigns yet, but still EU-wide (Juncker’s been to 32 cities in 18 countries for example), and with press work and campaign vehicles (as far as Helsinki) and war rooms and speeches and some posters.

Thirdly, the press is taking some notice. The #tellEurope televised debate this evening will be shown all across Europe (albeit not always on the most mainstream channels), and is one of seven such debates, and 1.79 million Germans watched Schulz-Juncker last week. View this as few if you wish, but as Ralf Grahn points out, this is a hell of a lot more interest than there was in 2009!

Fourth, all the candidates and the parties have made a pretty good effort at integrating social media, and especially Twitter, into their campaigns. If you cannot reach the voters via the mainstream means, then do so online. This is a modern election campaign in that sense.

So you have a choice. Bemoan the process, Open Europe style, before it has had the chance to run its course. Or see it for what it is, and what it in the future could be a major step towards – a functioning EU-wide representative democracy. That’s something to be optimistic about.

[UPDATE 1400]
Transparency International has pointed me towards this Google Spreadsheet that lists all the journeys made by the candidates.

The parties have their Commission President candidates. TV channels, it’s over to you: 15th May debate on prime time TV please.

Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 21.01.34I write this blog entry as a convinced EU democrat. By that I mean that, faced with the options about how to solve the many problems the EU currently faces, actually trying to make democracy work at EU level is the least worst of the available options. Yes it is going to be hard, yes it is going to be imperfect, yes I wonder whether it will ever work. Yet all the alternatives are worse. The EU already does so much that a return to limited, functionalist technocracy is no solution. An intergovernmental union of 28 would be stuck making decisions at the lowest common denominator. The notion of just a free market is a misnomer, for the rules of any market are essentially political. The EU has achieved some sort of notion of transnational democracy – no other international organisation has anything elected as the European Parliament is.

Within this arduous process to democratise the European Union it is foolish to pretend that things are perfect, to imply there is harmony when there is not, and to try to shield a population from the perceived worst of Brussels.

This then leads me, once more to the issue of the European political parties candidates for President of the European Commission, known in the Brussels jargon as the Spitzenkandidat process, and specifically in this blog entry the debate (or lack of it) around this process.

Yes, the process is imperfect. The parties chose their candidates (Schulz for the PES, Juncker for the EPP, Verhofstadt for the Liberals, Keller and Bové for the Greens, Tsipras for the far left) via a variety of different routes and, apart from the Greens’ open primary, none of the processes were particularly open or transparent. Yet, for the first time ever, all the major political groups have put forward candidates. End up with a centre left majority and get Schulz in the Commission, end up with the centre right and get Juncker. The parties have, more or less, delivered.

Now then it is the turn of the media. If there are candidates for top positions, then the people that are actually going to vote in the European Parliament elections actually need to know what is going on. In most EU countries there is the tradition in national elections of hosting TV debates with the leading candidates for the parties, and the same will happen in the Spitzenkandidat process – I currently know of 7 debates between candidates, of which 2 have already happened. The biggest debate of all is scheduled for 15th May, hosted by the European Broadcasting Union.

While I am of course a strong advocate of online media, and the Europeanisation of debates that can promote, nothing yet has the reach that the major national TV channels in Europe still do. That is the reason why televised debates are important in this process.

ARD and ZDF in Germany, and ORF in Austria are already invested in the process and even are hosting their own debates. RAI is involved in the 9th May debate in Florence.

However in France, France 2 and France 3 are refusing to show the 15th May debate, as Fabien Cazenave outlines. Philip Cordery of the PS has written to France Télévisions about this omission, and if you care about it in France there’s a petition at Change FR about it too.

In the UK the situation appears to be little better. BBC schedules for 15th May are not yet available for BBC1 or BBC2 (nothing beyond 3rd May is currently available). The BBC is listed as a participant in the debate, but it so far remains unknown which BBC channel, if any, will show it. There’s a Change UK petition to demand the BBC shows the debate too. I have also tweeted Gavin Hewitt and Laurence Peter of the BBC’s Brussels team to ask what is happening:

Laurence Peter was also happy to pen a blog entry today quoting Herman Van Rompuy’s criticisms of the Spitzenkandidat process, and that citizens think they know who really takes the decisions. Did Mr Peter perhaps stop to reflect that if the BBC decides to not screen the 15th May debate on one of its mainstream channels that his broadcaster might actually be playing a role in improving citizens’ knowledge of the process?

Yes, the UK might be partially absent from the Spitzenkandidat process, but the outcome is nevertheless going to be important for the EU and the UK, and is almost sure to give Cameron a headache. I also do not subscribe to the David Rennie view that it would be better for the pro-EU side in the UK for debates to not be screened, as to do so would hasten the UK’s exit. Shielding the UK from the realities of how the EU works, how it is developing is no good – it’s dishonest and disingenuous. If watching two middle aged men debate hastens the UK’s exit, so be it, because it might be a decision taken on the basis of a slightly better grasp of the issues.

In summary then, the issue here is clear: the parties have delivered on their side of the bargain to put forward candidates. It’s now the turn of the media to deliver on its side. The demand is simple: the 15th May debate must be shown on prime time television in all of the EU. If it is not then the criticism that the candidates themselves are at fault for being unknown rings hollow.

[UPDATE 24.4.2014, 1715]
It has been confirmed that only BBC Parliament will show the debate in the UK, and only Phoenix in Germany. There’s a petition to get that changed in Germany here.

At least 4 televised debates between Schulz and Juncker, more to come? (update: now 7!)

topcandidates-partycoloursOne of the supposed advantages of the European Commission top candidate / Spitzenkandidat process is that it gives some personality to the European Parliament election campaigns for the first time. I am hence very happy to see that televised debates between the main candidates are now also starting to take shape.

At the time of writing 4 7 such debates are currently known about:

  1. 9th April at 1710 CET on France24 TV, and 1910 CET on RFI radio (France), a debate between Schulz and Juncker, presumably in French (details here)
  2. 12th April at 1100 CET on TV5 Monde (global, in French), and repeated evening of 13th at ?? CET on RTBF, in French, and pre-recorded and edited (only details in this tweet)
  3. 28th April at 1900 CET on Euronews, with Juncker, Schulz, Verhofstadt and Keller, details and a live stream here, and the Twitter tag is
  4. 8th May, 2015 CET on ORF (Austria) and ZDF (Germany), a debate between Juncker and Schulz on the “Duell” programme, presumably in German (details here)
  5. 9th May at 1830 CET on RAI (Italy), a debate between Schulz, Juncker, Bové and Verhofstadt at EUI Florence, I presume in English, interpreted? (details here (scroll down to the bottom)), follow on Twitter #SoU2014
  6. 15th May at 2100 CET from Eurovision and EBS, and made available to national broadcasters (inc. BBC!), predominantly in English but also with interpretation (details here), and to be debated on Twitter using the tag #TellEurope, with 5 candidates – Schulz, Juncker, Verhofstadt, Keller and Tsipras
  7. 20th May, 2100 CET on ARD (Germany), a debate between Juncker and Schulz and the leading candidates of German political parties for the election on the “Die Wahlarena” programme, in German (details here)

I’ll add others here (and please leave a comment if you know of more) if and when I hear of them, but this is starting to look good!

9 April, 1447 – I’d missed the Euronews debate. Now added above! Thanks @kosmopolit on Twitter.
9 April, 1519 – I’d missed the EUI debate, now added. Thanks @DijkstraHylke.
10 April, 2311 – Now added the pre-recorded TV5/RTBF debate. Thanks @NatashaBertaud and Dana in the comments below.

How is David Cameron not going to be marginalised this summer in the EU’s political games?

Screen Shot 2014-04-07 at 12.05.18I’ve previously written about how the UK is absent from the EU’s Presidential Election (otherwise known as the top candidate, or Spitzenkandidat process), and while the essential content of that earlier post remains valid, I have reflected further about the implications for UK-EU relations from this process, and cannot see how the whole game this summer can play out in David Cameron’s favour and, if played badly, could result in a major UK-EU spat.

The starting point is the process (summarised here) – the Commission President needs a Qualified Majority Vote in favour of his/her nomination in the European Council. This means that no country has a veto over who the Commission President should be. This seems to have been (wilfully?) ignored by people like Daniel Hamilton from the Tories – this debate on Twitter is illustrative. Hence as I see it the UK has to make a positive case for the candidate it wants, rather than try to throw around its weight to stop a candidate it does not like.

Tie this to the Spitzenkandidat process and Cameron has a problem on his hands.

This problem is most acute if the S&D group emerges as the largest after the EP elections and tries to force through Martin Schulz as Commission President. Countries like France and Germany, already invested in the process to a certain extent, could live with this (even Merkel I think, who apparently gets on quite well with Schulz). Yet even the Labour Party in the UK has problems with Schulz and refused to back him – I hence cannot see how Cameron could be anything other than against his nomination as Commission President. “We will have to work with him” is going to be about the best Cameron would be able to muster in such a situation, and the words his backbenchers will use will be more fragrant than that I think.

The situation if the centre right wins the EP elections would be only slightly easier. As the Conservatives have left the European People’s Party they have very little leverage there, and the EPP’s candidate – old style, quasi-federalist, Euro-integrationalist Jean Claude Juncker is not the sort of Lagarde or Katainen style candidate that Cameron would more easily be able to live with. Indeed EUObserver reports that Juncker is a no-go for Cameron. Here too Merkel’s position could be at odds with the UK’s position – her CDU were Juncker’s most prominent backers.

Now I personally have my doubts about the extent to which the EPP will back Juncker when push comes to shove, and indeed on the left rumours that Schulz could be replaced by Helle Thorning-Schmidt continue to abound. But having said that the two most likely candidates for Commission President – Schulz and Juncker – remain unpalatable to the UK, yet the process grants Cameron very little power to do anything.

Could this be the next UK-EU crisis to happen?

Britain is absent from the EU’s Presidential Election


So the lineup for the first-ever Presidential Election in Europe, to select the Commission President 2014-2019, is complete – Martin Schulz for the Party of European Socialists (PES), Jean-Claude Juncker for the European People’s Party (EPP), Guy Verhofstadt for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE), José Bové and Ska Keller for the Greens (EGP) and Alexis Tsipras for the European Left (EL). Spiegel English has more about the tensions the process is arousing here.

OK, so the election is not a direct plebiscite, but the principle is that whatever party ‘wins’ the European Parliament elections at the end of May will put forward its candidate for President of the European Commission (see the procedure here). Of course a lot of different things can happen between now and the President taking office, not least the problem that the EPP has a majority in the European Council, and the PES might be the biggest in the EP after the elections.

There will at least be some classic media interest in the election as a result of the parties putting forward nominees for the Commission – the EBU will screen a debate, presumably with all candidates, on 14th May. German broadcasters ARD (and its regional components) and ZDF, together with the Austrian ORF also have a whole range of different events planned.

So what about the UK in all of this? That the EU has a democratic deficit is a common refrain in the UK. Yet when it comes to the decision as to who should be President of the Commission, British voters have very little choice.

The Labour Party, although it still remains a member party of the Party of European Socialists, did not back Martin Schulz in the PES’s internal procedure to choose him, and Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander have spoken out against Schulz’s vision for the EU. Nevertheless Labour could not muster an alternative. When it comes to an eventual vote in the European Parliament after the elections I would be astounded if Labour’s MEPs did not back Schulz to give him a majority, but there will be no mention of Schulz in the election campaign in the UK.

The Tories left the European People’s Party in the European Parliament in 2009 to establish the European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR). The AECR choice for Commission President? Nobody.

That means that among the UK’s main parties, only the Liberal Democrats and the Greens are part of the process to select top candidates for the Commission, and the Lib Dems actually initially favoured Verhofstadt’s rival, Rehn.

So when it comes to the selection of the Commission President, just like on so much else about the European Union, the UK doesn’t know if it’s in or out, and voters in the UK will hence not be able to really express their view on the future direction of the European Union. That’s a sad state of affairs.

Image rights: the image used to illustrate this post is my own work, drawing on Creative Commons images from Flickr. Full attribution details can be found on Flickr for the 3 versions of the image (Party colours (as shown), colour and black and white). Full resolution versions available to reuse (with attribution) and download are on Flickr.

Candidates for President of the European Commission – where we stand in January 2014

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 15.00.34Back in the early summer of 2013 I wrote a detailed series of blog posts about the future President of the European Commission. There were posts about EPP, PES and other candidates. Overall those posts have stood up well over the last 6 months. But with the EP elections just over 4 months away, and with the new Commission to be decided shortly after, and with more and more jostling for top positions being covered by the newspapers (see FT earlier in January and FAZ today for example), it’s time to update the state of play.

Party of European Socialists (PES)
For the moment the PES position is clear: Martin Schulz is the top candidate, and if the PES wins the European elections they will seek to nominate him as Commission President. There were quite some problems with the transparency and democratic credentials of the process to select Schulz (as I analysed for Policy Network) but, for the coming months at least, Schulz’s position will not be challenged, formally at least, within the PES. He also was part of the negotiations to form the Große Koalition in Germany, and it seems Merkel can get on with him. Also as Derk Jan Eppink points out, Schulz can be strategic, has an instinct for power, has nothing to lose and only lacks the experience some other candidates bring.

For reasons I do not altogether understand – perhaps because she’s the only social democrat anyone’s heard of who’s not unpalatable? – the name of Helle Thorning-Schmidt keeps on coming back. The UK Labour Party would prefer her, Kinnock’s daughter in law, to Schulz. After all someone who’s been a principle-free, reasonably unsuccessful Prime Minister of Denmark is better than an old fashioned German social democrat, right? I suppose the selfie helped.

Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE)
Here I must admit I was wrong, for I could not previously foresee how the Liberals would possibly want Olli Rehn, the Economic & Monetary Affairs Commissioner, as a Commission President candidate. But it seems he is in pole position to be their leading candidate. This of course could well be because the other candidate is Guy Verhofstadt, and choosing between those is like choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea. Anyway, Euractiv has an update on the state of play, and ALDE will decide which one to go for in a delegate vote from the member parties on 1st February.

As Dario Čepo and I have discussed on Twitter, Rehn could somehow slip between the PES and the EPP in the event of a very closely balanced electoral result. The prospect fills both Dario and I with dread – and we thought Barroso was bad!

The Greens
Maybe because the Greens know they are not actually going to get the Commission President job they have actually designed the best process to select a top candidate. The #GreenPrimary is an online poll, open until 28th January, open to anyone (even non-Greens) to select their two top candidates. There are 4 candidates standing – Rebecca Harms, Ska Keller, Monica Frassoni and José Bové. I have no idea who the favourite is among the four.

European Left
Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA is the candidate. He’s going to bring some fire to debates in the next few months, but he has even less chance of becoming Commission President than a Green.

European People’s Party
The prominent political force in the EU for at least the last decade, and the party of the current Commission President Barroso, it is nevertheless the EPP’s process to choose a candidate that is leading to the most head-scratching in Brussels at the moment. The party is supposed to choose a candidate with a delegate vosting system at its Dublin Congress 7-8 March. Merkel, apparently with some backing from Van Rompuy, is not too keen on a close connection between the EP election result and the Commission President nomination, fearing it will strengthen the Parliament cause inter-institutional conflicts (see the FT). This would only be a particular problem if the PES won the elections, yet the European Council remains dominated by EPP parties.

The challenge here too seems to be how to find a viable candidate. People like Michel Barnier (currently a Commissioner) and Jean Claude Juncker (former Luxembourg PM) have nothing to lose by putting their names forward. Viviane Reding also wants the job, but I think she’s about the only person who wants her to have it. Prime Ministers from the party such as Donald Tusk and Enda Kenny have distanced themselves from the role, not wanting to kill their national political careers by throwing their hats into the ring, only to then find another party wins the EP elections. Others like Jyrki Katainen and Christine Lagarde should not be fully ruled out either. Thankfully a third term for Barroso now seems totally out of the question though.

As the situation changes I will do my best to blog about it.

[UPDATE 15.1.2014, 1000]
I’ve been asked on Twitter about numerous candidates not mentioned in this blog entry – people like Valdis Dombrovskis, Dalia Grybauskaitė and Anders Fogh Rasmussen. This blog entry in no way excludes those people. If they are not mentioned it means I simply have heard no more about them that makes me change my views on them since the original blog entries on the subject of the EU’s top jobs. I was also asked about why there is no mention of the ECR in this blog entry – it’s because I see the future of the group in Brussels as being under some threat, as explained here.

So Martin Schulz, are you, or are you not, a federalist?

Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament and wannabe Commission President, was on BBC World’s Hard Talk yesterday (4th December 2013), and used the following words:

You used the term that I am a European federalist. I have never in my life used it that I am a European federalist.

Here’s the video of it, timed to start at the right moment:

Here is Martin Schulz being interviewed on The Daily Politics of the BBC, on 14th September 2012, and he uses the following words:

The Members of the European Parliament are, with a broad majority, European federalists, like myself.

He also goes on to say that he would go further than José Manuel Barroso did – Barroso had called for a ‘federation of nation states’.

Embedding the BBC video doesn’t work, so click the screenshot and you will be taken to the video on the BBC’s site:
Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 20.54.36

So then Martin, which one is it? Are you a federalist or not?

(Note: this case was pointed out to me in this tweet by Paolo Vacca – he deserves all the credit for the story!)

PES candidates for Commission President

Every five years Brussels has a bout of political intrigue. It is the time when a new European Parliament is elected, and connected to that, a new team of European Commissioners chosen. The European Parliament elections are due in May 2014, and with the Commission due to be chosen in the autumn of 2014, speculation in Brussels is already starting about who could be in line for the top positions. I will blog about this issue over the coming few months, but as a point of departure I am going to look at the position of the Party of European Socialists, and what they might do about the Commission.

Why does the PES position matter? Essentially since the entry into force of the Treaty of Lisbon, the President of the European Commission is to be ‘elected’ by the European Parliament. So if a party wins the EP elections (or at least end up as the largest group) then they should get the Commission President job too. In 2009 the Party of European Socialists did not agree on one candidate for Commission President, and lost the elections anyway. I still doubt the PES’s chances in the election, but they could at least be the first party to try to unify behind a candidate, and have a sort of primary process in place to make the decision about a candidate.

So who are the likely candidates, if the PES can get its act together?

SchulzMartin Schulz [Wikipedia]
Current role: President of the European Parliament
Nationality: German
The clear favourite. Schulz has positioned himself in Brussels as the main spokesperson for the centre left, previously as leader of the S&D Group in the European Parliament, and more recently as President of the European Parliament. His 1970s retro trade union leader style might not appeal to everyone, but he is a professional operator and decent speechmaker. His institutional views that lean towards federalism scare some peripheral Member States and his nationality might count against him, as might the fact that he has never held a position in a national government.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 12.55.21Helle Thorning Schmidt [Wikipedia]
Current role: Prime Minister of Denmark
One of the few partial success stories for the centre left in recent years was the return to power of a centre left coalition in Denmark in 2011. This means that former MEP Thorning’s name is often mentioned in connection with top positions in Brussels. However her government is suffering in the polls only two years into her term, so leaving to the Commission might look like leaving a sinking ship. It is also very hard to place Thorning ideologically – this may or may not be an advantage depending on your view of the Commission. Would be the first female Commission President if successful.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 13.00.26Pascal Lamy [Wikipedia]
Current role: Director-General of the World Trade Organisation
Nationality: French
Lamy would bring considerable experience and gravitas to the role. He is also a former European Commissioner for Trade and comes from the pragmatic side of the French socialists, while his WTO experience would reassure the centre right. He speaks excellent English, is a good communicator, and would bring a calm assurance to the role. His lack of national experience, time away from the EU mainstream, and possibly his age, could count against him. He would however be my personal choice for the job.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 12.56.45Frans Timmermans [Wikipedia]
Current role: Foreign Minister of the Netherlands
Another of the minor successes of the left in recent years has been the return to government in the Netherlands of the Partij van de Arbeid, and Timmermans is one of the most senior politicians from the party in government. His wide experience of foreign affairs and EU politics would be assets, but having only been Foreign Minister since November 2012 means he has even less experience at the very highest level than Thorning. Would he want to leave a national role so soon? His nationality – from a core Eurozone country – would count in his favour.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 15.47.52José Luis Zapatero [Wikipedia]
Former role: Prime Minister of Spain
Spain was one of the great success stories for the centre left in the 2000s, and Zapatero was the symbol of that. Subsequent economic experience there perhaps shows his administration in a different light however. His considerable governmental experience counts in his favour, although his nationality and poor quality spoken English are perhaps against him. His commitment to the European Union while he was Prime Minister was sometimes questioned, not least when he nominated the centre-right Barroso for Commission President in 2009.

Borut Pahor (President of Slovenia), Sergei Stanishev (former Prime Minister of Bulgaria), Wouter Bos (former leader of the Dutch Labour Party), José Sócrates (former Prime Minister of Portugal), Werner Faymann (Chancellor or Austria).

If I’m missing anyone please do suggest names in the comments. And no, Tony Blair is not a viable candidate – that is why he is not listed here.

[UPDATE 27.4.13, 2300 – minor corrections to the Timmermans bio, and Faymann added]

[UPDATE 27.4.13, 2345 – via Twitter, Ronny points out the nomination process]

[UPDATE 1.5.13, 1400 – the best additional suggestion (in comments below) so far is Paul Magnette, chairman of Belgium’s PS. Skilled and clever, albeit rather inexperienced, he might have what it takes]

  Posts about EU top candidates 2014
President of the Commission: EPP, PES, Others | President of the European Council | High Rep for EU Foreign Policy

Image credits – all Creative Commons / Sharealike licensed
Martin Schulz by European Parliament | Helle Thorning Schmidt by Arbeiderpartiet | Pascal Lamy by World Economic Forum | Frans Timmermans by United Nations – Geneva | José Luis Zapatero by Parti Socialiste