In the end all five top EU posts were surprises. But even if we like the nominees – and many of us do – the secrecy of the selection process is a worry. When so many people, for right or wrong, question the democratic legitimacy of the EU, any whiff of backroom deals is discomfiting. They are right to ask: what if that process were one day to be hijacked by populists? Scary indeed.

The EU is unlike national governments in important ways: being a supranational-intergovernmental hybrid, you can’t simply transplant from a national model. (And anyway, which system would you transplant?) The short lived Spitzenkandidaten system was a sort of attempt at such a transplant, seeking to balance north and south, east and west, centre-left and centre-right.

Yet what should replace it? That may seem a simple enough question, but the more you think about it, the more complicated it becomes. Of course, we all want to see merit-based appointments, but who decides what qualities are needed, and how do you decide which candidates best fit the bill? What should the process look like?

You could argue that the Commission President, effectively the EU’s head of government, should be directly elected. Its an appealing idea, but no panacea. A President elected independently of the Parliament could find themselves battling a Parliament dominated by parties hostile to the President’s mandate. Worse, a rogue President could appoint EU commissioners at odds with the mandate of the directly-elected Parliament and the indirectly-elected European Council, which could systematically thwart their ability to carry out their popular mandate. The will of the people would be damned!

Anticipating this kind of thing, the 2009 Lisbon Treaty stipulated that the indirectly-elected EU Council should nominate the Commission President, who would then be confirmed by the European Parliament, giving that directly elected body an effective right of veto.

That treaty also made Council powwows relatively intimate affairs with very few non-members present. This was to encourage spontaneity and trust among the heads of EU member states who make up the Council, and has resulted in a surprising amount of consensus and clarity of purpose. But it can look to outsiders like a backroom affair, and in many respects it is. Hardly of faceless bureaucrats though: the Council’s directly-elected members have strong political legitimacy in their own right.

The EU is hardly unique in relying on backroom deals to get things done; it happens in most legislatures. The problem could be that it is not so much that EU presidents are not chosen in full view of the public, but that the system for choosing them has not been subject to enough public scrutiny.

The Spitzenkandidaten system had a short life, but Lisbon 2009 leaves plenty of room to improve on it.

As an unique political entity, the EU needs to tailor its selection process to its particular supranational-intergovernmental nature. The fact that the way it chooses its leaders is now receiving so much public attention suggests that a much needed debate is now under way.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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