Juncker appointment ensures first 'democratically legitimate' EU

President-elect can use 'political legitimacy' to bridge gap between EU and citizens, writes Pietro De Matteis.

By Pietro De Matteis

23 Jul 2014

The process of European integration has been an extremely slow process, at times irritatingly slow, made of a plethora of compromises, an endless list of summits and treaties.

Yet, the 2014 European elections have drastically increased the pace of that race towards "an ever closer union" in what resembles to a final sprint to get to the finish line.

This would certainly deserve significant attention if anyone was still watching this show. Unfortunately that is not the case and those who are following it have not yet fully understood the magnitude of the change that we are living today. On 15 July 2014 the EU was transformed from a loose confederation of states into a continental democracy.

The Cambridge dictionary defines democracy as, "The belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves". As of these European elections all the three main executive and legislative institutions have direct democratic legitimation, hence it is now difficult to argue that the EU is undemocratic. Let's have a closer look.

Parliament has been directly elected since 1979 and our heads of state in the council are elected by the citizens of the various member states. What is new is that now even the European commission has direct democratic legitimacy and accountability.

This time it was different. Jean-Claude Juncker is the first elected president of the European commission. He was the candidate put forward by the party who obtained the most votes at the latest European elections in May and, therefore, was to be the first to seek a majority in the two legislative chambers.

On 27 June, the heads of state and government in the council voted by qualified majority in favour of Juncker as the next commission president. On 15 July, parliament voted by absolute majority in favour of Juncker as the next president. It follows that he now will be accountable not only to the council and parliament, but also to the people directly.

In light of the results of the consultation with the two legislative chambers, the president-elect can shape politically his executive, hence reinforcing even further the democratic legitimacy of the commission. In this respect, Juncker has already anticipated that the commissioner for economic affairs will be a member of the socialists and not a conservative.

The level of transparency brought about by this new procedure and the increased power of the people in appointing the head of the EU executive constitute two epochal shifts in the working of the EU which is comparable to the first election of the parliament. These innovations made the EU not less democratic than most parliamentary democracies across the globe, and we can now say that the future of Europe is in our hands.

Of course there are still things that need to be fined tuned. One of the issues which must be addressed before the 2019 European elections is the definition of a European electoral law. According to the Treaty on European Union, parliament should present proposals for a uniform procedure for the European elections.

To date, parliament failed to do this, apart from the minimum provisions about the election of MEPs by direct universal suffrage included in the 1976 act. European electoral law should include provisions to facilitate the participation of truly pan-European parties by developing legislation facilitating their registration under EU law.

The European Federalist Party, to-date the only pan-European party operating across the EU, had to register according to different national legislations, keep separate national accounts and follow different provisions to put forward candidates in the six countries where it stood for election. All these hurdles should be removed. In addition, electoral law should also include the introduction of pan-European electoral lists of candidates who could be elected from citizens across the European Union, as proposed by former MEP Andrew Duff.

A second and fundamental issue that need to be addressed is also the clarification of competences between the EU and our member states. Institutional clarity and the exact knowledge of 'who does what' are fundamental elements for a well-functioning democracy in which the citizens are empowered and can hold accountable their elected representatives. Of course this level of clarity is often missing also in our national administrations, but this should not prevent that in the future issues are dealt with at the most appropriate level, be it the local, regional, national, Euro-regional or EU levels.

A third element which we need to address is how managing a multi-speed Europe. It is now obvious to all that this issue cannot be postponed further and behaving like an ostrich will not solve the issue. 

A fourth and final element which must be addressed is the redefinition of the roles and structures of the two councils. Today's European council and council of the EU should be merged into a proper chamber representing member states (or regions) as a sort of European senate. This would finally fully clarity the EU institutional framework once and for all. Of course some of these changes require a change in the treaties and a new convention which indeed should take place as soon as possible.

"Juncker will have to use all 'political weight' coming from his unparalleled democratic mandate to mark his space and, where necessary, stand up to the heads of state and government"

Despite the work that still need to be done, the progress in terms of democracy and accountability achieved during these European elections constitutes an epochal shift in European politics and a precedent for the next elections that nobody will be able to ignore.

By being forced to give up their prerogative of appointing the commission president behind closed doors, our heads of state and government are arguably the losers in this game. But what matters to us, as democrats, is that there are there is a clear winner, the European citizens.

Juncker will have to use all 'political weight' coming from his unparalleled democratic mandate to mark his space and, where necessary, stand up to the heads of state and government. To do so he will have to reinforce his accountability vis-a-vis the parliament and the people.

Having a stronger connection with the people will not only contribute to bridge the gap between them and the European project, but would also allow him to draw from an untapped source of political legitimacy.

It is early to say, but if Juncker plays his cards well, this could trigger the interest of prime ministers from large member states to run themselves as 'spitzenkandidaten' at the 2019 European Elections. Why not a debate between Angela Merkel, Matteo Renzi, Guy Verhofstad and David Cameron?

Read the most recent articles written by Pietro De Matteis - Juncker's election 'crucial step' towards United States of Europe