Who does Obama call first when he wants to speak to Europe on a strategic issue such as Ukraine? Generally it’s, Angela Merkel, David Cameron or Francois Hollande. With all due respect to these national leaders, they are not the presidents of the European commission, council, or head of the EU council presidency.
This anecdote clearly illustrates that Europe is missing a real leader. At the same time it shows that the commission is considered as a mere executing body of the council and that the president of the Commission is not considered as having the real power in Europe. It shows that the European construction has become more and more intergovernmental, and less and less communitarian.
The upcoming elections bring a unique opportunity to put Europe back on track by electing a charismatic leader of the European commission who would actually dare to impose themselves on the council and would be able to reiterate that European policy is not simply the addition of national interests. In this context Europe's heads of state and of governments have a major responsibility in choosing the next commission president.
Although the main political parties have already picked their candidates, the council is under no obligation to accept the person put forward by the winning party. Firstly, the notion of a winning candidate is relative when their democratic legitimacy is not assured. Given the probable rise of populist and anti-European parties and predictions of a low turnout of 50 per cent at best, no party could claim to have won more than a quarter of the votes.
"Do we want a José Manuel Barroso Mark II - a smooth operator that no one could object to, especially not in the council, or do we want a new Jacques Delors, someone who could provide new impetus to an EU teetering on the brink of disintegration?"
Secondly, the treaty stipulates that those leaders must take the election results into account, but allows them the freedom to choose - although it is now compulsory for the decision to be put to the European parliament for confirmation. What is more, both Angela Merkel and Herman Van Rompuy, who will be leading the debates, have already stated that they will not allow their hands to be tied by partisan choices and are keeping all their options open, including considering additional names already circulating in the ‘Schuman’ community.
Thirdly, all three ‘favourites’; Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz, and Guy Verhofstadt live within 18 km of Brussels and are old hands when it comes to the workings of the EU. However, are they proven to be the best placed to face up to the startling rise in populism and the rejection of the European institutions?
When drawing up a profile of the ideal candidate, the only question that Europe’s head of states and of government should be asking themselves is: Do we want a José Manuel Barroso Mark II - a smooth operator that no one could object to, especially not in the council, or do we want a new Jacques Delors, someone who could provide new impetus to an EU teetering on the brink of disintegration?
Naturally, it is the second profile that that I would recommend. So, what then should be required of the ideal candidate?
The new President of the European commission needs to be capable of speaking out against those who would stop Europe from becoming a genuine economic union and bring the commission back to its key role, namely serving the general interests of the people.
They also need to be able to encourage citizens' initiatives and defend them in cases where member states will not budge on issues such as youth employment, fiscal and social dumping, or when it comes to finding a common response to the illegal immigration crisis.
And finally they need to rekindle public confidence and re-launch integration to focus on the steps necessary to secure budgetary, fiscal and social convergence, with the gradual establishment of a European treasury for the euro area, while at the same time, inspiring institutional and political reform.