12 November 2013

The Best Laid Schemes

The plan to give the president of the European commission an electoral mandate has fallen at the first hurdle when the group of European socialists and democrats failed to attract interest from major political figures.

Political circles in Brussels have been buzzing with the idea that the next commission president, to be appointed next year, should be elected through the European parliament elections in June. The plan was that each major political group would identify its candidate for the post in advance and the candidate of the leading party would be elected commission president at the parliament's first session. The plan would make the commission president more like a prime minister than a bureaucrat.

To this end the socialist bloc had set a timetable for primary elections to run from November to February, with the candidate formally chosen at a congress on 1 March. Unfortunately when nominations closed there  was only one name, Mr Martin Schulz, a Brussels insider with no ministerial experience. Currently president of the European parliament, Schulz's only executive experience is as mayor of W├╝rselen in 1987-98.

Since the 1990s the president of the commission has been chosen from among former prime ministers. (The current president was PM in Portugal and the president of the European council was PM of Belgium.) No socialist former (or current) prime minister was willing to stand as the socialist candidate. Nor indeed was any senior minister from any of Europe's recent socialist governments.

The reasons for the lack of strong candidates will be the topic of much analysis and debate. Is the job of commission president no longer attractive enough, now that the council also has its high profile president? Is there a lack of confidence in the process, given that the council still has to nominate the candidate before the parliament can elect him or her? Or are there other reasons?

Having made a commitment to put the candidate at the head of their campaign for the European parliament, socialist parties are now saddled with their uninspiring choice.