There has been much criticism of the European Council’s nomination of German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen as the new European Commission President, due to both her personal competence and the procedure itself.
Starting with the latter: it would be wrong to fault the European Council for not sticking with one of the ‘lead candidates’. But the real reason the European Council did not select one of them was that there was no clear majority in the European Parliament for any of the declared Spitzenkandidaten. The EPP (narrowly) obtained the most votes, but the other parties did not agree to back Weber. The major political groups in the EP were (and remain) simply unwilling to rally behind one common candidate. In this situation, the European Council naturally chose to propose someone else who better reflected the political equilibrium among EU governments (which are also democratically legitimised).
With regard to her competence, von der Leyen made a mixed impression, at best, on Wednesday July 10th when she met three of the EP’s political groups (S&D, Renew and the Greens), whose support she needs to be confirmed. MEPs understandably tried to pin her down on the upcoming Commission agenda. But this proved futile as von der Leyen kept talking in very broad terms about key issues such as climate change and the rule of law. But this might have been expected of someone who had not run through the Spitzenkandidaten procedure. She had allegedly learned about her own nomination only ten days earlier. Clearly, it is impossible to put together a detailed agenda for the upcoming legislative term in such a short period. Moreover, it would take some time to switch from her previous role – which was party political and focused on defence policy from a member state perspective – to the new one of representing a European institution that is the guardian of the EU treaties, and which must work in a complex supra-national setting (the EU bubble).
What can we learn from this experience, for the Commission president appointment procedure in general? Some ground rules need to be agreed for the two institutions with the Treaty mandate to jointly find a president of the Commission: the European Council and the European Parliament. These ground rules must be set down and be legally binding to avoid institutional turf battles next time round, in 2024.
The proper functioning of a revised Spitzenkandidaten procedure depends in the first instance on the European Parliament. The process of providing ‘political programmes with a face’ need not be abandoned. The European political groups should continue to identify their leaders. If one of them can rally a solid EP majority behind this candidate, the Council would have to nominate this person. If Parliament is not able to find such a majority, the European Council should be allowed to propose its own candidate, someone who did not participate in the Spitzenkandidaten procedure. This candidate, however, should then be required to undergo a parliamentary hearing, similar to those the Commissioners-designate have to face. Those could be organised either as one plenary session or be split into different committee sessions.
An agreement along these lines would guarantee both institutions a fair share in the decision-making process and eliminate the waste of energy on institutional muscle-flexing.
Such a two-step procedure would require a somewhat different timetable, however: the Commission president-designate coming from outside the lead candidate process should be allowed time after the nomination to properly prepare her/himself for the EP hearing and confirmation. After the election in May and a nomination by the European Council in late June/early July, the candidate should have until early September to prepare the hearing before the EP. The hearings of the Commissioners-designate could then follow later that month. It should then be possible to still have the inauguration of the new Commission in November: the hearings of all Commissioners-designate in 2014 took only seven days in total.
This principle of a ‘reflection period‘ before confirmation hearings in the EP could still be applied to Ursula von der Leyen. Parliament does not need to confirm or reject her next week. Instead of voting on her confirmation now, Parliament could simply ask her to reflect on her programme and come back at a later stage, when she has had enough time to prepare herself properly for the role of Commission president.