We’re taking ideas from the Conference on the Future of Europe and putting them to policymakers and experts to react. Last week we looked at whether the EU should welcome an independent Scotland. Now we’re asking whether there should be a single EU President. Who do I Zoom if I want to speak to Europe?
Today’s idea comes from Ermanno, who thinks the EU risks confusing people and undermining itself geopolitically by having both a Commission President (Ursula von der Leyen) and a European Council President (Charles Michel):
“The recent ‘Sofagate‘ is just the last example of the weakness of European institutions on the geopolitical stage. Having so many presidents with overlapping competencies and indirect democratic legitimacy creates confusion among EU citizens, and it is easily exploited by our global competitors.”
He also think the EU President should be directly elected. Similar proposals for a directly elected single EU President have also been put forward on the Conference on the Future of Europe platform by Mathéo, Clemente, and Paraskevas.
Just this week, there has been confusion around whether the rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union (currently held by Slovenia) represents the EU on the global stage.
To get a response, we took Ermanno’s idea and put it to Assita Kanko, a Belgian MEP who sits with the European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the European Parliament. Her party describes itself as “eurorealist”, and she was quite sceptical about Ermanno’s idea:
“Europe should have a strong and clear voice and project an image of unity. Whether this is through the tandem of the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission or though a single ‘European President’ is less important. Obviously, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen have not always succeeded here. Discussions on a single European President would require extensive reform of and long discussions of the EU institutions. Europe merits a focus on the needs of the citizens now.”
For a different perspective, we put the same idea to Andrew Duff, a former Liberal Democrat MEP and staunch European federalist. What did he think of Ermanno’s suggestion?
“Well, I think it’s a very good idea. In fact, I proposed it at the [Convention on the Future of Europe] in 2002-3, and we discussed it thoroughly then, and there was considerable support for it. But, of course, there was greater opposition to it, especially from the President of the Convention, Giscard d’Estaing, who saw the European Council as the supreme governor of the EU. And he had a very typically and classically French idea of presidency, which was fair enough, and he brought experience to the argument. But I think that in light of the experience of the Treaty of Lisbon and the creation of this permanent president of the council, one can now question if it provides the coherence and the clarity that government of the EU needs…
The powers of the executive in the EU are shared between the Commission and the European Council, and there are blurred. They are shared clumsily, if I may put it like that. And I don’t think that’s very democratic and it’s not actually very effective. I think that the Commission and council tread on each other’s toes too much now. In the old days when Van Rompuy, who is a very clever, experienced – Belgian, of course – compromiser, at a time of financial crisis, and the Commission was playing a subsidiary role, then it worked quite well. But if the two of them say the same thing in the same place all the time, then one can question if it’s duplication, which it is. If, however, they clash, then it does open up serious political and constitutional division at the centre of the Union and that’s not a good thing internally, and externally, for international Third Countries, then it looks extremely odd…”
Next up, we had a question from one of our readers, Otto, who says: “I like division of power. The last thing we need is more concentration of power in a single individual”.
What would Andrew Duff say to him?
“Well, I think that in a federal structure (or a structure that is striving to become federal) powers will fluctuate from time to time. And, sometimes, decentralisation of power is desirable and necessary. But I didn’t think that is the case this time, when I think the opposite is true: we need a concentration of power in Brussels to face up to the challenges we now have. Indeed, the response to the coronavirus economic crisis is precisely that: it is the launching of borrowing and lending at an unprecedented level. And I think that requires firm, clear, accountable government, which must come from the Commission.
So, respectfully, I don’t think that a return to theories about division of powers is sensible at this stage. The critical division of powers is between the judiciary and executive, and that is entrenched under the treaties. The sharing of power between the executive and the legislature, which we have in this rather blurred way, is important to make the thing political.”
Should there be a single EU President? Should the positions of Commission President and President of the European Council be merged? The Lisbon Treaty leaves open the possibility of a “double-hat” scenario; should the same person hold both functions? Should such a position be directly-elected? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!