Shall Europeans elect their President?
There is a certain consensus, among the European ruling classes, that the EU’s next step should coincide with the democratic election of its number one official. However, interviewed by Der Spiegel, Mrs Merkel recently declared that she would be “cautious” on the possibility of a European President “elected directly by the People”. This hypothesis has been endorsed lately by Mr Letta, the Italian prime minister, and by many others before him, including Tony Blair.
Germany will go to the ballot in September and, with a new euro-skeptic party on the rise, Mrs Merkel appears to be fine tuning her message.
Advocates of the direct election of the “President of Europe” believe this would show their commitment to bridging the democratic gap between Brussels and the European voters. A rather commonly held idea is that a better sense of legitimacy of the European institutions would make them more effective and more accountable at the same time.
Why be cautious, then?
Like it or not, there is no such thing as a pan-European polity. Some 23 different languages are spoken across the EU, and the public debates remain by and large country-specific.
The political ruling class is thus nationally selected. There isn’t but a handful of figures that are well known all over Europe. They are basically national government leaders, whose views and actions are associated with the respective countries.
It is easy to mention a few reasons why electing the EU President won’t help to increase the legitimacy of European Institutions:
1. It is highly improbable that the election of the EU President could stay clear of discussions on the balance of power between different states (picture a race between “a German” and “a Mediterranean” candidate).
2. It is likewise improbable that smaller states (everybody speak about Germany, France, Spain and Italy, but there are 27 EU member states) could produce any candidate to reach out to electors in more heavily populated states. Institutionalizing their status as junior partners would not make them more europhiliac.
3. It is also rather improbable that anybody but very few people (those that methodically follow politics) would be able, or even just interested, to make a decently informed choice.
4. It is thus very improbable that such an election could be decided on the traditional left/right divide. But what could be its surrogate?
Moreover, it is the idea that underpins the enthusiasm for a democratically elected EU President that should be met with more skepticism. European leaders think that the EU should “act” to get them out of the recession – either by collectivizing member state debts, or by starting a pan-European public investment program. A stronger popular legitimation for the EU executive power is consistent with the basic view, but at the end of the day, it bases the future of the European polity on money flowing from the center to the (hopefully) grateful periphery. Democratic blessing is pursued as a pass for public spending. I wonder what H.L. Mencken would say.