On the last day of the European elections, I wrote that the post-electoral period will not be about the actual results but about how they are interpreted. And seeing the debates of the last week or so, I feel kind of confirmed.
A heavily retweeted article from Jan Techau published today is just the last in a long row of pro-and contra-Juncker, pro- and contra-Spitzenkandidaten, pro- and contra-European Political Parties, pro- and contra-European Council articles that have flooded everyone following EU politics. But this article, similar to many other comments, just misses an important point:
The debate around Juncker et al. may seem novel in an EU-level context, but in comparative perspective there’s little surprising and little outrageous in either of the positions taken by what seem to be two opposing fronts (with shades of grey).
Let me share two quotes from an academic article titled “The Role of Parliament in Government Formation and Resignation” (Lieven de Winter 1995) which are totally relevant for the EU-level process although they summarise findings on national-level government formation in Western Europe:
“In countries where elections do not produce a single party controlling a majority of seats in parliament, the formation process is much more complex, and usually several alternative outcomes of this decision-making process are conceivable. Or, to put it another way, in these countries, the process is determined less by electoral outcomes than by institutional constraints; and by the expectations, goals and resources of all participants in the process, including the different types of parliamentary actors as well as parliament as a whole” (p.119)
“The process of government formation is governed by a restricted number of formal provisions and a wide variety of informal rules. In addition, constitutional rules often do not reflect the way the formation process operates in practice. […] Some formal rules are persistently violated in the real world, as they are considered anti-democratic or impracticable.” (p.122-3)
Why is that relevant? It’s relevant because in his article Jan Techau is implying that the current rules are clear, that is that the European Council has the prerogative of selecting a candidate, not the European Parliament or some kind of party-political Spitzenkandidaten-process. To change the legal reality that he doesn’t seem to like, the only solution seems that a Treaties change (clarifying the procedure in favour of the European Parliament?).
Yet, the research presented above, conducted 20 years ago, very much points to a reality that a number of commentators have put forward also in recent days: The way national (heads of) government are selected is often only partially governed by formal rules and much more determined by interests, by process, by actor constellations at the time of government formation and, not least, by habit.
So anyone stating that one or the other outcome/process is supposedly right or wrong based on legal argumentation of limited EU Treaty provisions will have to ignore a reality of democratic processes in Europe and beyond that is much more complex than 10 lines in a treaty or constitution.
The current process is about power plays and face-saving, about interpretations of results, about which national procedural interpretation of patchy procedure prevails. The Spitzenkandidaten-process may seem odd to some and normal to others because they are or aren’t used to such processes, because they want a certain type of European Union over another type of Union.
When you read this text by Simon Hix from 1997, the Spitzenkandidatenprocess may seem like a natural evolution for some that was ultimately wanted by those who drafted (and adopted) the Lisbon Treaty. For others, the fact that the nomination of a candidate by the European Council was clearly kept as a border to a parliamentary EU democracy is an argument against or at least not in favour of Juncker. And then there are those who simply like or dislike Juncker, and may use any argumentation to get him through or prevent him, independent of historical developments or legal reasoning.
So, whatever the outcome of the current process, we are watching democracy in action and democracy in the making, not because one or the other outcome would be more or less democratic in principle, but because the outcome will define a path that EU-level democratic processes will start from in the years to come.
Whether this path is good or bad, right or wrong, is a matter of historical interpretation and political perspective – but pretending that only one path is legally correct is just ignoring that national realities are not less debatable or complex in reality, they are just not as new as the current European situation. That’s a trap in which Jan Techau stepped with his article.