Next week, for the first time, an SNP European Group of three MEPs will travel to Strasbourg, and we’ll be taking part in the opening session of the new parliament. The first task will be appointing the key officers, notably our new President.
First published in The National, 28 June 2019
While Brexit takes up all the political bandwidth in the UK, the conversations in Brussels have been focussed on who will be next Presidents of the European Parliament, Council and Commission. These decisions must be made before the legislative process can get up and running and the EU can start to get on with enacting the wishes of the people of Europe.
How does it all work? Well, firstly let’s deal with the Parliament, since we’ll be voting in the President next week. Since the first European election in 1979, the President is directly elected and remains in office for a renewable period of two and a half years. That means the Parliament can have two Presidents per term, and I hope your SNP MEPs be there to vote for both!
The Parliament’s President enjoys a range of powers, as well as making sure MEPs stick to the rules. The President directs all of Parliament's activities, including opening sittings, ruling on the admissibility of amendments and other texts put to the vote, as well as on the admissibility of parliamentary questions. Crucially they are also responsible for maintaining order in the chamber (no Bercow-style bellowing has been needed yet), announcing the results of votes, and making the relevant communications to committees. I know it sounds dry and hardly the pulse-pounding inspiration for a Netflix special, but it’s a role with more than symbolic authority.
But the big question, the one making crowds whisper in corridors and the political journalists call in all their contacts, is who will be put in charge of the Commission (the EU Civil service), and who will be the Commissioners leading up each department. There are 28 Commissioners, each one nominated by a member state government, and led by the European Commission President.
This post is particularly contentious this year, largely because of something called the Spitzenkandidat process. You’ve probably heard the term being bandied around – it translates as ‘lead candidate’ and, cards on the table, I have never been a fan because I believe all politics is local. But I’ll first walk you through the process, then get stuck into the detail of why.
Previously, there had been one ‘common’ candidate nominated by the European Council (which is itself made up of representatives of the governments of the member states). Consensus is great, consensus is how the EU functions, but in this case, it did look, because it was, too cosy and a government to government stitch up. As a way to try and legitimise the process now each political group names their lead candidate ahead of the European Parliamentary elections.
It comes from a good place, the system is meant to increase democratic accountability – the voters vote for MEPs, the MEPs vote for the candidate based on political beliefs not nationality, and the European Commission is led by the candidate who got the most votes. Through the Parliament, voters will have a say over who leads the EU executive.
The only problem is isn’t massively fair or indeed representative. Your SNP MEPs sit in the Greens/EFA group of the European Parliament and, while we could discuss and theorise for some time about why folk voted SNP at the last European election, I think it is safe to say that it wasn’t primarily because they thought that either Ska Keller and Bas Eickhout should be in charge of the European Commission.
To be clear, I will be supporting the candidacy of Ska and Bas because I agree with them and because their views are closer to those in our manifesto than any other candidates. That doesn’t negate the reality that the Commission is not the only institution, the process needs more accountability than a straightforward blind obedience to a process that most people in Europe do not base their votes upon.
What is needed is negotiated compromise which will involve a discussion of who is to be President of the Commission, President of the Parliament, and indeed the President of the European Council. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and the election of the Commission President should be a negotiation between the MEPs (as representatives of the voters) and the Council (as representatives of the governments).
Indeed, Emmanuel Macron whose MEPs play a significant role in the new Renew Europe group has been rumoured to be interested in getting his candidate selected as President of the European Central Bank, the other institution that needs a head. Maybe he gets that, and then his MEPs could vote for another candidate to lead the Commission? Nobody gets everything but everyone gets something. It is how monopolies are broken and coalitions are built. Compromise and finding common ground is how grown-up politics is done, and I daresay Westminster could learn a lot from how the EU in the next five years.
I’m not yet sure how this will all play out but I think it is unlikely that the candidate who won the Spitzenkandidat will lead the Commission. If our group candidates aren’t going to be the new Commission or Parliament Presidents, what policy concessions are we going to push for in exchange for our support? The Green New Deal, perhaps? Now that’s something I think we – backed by the voters of Scotland – could support.