Guest blog from Julian Priestley: ‘In our name?’

The European Commission is neither fish nor fowl. Not quite a government, as such, it is more than just a secretariat or an administration. It proposes, it guards the Treaties, it rules on competition policy and on state aids, and it implements EU policy across the full range of activities.

To pretend as the UK government sometimes does that the Commission is just a technical regulatory body, not a political one, flies in the face of both constitutional theory and confirmed practice. And if this was just an administration then why did successive UK governments appoint Neil Kinnock, Peter Mandelson and Chris Patten as Commissioners? Whatever criticisms may be made of them, not even their worst enemies could describe them as desiccated technocrats.

For a future reforming Labour government, committed to growth through public investment, promoting the green economy, keen to reduce VAT if possible, looking for structural support for regions which are being blighted for the remainder of this Parliament, a strong and constructive relationship with the next Commission, which comes into office in 2014 will be crucial.

The next Commission looks like being less dominated by conservatives as member states incumbent governments pay the price for unbalanced austerity measures, and most incumbents are on the right. If the successors to the Barroso regime recognise that the answer to Europe’s sluggish economic performance cannot be yet more long-term wage deflation and more public spending austerity, then we may see a Europe-wide push for growth.

The President of the Commission is more than just primus inter pares. As Jacques Delors proved, an activist President with a clear vision can shape the Europe of tomorrow.

The Lisbon Treaty recognised that the Commission is indeed a political body, and tried to confer on it some democratic legitimacy. It did this by giving the directly elected Parliament the formal right to approve the Commission president, as well as the Commission team as a whole. And, most importantly, the heads of government when they put up a name for President to the Parliament should ‘take account’ of the outcome of the elections to the Parliament.

And how can you ‘take account’ of those election results unless, when the elections take place, the possible nominees are part of the campaign itself?

In 2009, there was a half-hearted attempt to focus the election on the choice of Commission President. The centre-right EPP made clear that conservative governments would, were the EPP to be the largest group in the new Parliament, propose a second term for José Manual Barroso, the former Portuguese Prime Minister who has been Commission President since 2004.

A majority in the Party of European Socialists (PES) felt that Barroso had in no way deserved a second mandate, and wanted to put up a socialist against him. This was vetoed by the British, Spanish and Portuguese socialist parties. Barroso’s economic liberalism and general desire to do the bidding of national capitals had gone down rather well in London; more mundane geographic or national considerations explain his Iberian support. Since it still takes two to tango, the failure of the PES to support a left of centre candidate gave Barroso a clear run and ensured that competing visions of Europe’s future played no part in the 2009 elections, with the disastrous turnout and outcome that we know.

The Socialists have now belatedly recognised that they too will need a candidate for Commission president in 2014. Discussions between socialist member parties (including Labour) are now taking place as to the method and timetable for selecting the Left’s candidate. The EPP are clear; they will choose their nominee at a Congress in the autumn of 2013.

From what can be gleaned, the internal PES discussions are looking at different possibilities ranging from the selection of a candidate at a Party Congress through to open primaries in the member states. It is likely that an internal working party will report to the European party leadership in the autumn, and that the PES Council (its main decision making body) will choose the method before the end of the year.

The worst outcome would be a ‘personality’ foisted on the European socialists by a conclave of party leaders, or international secretaries: and then rubber stamped by a ‘Congress’ of delegates, handpicked by party leaders or national executives. An opportunity to bring a modicum of democratic vitality into the European political process would have been lost. Far from galvanising party members and activists prior to the European elections, ordinary party members will have effectively been told that these questions are strictly reserved for grown-ups.

By imposing some ex-Prime Ministerial worthy (a commodity that electoral hardship has gifted to the Left in abundance) the party hierarchies will have closed off debate about a European programme and European choices. So when the EP elections come the debate can be focused on national issues, and the campaign kept under the rigid control of party headquarters in national capitals. And when the this farrago leads to even lower levels of turnout, at least the risk of raising uncomfortable European issues would have been avoided.

There is an alternative. In the summer of 2013, candidates should be invited to put themselves forward. They should have to show at least a minimum of support (eg the backing of say 10% of the socialist MEPs from at least four member states). Arrangements should then be made for them to hold public hustings with party members and supporters in as many regions as possible.

Then, according to the rules laid down by the national parties, a primary should be organised which would be binding on local delegates for the subsequent Party Congress which should select the nominee and adopt the programme for the EP elections. And the delegates to that Congress should be elected by party members in the regions, not selected by the ‘grace and favour’ of national party leaderships.

There is a campaign starting up in France among Young Socialists in favour of ‘open primaries’ which may be a step too far, at least for 2013/14. But the most important thing is to have a procedure for choosing the next President of the European Commission in an open and democratic manner, which means letting party members and supporters have the final say.

Of course there will be groans in Party HQs about expense and organisational costs, although the budgets for the European parties are now increasing sharply. Is it really so complex to organise a few hustings meetings, and then a ballot of party members? Or is greater democracy in Europe to be denied on grounds of expense?

By throwing open the process by which the political leader of the world’s most powerful multilateral executive is chosen, by forcing candidates to declare, by questioning them on their programmes and vision for Europe’s future, Labour party members here and socialists elsewhere would be taking ownership of European policy for the first time.

The first run through will not be the EU’s ‘Obama moment’. But it will be the first stage in making the EP elections a genuine debate on the ideological choices facing Europe. It would involve hundreds of thousands of party activists for the first time in European decision making. And it would give also for the first time a European theme for European elections. Who knows, there might even be an increase in turnout?

The first step must be that our party leadership tell the membership what is going on in these procedural discussions in Brussels, how they want to see the next President of the Commission chosen, and what reforms they want to be made to ensure that the Party of European Socialists becomes a party where the members take the big decisions. Party members have a right to know what is being done in their name; and at Labour’s next party conference, the delegates should have the final say on the way forward.

2011 is turning out to be a momentous year for the cause of democracy in the world, but in Britain and Europe we still have a journey to make.

Julian Priestley
Waterloo, 28 March 2011

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