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New face picked by the same old ones: Elections, not horse trading, are what the European Commission needs, argues Vernon Bogdanor

JACQUES SANTER, president-elect of the European Commission, is, like the vetoed candidate, Jean-Luc Dehaene, a Christian Democrat, and, as such, a member of the European People's Party (EPP), the transnational Christian Democrat grouping in the European Parliament.

In March 1989, he declared that the EPP presented itself 'as a viable partner for all the political forces in the European Parliament which want to take on the responsibility of continuing the development of the European Community into a political union which responds to the future challenges of internal and external policies. Via its central position, the EPP is the guarantor of the realisation of the internal market and of its social dimension.'

There can be little doubt that Mr Santer is as strong a believer in European unity - or, in John Major's jargon, a 'federalist' - as Mr Dehaene. That is hardly surprising. For, while one member state can veto the choice of the other 11, it cannot be expected that the 11 will then select a replacement whose outlook is that of the solitary dissenter. Thus, Mr Major's 'triumph' at Corfu is likely to prove as insubstantial as his 'triumph' at Maastricht, both having been gained at the cost of the country's real interest, which requires Britain to take a constructive, rather than a negative, view of Europe's future.

Mr Major, however, hopes that Mr Santer will prove a weak leader of the commission, so as to assist in the Government's aim of being a drag on the wheel of European union. Yet even that hope may not be fulfilled. For Mr Santer is likely to enjoy more credibility with the heads of government of the member states than Mr Dehaene, a fixer from the Belgian equivalent of Tammany Hall, would have done.

Nevertheless, the method by which Mr Santer has been selected is bound to weaken his authority. Under presidents such as Roy Jenkins and Jacques Delors, the commission has come to be far more than a mere secretariat to the Council of Ministers, the role to which Gaullists and Thatcherites hoped to confine it. Instead, it has led the way in the construction of Europe, sharing power with the Council of Ministers under the system of checks and balances that constitutes the government of the European Union.

Yet the president of the commission is selected by an unsavoury method of national horse-trading and elite manoeuvring, dominated, as recent weeks have shown, by the leaders of France and Germany. The people of Europe, whom the commission is intended to serve, find themselves entirely excluded from this process. The commission and its president lack democratic legitimacy, and so are ill-equipped to guide the process of European union.

How might the commission acquire such legitimacy? One possibility would be for Europe's voters to elect directly either the commission as a whole, or its president. That, however, would require an amendment to the Treaty on European Union, which would probably not be ratified in some, at least, of the member states; while the process of ratification would reawaken the forces of national chauvinism in just the same way that the ratification of Maastricht did.

There is, however, an alternative method by which the people of Europe can choose their representative on the commission. Article 158 of the Treaty on European Union gives the European Parliament the right to approve or reject the president and the other members of the commission, following nomination by the governments of the member states. Why should not the European Parliament declare that it will not in future allow any commission to be formed that the majority in the Parliament has not itself proposed? In this way, the formation of the commission would come to depend upon which transnational parties or bloc enjoyed a majority in the European Parliament.

Such a declaration, apart from giving the commission legitimacy, could radically alter the function of elections to the European Parliament. For these elections would then have the purpose of selecting the commission, the executive of the Union. The commission might then comprise members of one political colour, and it would be in a stronger position to offer the political leadership, whether of left or right, that Europe so badly needs.

Elections to the European Parliament would thus come to focus popular attention on European issues. They would become important and exciting, which currently they are not, and this should prove a sure remedy for the disease of apathy and falling turn-out.

For the European Parliament to select the commission would be to recognise that Europe can be built only through the participation of its people, not through the benign despotism of its leaders. The construction of Europe requires the creation of a European consciousness. That consciousness can only be created if Europe's electors, rather than its elites, are given the power to decide who is to guide the European project.

The author is Reader in Government, Oxford University, and a Fellow of Brasenose College.

(Photograph omitted)