Commission Debate 14: The Problem of Tyranny, Why experienced politicians, even honourable ones, say “NO, I don’t want to be elected Europe’s president.” (And others prefer secret, undemocatic deals.)
24, August, 2009
Let’s deal with another aspect of the political paradox that Robert Schuman and the other founders of the democratic New Europe left us. Be assured they also left us with a magnificent, fair and just solution for developing a powerful European democracy. They provided the finest example of democracy so far proposed in modern times.
In the last commentary, we saw that an election for the President of the European Commission, open up to all the citizens of Europe, may bring unexpected and unwelcome results. Thus it will not reinforce real democracy that should serve and protect the rights of citizens. It could lead to despotism. We might get photogenic but unqualified people unable to cope with complex European and global problems such as the Energy crisis, financial stability, employment, the global environmental crisis and the threat of terrorism. The voters might also be fooled by an articulate, attractive candidate, who on closer investigation, turns out to be a fraudster, a pawn for a cartel, a political fanatic, or the tool of a secret interest group or a foreign power.
This is the slippery slope to corruption, gangsterism and tyranny. Europeans should never forget that such political gangsters as Herr Hitler, Joseph Stalin and a long list of other rascals were also voted into office. Europe needs a rascal-proof system. Our democrats should have gained enough experience but it would seem only the founders like Robert Schuman, Joseph Bech, Karl Arnold, Paul-Henri Spaak, Konrad Adenauer, and Joseph Luns — who were experienced in fighting tyranny before and in the crucible of war — knew what to do. Have today’s politicians forgotten or have they never learned real European history? Are they lusting too much after political offices? Why do they try every means to block putting supranational democracy into effect?
I have news for these false innovators. They won’t succeed. Europe is now committed to a Community of destiny. We have to live together. The only way to do that in the end is MORE Justice, more Democracy, more fairness among all the nations, interest groups and individuals who make up the Community.
As we saw in the three articles on the Parliamentary Elections, one main question about democracy is not so much about counting votes correctly. A bigger question is: Who sets the rules about who, how, when and where Europeans can or may vote? An even more basic question is: Can we have a DIRECT democracy without having unreliable, sometimes corrupt, sometimes ideologically biased and fundamentally unrepresentative “representatives”?
So far the Europe’s debate has been dominated by politicians, saying “We know best”. Do they? Consider the politicians’ solution. For the few who admit that Europe’s major public posts should have elections, they still say that the candidates should be experienced politicians. What do they propose for the leadership of the Commission?
In private, they admit that their political solution will not work. It will create an even worse crisis than we have at present.
The Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty proposed that the Commission should become a purely political post. Only politicians should be eligible. In order to have an election involving the people’s votes, each party would choose a candidate for the Commission President. Then all the European parties of that group would agitate, propagate and publicize for a European Parliament full of elected representatives of the same political colour who would support their candidate.
Such a candidate-president would be a person of eminence, experience and renown such as a former prime minister. That is somewhat like a classical parliament — if the European Parliament were like such a parliament. Unfortunately it isn’t. It has different functions. Its attributes in the original treaties provide for a much higher vocation than childish and personal attacks on the government party. And such an idea — of transferring this unproductive, verbal warfare to a European level — goes against the founding democratic philosophy of the European Community. (This shows that the authors of the idea have little education in supranational democracy.)
Would this Lisbon system work? The following is what an MEP, who headed the European Parliament’s constitutional committee reported just before the elections. Politicians wanted the parties to choose candidates for Commission President even before the Lisbon Treaty was legalized. This would encourage turnout they said. It didn’t. They even produced postcards for activists to encourage their parties to select a party political candidate for Commission President. Without success.
All the party activists had already tried hard to encourage eminent politicians to put their names forward for such a post. This applied to parties on the right, to parties on the left and including all colours in-between. They had not got a single candidate, except the incumbent. Having no candidates is a disaster for this innovation!
Isn’t that extraordinary? Why would politicians refuse to be a candidate for the most interesting political job in Europe? Well, the answer is quite simple for anyone who reflects. (Did the authors of the Lisbon Treaty reflect wisely on it? Do they really understand human nature?)
If the incumbent Commission President was going to re-affirm his desire for another term, the first assessment is to work out the chances of beating someone already in office. That involves influencing several hundreds of MEPs, many of them new to the game. That also requires that the party machines should deliver votes en masse. In other words, the first duty of MEPs is to obey an anonymous party machine and not use their own judgement. Not really a good start for democracy– as the public would understand it.
The second problem for the other parties is to find a candidate among the small group of well-known politicians, such as former prime ministers or ministers. This is no easy task. Many are ex-prime ministers or ex-ministers precisely because they were suspected of corruption. They got kicked out of national office for one reason or another. Obviously they lost trust, maybe even for an honourable stand of principle. But they lost friends. They now have to face an examination before the European Parliament. They would not get past the examination and publicity of opposing politicians in the EP. These MEPs come from all the parties and from twenty-odd other countries. The media of all countries would submit the candidate’s record to close scrutiny, especially about the candidate’s fairness relative to other countries and other interests. Any prime minister who had unfairly pushed a policy against a neighbour would stand no chance of accumulating votes there. Some media would take the smallest incident and magnify it out of all proportion, maybe just for the hell of it.
What about the honest former prime ministers or ministers? The candidates are apparently very hard to find, according to the report of this leading MEP. Many have already got comfortable well-paid jobs. Many former prime ministers become millionaires from lucrative directorships or consultancies they take on. Others make a mint out of book rights and the lecture circuit. The more controversial the politician, the more money is raked in. For such jobs as consultants or directors, they did not have to undergo an intensive examination of their character and honesty as they would in the European Parliament if they were elected.
Thirdly, it is clear that if there were half a dozen candidates for the Commission President from all the main party groupings, then five of them would fail. Which former, honest prime minister would want to put him- or herself through the indignity of losing this election? It would be likely to put a distinct black mark on a good reputation at the end of someone’s active life.
There is another major reason. Such a procedure of selecting politicians only could be illegal! What politician would want to get involved in a European dispute at the Court of Justice? The European Commission is a public office paid out of public funds. What would happen if a non-political member of the public took the politician to Court, arguing that the taxpayer — who pays for the salary — was not able to put his/her own name forward? All public jobs should be open to all qualified candidates. There is no legislation, passed democratically, saying that the Commission President or any Commissioner must be a politician.
Under the influence and authoritarian politics of Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s and 1970s, politicians brought in this anti-democratic system to “fix” the Commission. De Gaulle certainly did not like Walter Hallstein, President of one European Community. As a law professor, he had quite strong ideas about democracy and the rule of law. He was no walk-over for de Gaulle and his power politics. Etienne Hirsch, a Commission President of another European Community, a Frenchman, argued with de Gaulle and told him where he was wrong.
Politicians fought these reminders of democracy and the rule of law, the very basis of the European Community. Behind the closed doors of the European Council, they preferred to choose one of their own to be president. They applied the law of Buggin’s turn. Each major party was allowed to put a candidate forward because the unwritten law was that the other parties would put their candidate forward at a later occasion. This is about as ethically sound as having a thin candidate follow a fat one. It is political fixing and as honest as choosing a football referee in favour of one team.
This political fixing would, of course, be illegal for any other public appointment. For any such job in the civil service of the EU, paid out of European public money, that is by the taxpayers, a call for candidates must be published. Applicants can list their experience and qualifications for office and submit their candidature to a central office. For example, the lowliest official position, let us say that of a the cleaner in the Commission’s buildings has to show that he or she can do the task. The position then has to be published with the physical and linguistic skills required. The Presidency of the Commission is no ordinary job. For one, it is rather well paid. But the salary comes from the same public funds as does the cleaner.
The European Council as the responsible body for selection ought to publish the requirements for the job. It should create a list of candidates. And it should publish the criteria for selection.
The present method of political fixing behind closed doors is against all equal opportunity legislation. One Members State proudly boasts that they select in turn a man then a woman because of equal rights legislation. But they were both party members of the same party, selected in secret by politicians and ministers adhering to the same party. ALL other citizens of that country were excluded from consideration. That is a bizarre interpretation of equal rights. It is against all case law dealing with Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Any European institution that excluded even a single members of its population from a public office, because he/she was not a member of a party could be taken to Court. What would happen if 50 million citizens are eliminated illegally in a national selection or some 400 million at the European level? The practice of ‘political cardholders only’ is exactly what happened in Nazi Germany, other fascist regimes or the Soviet Union. No tolerance for this intolerance should be exercised in the European Community.
So far the European Council has not been taken to Court for this illegality. No one, apparently has complained yet. The Council has — so far — got away with such an audacious and impudent act. But it is only a matter of time before it is exposed in public and in Court as inadmissible. That is a distinct possibility for the future, possibly the next appointment. There have been sufficient complaints, scorn and derision about the past political fixing.
That danger of scandal is possibly the only reason why the politicians have decided to modify the procedure. But the Lisbon Treaty is no real improvement.
The present system is ILLEGAL. The alternative of the Lisbon Treaty won’t work and is even more illegal. What should be done?
Coming: How the Commission President can be democratically elected in the letter and spirit of the original treaties.David Heilbron Price