The Spitzenkandidaten-contest is a game, which both the European Parliament and the European Council still have to learn. The difficulty both players are facing is that the rules of the game are unclear, if not contradictory. As each player of board games knows, disputable rules are a recipe for controversy and disappointment. No wonder, then, that the political emotions about the decision of the European Council to propose a non-playing candidate for the presidency of the European Commission are running high.

Conflicting Rules

The rules of the game to get the top job are a mix of two different concepts. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the citizens of the EU are directly represented at Union level in the EP. So, Spitzenkandidaten are OK. According to the stipulations of the 1976 Act concerning the election of EP-members however, the voters are only entitled to cast their ballot as subject of the Member States. So, the concept of lead candidates of European political parties is illusory. In reality, the right to passive suffrage in the EU is restricted to standing at elections in the country of nationality or residence. Although it will be hard to believe for millennials and young Europeans, the political construction of the EU anno 2019 is such that not a single citizen is entitled to participate in elections at Union level.

Gaming European Democracy

Games are only fun if they succeed in reducing the complexity of their objects to the core. Many generations have enjoyed the game Monopoly as it encapsulates the essence of capitalism. In a similar vein, the board game Eurocracy turns the concept of democracy into fun for the whole family as it enables players to assume the role of Spitzenkandidat of a European political party and to embark on a EU-wide election campaign. They have to win elections, form coalitions and make political deals before they are home and dry. The stakes are high because the aim of the game is to become President of the European Union.

For the purposes of the present discourse it should be underlined that the rules of the game are based upon the Lisbon Treaty. Actually, they prove that it is perfectly possible for the EU to work as a European democracy. A vos dés, citoyens Européens!

Fixing the loophole

The intentions of the initiators of the Spitzenkandidaten procedure in 2014 were to bridge the gap between the citizens and ‘Brussels’. As more than 50% of EU citizens have participated in the 2019 EP elections, this aim has been realised. Thanks to the voter turnout and the rejection of populist-nationalist programs the EU has established itself as a European democracy.

Despite these good intentions, however, the present turmoil concerning the succession of Jean-Claude Juncker seems to set the EU back to the dark times of horse trading and secrecy. The reason for this setback is that the EP has failed so far to adapt the 1976 rules concerning the election of its members to the clear and unambiguous provisions of the Lisbon Treaty. As a result of this shortcoming, the Spitzenkandidaten procedure lacks a legal basis. The ball is therefore in the court of the European Parliament. The most urgent and absolute priority of the newly elected EP is to comply with article 223 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU and to draw up a proposal for the election of its members by direct universal suffrage at EU level or risk jeopardising the democratic credentials of the EU altogether.

Conclusion

The concept of European democracy will not be dead and buried if the candidate of the European Council will be elected by the European Parliament. However, Parliament should ensure that the present horse trading by the Council can not be repeated, when the citizens are invited and encouraged to go to the polls again in 2024.

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