A Turning Point for Europe's Constitution

For the past several weeks, attention was focused on the war in Iraq and on the fault lines within Europe that the conflict exposed. But at the same time--perhaps because no one was looking--a critical breakthrough occurred in the Convention for the Future of Europe, where the European Union's new constitution is being framed.

Representatives of 16 countries--Austria, Ireland, Portugal, the three Scandinavian countries, and the ten states that will join the EU in May 2004--submitted a proposal, in the form of a declaration, that calls for preserving the EU's current delicate institutional balance. They recommend retaining the European Commission as the proto-executive branch, the European Council to speak for national interests, and the European Parliament as the institution that represents Europe's citizens directly. They reaffirm member states' equality by defending the Council's rotating presidency.

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But, in addition to avoiding destructive changes, the proposal suggests a way forward for the Convention. Specifically, it recommends a way to strengthen the democratic legitimacy of the Commission by allowing its president to be elected either by the Parliament or by an electoral college that also includes representatives from national parliaments.

This proposal is far superior to its predecessors. Germany and France have proposed a system with two elected presidents--a Council president elected by its members and a Commission president elected by the European Parliament. This is a strikingly bad idea. Creating a two-headed executive of this sort would guarantee continuous clashes between the two power centers.

The "Gang of 16" is absolutely right that the EU should have a single president, not two. In a world of internal and external security threats, the EU will need a stronger executive capable of reacting quickly to unfolding events. If the Council presidency continues to rotate, then the logical entity to vest with executive authority is the president of the Commission. But currently the president of the Commission is remote and inadequately accountable to his ultimate constituents. Fundamental political reform is needed.

Unfortunately, the proposal fails to choose between the two alternatives for reform that it presents: election of the Commission president by the European Parliament or by an electoral college that also includes representatives from national parliaments.

At first sight, these two options may seem similar. They are not. The first alternative would steer the EU toward a parliamentary form of government, with the European Parliament entitled to both appoint and remove the Commission through a confidence vote. The electoral college method, however, could be a first step toward a presidential form of government.

The path to a parliamentary model is more familiar in Europe, and at first it may appear safer. But in the long run it could become very slippery. Given Europe's political heterogeneity, the European Parliament is unlikely to be ruled by a single-party majority. A European Commission accountable to a divided European Parliament would thus be bogged down by the usual inefficiencies of coalition governments.

By contrast, a European Commission that is directly elected would have great legitimacy, as well as being insulated from political fights inside the European Parliament, thereby increasing its political effectiveness. The main problem is that a directly elected Commission President might be premature: Europe may not be ready for such a radical change.

This is why the electoral college idea is so important: it allows for a gradual transition towards a regime that is desirable in the long run. An electoral college would allocate seats to each country in proportion to its population, and each candidate would receive electoral college votes proportional to the vote taken in that country, either by universal suffrage or in the national parliament. This would force presidential candidates to campaign with equal energy in all countries.

Even better, the power to select the members of the electoral college should be given to national parliaments alone. National parliaments have more legitimacy, attracting far higher voter turnout than elections to the European Parliament. Europe would be brought closer to its citizens and national parliaments would gain a direct voice in EU decision making.

But delegates to the Convention should not stop there. Countries should be given the option of allocating their electoral college votes via either universal suffrage or a vote in the national parliament. The system could evolve toward one of direct election without having to amend the constitution. Ultimately, the President of the Commission would be accountable directly to voters. This is how the US gradually evolved into a presidential democracy, towards the mid-19 th century.

Delegates to the Convention should keep in mind the provision of the Socratic Oath that reminds physicians, "First do no harm." Beyond that, they can do genuine good by recognizing the merit of the proposal for an electoral college.