Sophia Russack: People are largely unaware of the lead candidate system

Let's not forget that the Commission has as many employees as the city of Munich, and just this example is showing us that it is not a “big fat bureaucratic monster”

Gender is a very important topic now, and as the new Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen will have to find a 50:50 balance while choosing the Commissioners. I think this time the public eye on this will be stronger than it has ever been, and that is a good development, says Sophia Russack, Researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, in an interview to Europost.

Ms Russack, what are the biggest challenges Ursula von der Leyen is facing as the next Commission President?

From an institutional perspective, the main challenge is first of all to redefine the Spitzenkandidaten procedure and to find an agreement between the European Council and the European Parliament on it. The agreed procedure should be written down to ensure that there are clear rules for the appointment next time, in 2024.

There is criticism that the Commission is too cumbersome and bureaucratic. Could a woman at the helm be effective in sorting out internal structures?

I don't know why a woman should be better than a man. But yes, we are having for the first time a woman as head of the Commission and this is sending a strong signal. Gender is a very important topic now, and as the new Commission President, she will have to find a 50:50 balance while choosing the Commissioners. I think this time the public eye on this will be stronger than it has ever been, and that is a good development. Her proposal to ask the national governments to nominate two persons - a man and a woman - for EU Commissioner, who will both be equally qualified, is actually a good idea. She as a President-elect will then have an option to choose. Apart from that, when it comes to bureaucracy, I can say that the Commission is an administrative body and of course it is bureaucratic. There are for sure ways to further make it leaner and more efficient and effective. But let's not forget that the Commission has as many employees as the city of Munich, and just this example is showing us that the Commission is not this big fat bureaucratic monster that people are prone to think. It is actually a very lean body compared to national administrations. For all the responsibilities that the Commission has, the number of employees is not exaggerated.

Why did the nomination provoke such unfriendly reactions from the smaller partners in the government coalition in Germany?

The Social Democrats (SPD) were already unhappy because the Spitzenkandidaten procedure hasn't been applied. And also they rather wanted their lead candidate from the Social Democrats family, Frans Timmermans, to be nominated. So they felt this is undemocratic and going back to backroom deals, which in fact it was, and they went as far as forcing Angela Merkel to abstain from voting. The Social Democrats in Germany also named a few things that went wrong while she was Minister of Defence, but I think it is more about the procedure than about her qualifications.

Do you think that the Council exceeded its rights by offering in the package Vice-Presidents of the Commission and even the Presidents of Parliament?

Things are connected. We should not forget that when we talk about the European Parliament or about the Council, in the end these are actors from the same parties. These parties are holding internal discussions on the procedures. The Parliament has the freedom to decide who will be its President, and the European Parliament actually demonstrated with the election on 3 July that they are not in the hands of the European governments.

Did the tensions between the Council and the Parliament open a serious political conflict over the question who decides in Europe?

Of course, it is a classical institutional battle. What we see between the European Council and the Parliament is, to some extent, that it is not so much about bringing forward a candidate who is better suited for the job as Commission President, but is overshadowed by the power game of the institutions. The institutions seem to be more interested in flexing muscles and demonstrating their say in this, than they are in bringing forward a good candidate. As I said earlier, it is very important that the next Commission President becomes a kind of mediator between the three institutions and finds a sustainable appointment procedure that is acceptable for the European Parliament and the European Council.

Did the EU democratic deficit deepen by ignoring the Spitzenkandidaten principle, as some members of the European Parliament claim?

In theory it is of course more democratic to connect this process to elections, giving the people the say about the candidate. But the thing is, in practice the Spitzenkandidaten procedure did not have a true effect because people did not know about it. After 2014 there was research conducted which revealed that EU citizens were largely unaware firstly of the system, and secondly of the individual candidates. The system itself doesn't change anything if people don't know about it. So I would argue that the system does not make the EU more democratic in the first place.

What does the fact that Eastern Europe is practically excluded from the leadership package indicate, and would it widen the rift between East and West and the irritation about the so-called 'differentiated European integration'?

Yes, none of the Central and Eastern European countries were presented, but the package was agreed unanimously, so these countries also approved this package. So, they apparently did not see any problem with this. And we don't know what kind of other promises were made to them, potentially in exchange.

Should the next Commission be 'political', as there are many objections to such approach?

The label 'political' Commission was a bit misleading because different people understand different things. There was also confusion between 'political' and 'politicised', which means party 'political'. When Juncker labelled his Commission to be political, it basically meant prioritising its work - not touching up every possible topic but focusing on where Europe makes a difference - and a more top-down structure, so the political level has a stronger grip on the administration. This is a trend that developed over time. The Commission is not a technocratic body anymore, as it used to be - it became more political over a long time.

What should be the tasks of the new Commission after “Juncker's last chance Commission”?

The task of the Commission remains the same, and among its main duties is to initiate legislation, to prepare proposals and to make sure that the Member States implement the rules agreed at European level. The “last chance Commission” of Juncker is of course not much more than rhetoric. On 1 November the next Commission is taking up office, there will be change in the structure, there will be change in policy positions. Ursula von der Leyen will come up with a programme, but at the end of the day, we will not see ground-breaking differences in the way the Commission works.

 

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Sophia Russack is Researcher in the Institutions unit at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels. Her main research interests lie in the fields of EU institutional architecture, decision-making processes and institutional reform, with a particular focus on the European Commission. She covers topics such as the European Parliament elections and the lead candidate (Spitzenkandidaten) process; EU democracy and accountability; and the concept of differentiated European integration. After obtaining her BA in Political Science and Sociology from the University of Frankfurt, she received a Master's degree in European Studies at Maastricht University. Currently she is conducting PhD research at Maastricht University, where she is investigating the institutional balance between the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the EU, in the various modes of differentiated European integration.

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