What is the state of the European Union after a month of haggling over its top jobs? Not great, not terrible, as the oft-quoted line from an excellent recent TV show goes.
Some in Central Europe see the outcome as a triumph. By staying united, the Visegrád Group of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia managed to derail the candidacies for President of the European Commission (EC) offered by the Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates) of the two largest political parties in the European Parliament. Those candidates were Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans, respectively, of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D). Their sins? Weber suspended the membership of Victor Orbán’s Fidesz party in the EPP before the election and Timmermans, the current Vice President of the European Commission, led its inquiries into rule of law questions in Poland and Hungary.
On Twitter, Hungary’s government spokesman, Zoltán Kovács, shared a caricature in which a defiant Mr. Orbán is carrying three dogs with the heads of Timmermans, Weber, and of the Commission’s outgoing president Jean-Claude Juncker out of a tent marked “EC.” Meanwhile, in a lengthy Facebook post, the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš congratulated himself on “speaking at least 15 times during the Council’s meeting” and claimed that “the Czech Republic never played as much of an active role in key EU negotiations as now.”
Yet the idea of Visegrád’s victory does not hold water. While guaranteed to burn many bridges, the vendetta against Weber and Timmermans does little to materially advance Central Europe’s interests, other than by de facto ending the Spitzenkandidaten system (more on that in a minute).
Notwithstanding her conservative bona fides, the current nominee to lead the Commission, von Der Leyen, is no friend of Viktor Orbán. A close ally of Angela Merkel and a self-professed European “federalist,” she lambasted the Hungarian government for failing to act with respect for “human dignity and human rights” in its treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in 2015. Nor is the incoming President of the European Council and the interim Prime Minister of Belgium, Charles Michel, terribly fond of Visegrád. Last year, he called for the four countries to be expelled from the Schengen area over their unwillingness to observe common asylum and border protection rules.
Visegrád invested heavily into the appearance of unity throughout the negotiations. But to claim that the outcome is somehow a victory for the region requires one to gloss over the fact that nobody from Central Europe came even close to being considered for one of the top jobs, as Babiš himself admitted. Instead, the result looks eerily like a traditional Franco-German bargain with a handful of sweeteners thrown in for the Mediterranean periphery. Together with the EU’s Northern, pro-market “Hanseatic” countries, it is Central Europe that is getting the short end of the stick.
The failure to secure top jobs for Central and Eastern Europeans is not a reflection of a lack of talent—just think of Lithuania’s outgoing President Dalia Grybauskaitė, or of the European Commission’s former Vice President, Kristalina Georgieva of Bulgaria. Instead, it is a reflection of the misguided priorities of Visegrád’s leaders. Donald Tusk, for instance, has proven to be an apt president of the European Council, yet Poland’s Law and Justice Party could never bring itself to back a previous domestic political opponent.
One example of the abdication of the new Europe on defending its core interests is the nomination of Josep Borrell, the Spanish Foreign Minister, for the Union’s top diplomatic job. The EU’s common foreign and defense policy is in disarray after years of hapless leadership by the current High Representative, Federica Mogherini. The election was an opportunity to reboot the EU’s foreign policy agenda for an era of great power competition. Whether they recognize it or not, being able to rely on a strong European foreign policy is disproportionately more important to small and potentially vulnerable countries on the EU’s Eastern periphery than it is to large, established European democracies. And while Borrell is an experienced figure, his strategic outlook is far too infused with the pieties of Western Europe’s Left to be able to bring the EU’s foreign policy to the next level.
Most serious among those is Borrell’s equivocation over Russia. In November last year, for instance, he announced with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, the creation of a joint cyber-security working group to address disinformation—an initiative that would be laughable if it had not been meant earnestly. And while Spain has not joined China’s Belt and Road initiative yet, it is not clear that Mr. Borrell appreciates the character of the Chinese regime. According to him, the initiative itself “is proof that China is no longer considering itself a net receiver and starts considering itself a contributor to the world, and this is something Spain welcomes.”
For Orbán, who has not hidden his sympathies for Eastern autocracies, that may not be a bad thing. But Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland, which have sought to avoid any doubts about their pro-Western geopolitical allegiances, might soon experience buyers’ remorse for having expended much of their political capital on killing Weber’s and Timmermans’s presidency.
If Visegrád diehards achieved anything remotely useful, it is the end of the Spitzenkandidaten system. The informal scheme, first introduced ahead of the 2014 election, meant that European political groups announced their candidates for the Commission’s presidency before the European election with the expectation that the Spitzenkandidat of the winning group would be later nominated to the role. For some, giving up on this system risks exacerbating the bloc’s democratic deficit. Over two hundred million Europeans voted in the May election, the argument goes, yet the decision over the key leadership positions was struck by 28 politicians in a closed-door meeting. That is just wrong—or is it?
The Treaty on the European Union says nothing about Spitzenkandidaten in its discussion of how the Commission’s president is appointed (Article 17(7)). The bargaining that we saw last month was perfectly in line with the intermediating role assigned to the European Council in selecting the head of the Commission. The European Union is not and cannot be a simple one-person-one-vote democracy. That would make it a rather uncomfortable place for countries such as Estonia (with a population of 1.3 million) or Malta (with a population of 460,000). The EU was not created as a simple parliamentary democracy with the head of the executive (EC) accountable to the legislature. For one, the EC combines executive and legislative roles, as well as the function of Europe’s apolitical civil services. The European Parliament (EP), in turn, is not a conventional legislative chamber: It cannot hold the Commission to account in the same way as national parliaments can to governments in parliamentary democracies—the EP, after all, cannot even set its own legislative agenda.
There are legitimate questions about the EU’s current set-up. Yet much of the real or perceived “democratic deficit” is a feature, not a bug. The Commission’s non-political activities and its role in areas such as competition policy, trade, or regulation provide reasons for removing it from day-to-day political pressures. Still, if one thinks that the European Union ought to be “democratized,” the way to do it is through institutional reforms: separating the EC’s political and non-political functions, turning the EP into a real parliament, and transforming the Council into a European senate.
The Spitzenkandidaten system sought to reduce the “democratic deficit” while avoiding any changes that would require treaty revisions. With the benefit of hindsight, one can perhaps see it as a worthy and useful experiment that simply failed in creating a truly European public square. The high turnout at this year’s European election is a result of the growing salience of European questions, both for the EU’s defenders and its detractors, and not of the personalities of Weber and Timmermans, or of Margrethe Vestager, the Spitzenkandidat of Renew Europe (formerly known as ALDE). In reality, their names were a matter of indifference to an overwhelming majority of European voters.
Less charitably, the Spitzenkandidaten scheme can be seen as a cargo cult, rooted in the belief that emulating certain superficial attributes of national democracies can bring about genuine democratic accountability at the European level. Let parties nominate common candidates for the Commission’s presidency, some hoped, and the sedate European elections will turn into the equivalent of presidential races in America. Alas, that has not happened and unless one is truly committed to the bizarre idea that Weber’s presidency would somehow command a substantially stronger political mandate than Germany’s Defense Minister Ursula von Der Leyen (or whoever else ends up being elected to the role by the European Parliament) it is time to admit that the idea was a failure and to move on, either by pushing for a reform of the EU’s treaties or by accepting the imperfections inherent in the current set of rules.
Alas, the end of the Spitzenkandidaten system comes at too high a cost for Central Europe. For many in the West, Visegrád is no longer worth engaging with. That impression can lead to a further fragmentation of the European Union into blocs of countries sharing only a veneer of common European institutions. To some extent a “multi-speed” Europe is already a reality, but entrenching it further would most harm the Central European countries that see themselves as a part of the EU’s future integration core, and risk them being relegated to the bloc’s periphery. That may be something for Central European leaders to consider before they start dancing again to Orbán’s tune in the future.