At a recent event on the role of the EU in the World, hosted by Chatham House, former Downing Street Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell asked President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy if he could foresee this position to be directly elected in the future. His answer was not an encouraging one.
The question gave the opportunity to the former Belgian prime minister to explain in great detail the main features and responsibilities of his role and to highlight that whoever runs the position doesn’t have a political agenda and most of the time has to act as a diplomat rather than a leader, trying to find a solution on which all the 27 heads of government may agree.
He also added a comment, saying that possibly the President of the European Commission would be elected in the future, as this role is more similar to that of a prime minister at national level and, through a popular election for this position, people of Europe would be able to choose the political direction of the Union.
He further added, however, that this scenario is not very likely in the near future as he would require a change in the institutional framework designed by the Lisbon Treaty, with all the risks and consequences that a treaty change would imply.
At the end of the session, he answered a final question about his alleged lack of leadership. In his opinion, when you are the Chair of a body composed by 27 heads of national government, you show your leadership in finding the right compromise on which all of them are ready to agree.
“I work behind the scene – he concluded – exerting more leadership than you can imagine”. And he revealed the work that he is doing at the moment in order to deepen the monetary union, to create a banking union and a fiscal union, to consolidate democratic accountability and governance.
He possibly did not realise the impact that the combination of the two different statements can have on an European electorate that is already detached from the Union’s institutions.
On the one hand, the head of the European Council is working on the definition of some fundamental structural reforms of the Union (and as the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported, other European figures are working with him: the President of the Eurogroup Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, and the President of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi.)
On the other hand, his comment about the risks of a treaty change reveals that possibly these reforms are going to be implemented without a formal change of the European institutional framework, i.e. without a formal consultation of European electorates.
This is exactly what Europe doesn’t need at the moment.
In a period of deep economic crisis, when the disaffection towards the European institutions is increasingly growing, European leaders must avoid working “behind the scenes” and should instead try to engage in a democratic and transparent operation of involving voters in deciding the direction in which Europe should go.
No banking union or fiscal union can work if they are imposed onto the electorate. They might be the right technical solution, but if implemented in that way they are going to make wider and deeper the democratic deficit within the Union.
We need more political involvement of the European citizens, more democratic and transparent discussion, and we don’t have to fear the rise of anti-European sentiments, as they can be defeated by reinforcing publicly the reasons for a stronger Union.