Barnier: “There can only be one” (EU president)

Michel Barnier, French Commissioner for the Internal Market and Services, suggested in a speech given on “Europe Day” (9 May of course..) that the offices of President of the European Council and President of the European Commission should be merged. He says this person should ultimately be elected.

This means the jobs currently held by José Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy would be done by one person. I wholeheartedly approve the idea as HVR doesn’t appear to do much, clutters the G20 summits with another European, and it would give the EU a genuine “Mr Europe”. Then Dr. Kissinger might know who to call..

This is the first time such a senior EU official – as opposed to some MEP or think tank – has suggested such a move. Interestingly, for the same person to occupy the two offices would require no treaty change, which means the chances of it happening are more than zero. Similarly, there is no legal obstacle to Center-Right and Socialists having actual Commission President candidates who campaign and win or lose based on the elections to the European Parliament.

EurActiv France and Germany both covered it and I wrote the English version for EurActiv.com. It gives a nice overview of the background and context, if I do say so myself. If you know any Balkan languages, you can also go crazy with the Bulgarian and Romanian translations.

While much of the European media have ignored the announcement, the New York Times got in early on the story, earlier in fact than EurActiv.com and the other specialized EU media! It summarizes well the broader content of the speech. EUobserver emphasized its more alarmist side. England Expects, unsurprisingly, was upset by it.

Barnier is one of the big French names of international politics, the others being Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Pascal Lamy and Jean-Claude Trichet (all perfect capitalists, incidentally..). As such his speech was rather better covered by the French press.

Les Échos sees a “small European revolution” in this as Barnier is openly aiming for what he calls a “Federation of Nation-States” (a neat way of squaring the national primacy vs. federalism circle). Laurent Marchand of Ouest-France waxes lyrical about the speech’s refreshing candor and personal tone (rare for the Commission), as well as the content: pro-democratization and frankly federalist.

Marchand also points out that Barnier even mentions a tax on financial transactions and limitations on bonuses for corporate leaders. The latter is, incidentally, an important issue in French politics at the moment. Here’s to hoping some personalized and democratic politics can makes it way into the Commission..

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7 Responses to Barnier: “There can only be one” (EU president)

  1. Ralf Grahn says:

    Barnier seems to be wedded to a French presidential system, whereas a parliamentary system based on proportional representation would be more in line with broader European experiences and the diversity of the European Union.

    • Presidential and proportional systems are not incompatible, although that is a different issue from that of merging the two presidencies. HVR appears to visibly wonder what purpose he serves. The election of the President of the Commission would clearly give him something like a genuine *mandate* for his political action.

      Incidentally, I think an executive presidency with continuity (as figurehead, for foreign and defense policy..) of the French or American type along with a proportional parliament of the German type (hence an autonomous probably coalition-leading prime minister) could be a very good system nationally as well.

  2. RENE says:

    I agree that the present situation is somewhat confusing in the public. But I don’t think that the merging of presidencies is the solution. The Comission has a management function, administration and regulation, not really a presidence function. The presidency of the UE should should be a strategic funcion, defining with the board of state heads the strategies to follow in the next years and to control the execution of it. The president of the Comission is the manager who executes the strategies, and thus is or should be subordinate to the president os the UE (i.e. the oresident od the Council). Something as the presidency and board of directors of a company compared to the general manager and his staff. The same person should not be at the same time be both. I think this would create new problems. Problems could exist also in member states. For example ¿Who represents Spain, the king or the president of the government? In many cases thay participate both in meetings. It’s a question of defining functions. Officially the king is the head of the state. Do not try to solve a problem creating a new one.

    • I see the distinction, the trouble is it isn’t clear what purpose HVR serves. He can’t make policy as he’s just a chairman. He clearly is not a “head of State” however and, unlike the King of Spain, has no name recognition or legitimacy among “his” citizens. He himself has stressed he is not a president of the EU but only of the Council.

      I think having the two roles merged would strengthen the EU executive particularly if it was combined with an election of the Commission President. It would mean the person attempting to execute policy (Commission) would be the same person who chairs the meetings for determining policy (and tries to give these meetings some coherence and continuity, which HVR apparently has). If the Commission President were elected he would be enormously empowered, compared to now, in meetings with national leaders: “I was elected on promises of X/Y/Z. Do you want to be the ones to block the expressed wishes of the people?” Etc.

  3. bouillaud says:

    As far as I remember, the same idea was already expressed by Jean-Louis Quermonne, Jacques Delors and many federalist-inspired scholars or retired politicians. It is a quite obvious solution to simplify this European troïka (Barroso, Asthon, von Rompuy) no ordinary people understand, but it is clearly against the tide of re-nationalization of great decisions we’ve seen in the last 15 years or so. Barnier is another dreamer…

  4. Ian Goldring says:

    I think the logic of eventually merging them has been clear for some time; I have seen various people speculate on that in events and forums in Brussels. The logic of simplifying it and clarifying roles is pretty easy enough to get.

    However, what I understand as being the big barrier is the jealousy of nation-states over their own powers.
    Such a president really would be an ‘EU president’ and would be a big beast in the jungle, certainly a rather bigger beast than either of the 2 posts are now. This would mean a new power source arising and thus threatening to the powers of others.

    Voilà Ashton, voilà Van Rompuy – create a new post, but don’t put anyone in who might give too much weight to it. The member states are of two minds about these posts.

  5. Pingback: Do we need a United States of Europe? | Debating Europe

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