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An Alternative Approach to European Union Democratization: Re-Examining the Direct Election of the Commission President

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 January 2013


A successful reform of any system of governance must be well informed of the system's own functional logic. In the context of its democratization, this article explores whether the institutional arrangement of the European Union has developed or behaves more like a presidential than a parliamentary system. Building on that, the authors re-examine the opportunities and feasibility of realizing that model as a step towards more democracy in European governance.

Copyright © The Author(s) 2011.

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12 Alberta Sbragia, ‘The Dilemma of Governance with Government’, Jean Monnet Working Paper 3/02, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University, 2002, pp. 2ff.

13 The Treaty on European Union will be abbreviated throughout the text as TEU. In the case of the Lisbon Treaty, there is, in addition to the amended TEU, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (formerly the Treaty Establishing the European Community), which will be abbreviated as TFEU.

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17 It was planned that for each Commission position the Commission president would be allowed to choose one of three nominees proposed by the member states. This arrangement was later dropped by the heads of state and government. See Höreth, Marcus, ‘Kontinuität oder Pfadsprung? Das institutionelle Dreieck in Europa nach dem Verfassungsvertrag’, Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, 14: 4 (2004), pp. 1257–96, at p. 1267Google Scholar.

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20 A push in this direction was taken recently by MEPs via an interinstitutional agreement in the course of the confirmation hearings of the Barroso II Commission. See Honor Mahony and Valentina Pop, ‘Centre-Right MEPs Threaten to Delay Commission Vote’, EU Observer, 14 January 2010, available at

21 For precisely this reason, the principle of ministerial responsibility has become widely obsolete in the political practice of parliamentary systems. The political vote of no confidence endows the parliament with sufficient pressuring capability to bring about the dismissal of individual ministers.

22 The English treaty text uses ‘motion of censure’; the term is synonymous with a vote of no confidence in a number of EU countries (e.g. France motion de censure, Spain moción de censura, Dutch Motie van Afkeuring) and is used as such in the respective versions of the treaty. The same applies, for instance, to the German version Misstrauensantrag or Swedish Misstroendevotum, literally ‘vote of no confidence’.

23 Gloria Gaupmann, Präsidentialismus als Leitmotiv für Europa? Eine neue Perspektive für die institutionelle Weiterentwicklung der Europäischen Union, Marburg, Tectum, 2008, p. 245f.

24 An alternative option for upgrading the EP would be to have an extension of the right to request legislative proposals from the Commission (Article 225 TFEU) and, for example, making such requests binding for the Commission. Through a recent interinstitutional agreement, the EP was able to secure an enhancement of this right to request initiatives. In the future, the Commission will consequently have to respond to a request of the EP within three months and come forward with a proposal after one year at the latest (or provide reasons to the EP if it fails to do so).

25 Decker, Frank, ‘Institutionelle Entwicklungspfade im europäischen Integrationsprozess. Eine Antwort auf Katharina Holzinger und Christoph Knill’, Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, 12: 2 (2002), pp. 611–36, at p. 614fGoogle Scholar.

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28 For an overview of the debate, see Frank Decker and Jared Sonnicksen, ‘The Direct Election of the Commission President. A Presidential Approach to Democratising the European Union’, ZEI Discussion Paper C 192, Bonn, Centre for European Integration Studies, 2009, pp. 4–9.

29 E.g. Kohler-Koch and Rittberger, Debating the Democratic Legitimacy.

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33 Joschka Fischer, ‘Vom Staatenbund zur Föderation. Rede am 12. Mai 2000 in der Humboldt-Universität in Berlin am 12. Mai 2000’, in C. Joerges, Y. Mény and J. H. H. Weiler (eds), What Kind of Constitution for What Kind of Polity? Responses to Joschka Fischer, Cambridge, MA, Harvard Law School, 2000, pp. 5–17.

34 John Bruton, ‘A Proposal for the Appointment of the President of the Commission as Provided for in Article 18.bis of the Draft Constitutional Treaty. Contribution from John Bruton T.D., Member of the Convention on the Future of Europe, for Consideration by the Convention, January 6th, 2003’, CONV 476/03.

35 Vernon Bogdanor, ‘Legitimacy, Accountability and Democracy in the European Union’, A Federal Trust Report, London, 2007.

36 The argument might be put forward for the introduction of a constitutional provision that allows the dissolution of parliament (non-existent in the EU system) and the calling of early elections, in place in all parliamentary systems except Norway. Bogdanor, however, does not address this point.

37 Holzinger, Katharina and Knill, Christoph, ‘Institutionelle Entwicklungspfade im Europäischen Integrationsprozess: Eine konstruktive Kritik an Joschka Fischers Reformvorschlägen’, Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, 11: 3 (2001), pp. 9871010, at p. 1006fGoogle Scholar.

38 Karl Magnus Johansson and Peter Zervakis, ‘Historical-Institutional Framework’, in K. Johansson and P. Zervakis (eds), European Political Parties, Baden-Baden, Nomos, 2002, pp. 11–28.

39 Thus, the terms ‘parliamentary’ and ‘presidential’ on their own say nothing about the actual distribution of power between the branches of government. The notion that in the former the parliament and in the latter the president constitute the more influential institutions in the respective systems – a logical conclusion based on the terms – overlooks the political reality of both system types.

40 Cf. Wright, Tony, ‘Prospects for Parliamentary Reform’, Parliamentary Affairs, 57: 4 (2004), pp. 867–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 See e.g. Hix, Simon, Noury, Abdul and Roland, Gerard, ‘Power to the Parties: Cohesion and Competition in the European Parliament, 1979–2001’, British Journal of Political Science, 35: 2 (2005), pp. 209–34CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42 Marcus Höreth, Die Europäische Union im Legitimationstrilemma. Zur Rechtfertigung des Regierens jenseits der Staatlichkeit, Baden-Baden, Nomos, 1999, p. 206f.

43 Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy. Government Forms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, New Haven, CT, and London, Yale University Press, 1999.

44 Simon Hix, ‘Why the EU Should Have a Single President, and How she Should Be Elected’, paper for the Working Group on Democracy in the EU for the UK Cabinet Office, London, 2002, at p. 7.

45 Of course, the democratic effects described above could also result from linking the Commission appointment to the EP elections, as proposed in the parliamentary approach. But one may doubt whether this approach would have those effects to the same degree. First of all, in order to make EP elections just as much elections about a choice between political alternatives in the ‘government’, the smaller European parties would need to rally behind one of the candidates of the larger parties, thus necessitating pre-election coalitions. In all likelihood, only the social democrat and conservative/Christian-democrat party groups would be capable of garnering majority (or plurality) support. The fragmentation of the European party system, however, raises substantial doubts over the probability of that happening. In consequence, the link between EP elections and appointing the government would hardly be strong enough to give citizens the impression of having determined the political direction of the EU with their vote.

46 Jean Blondel, Richard Sinnott and Palle Svensson, People and Parliament in the European Union: Participation, Democracy, and Legitimacy, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1998.

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