One of the innovations of this European election is that the major political party groupings in Europe have each announced in advance of the elections who their preferred candidate is for the next President of the European Commission.
This has been encouraged by the latest set of reforms to the EU democratic system. These mean that, after the European Parliament elections next month, elected heads of government from all the EU countries will nominate a candidate for President of the Commission to the European Parliament, taking into account the election results. The newly-elected Parliament will then have the final say in electing or rejecting that candidate.
Because of this new procedure, Europe’s socialists are proposing Martin Schulz, the lively outgoing President of the European Parliament; the (Christian Democratic) European People’s Party are putting forward the somewhat duller Jean-Claude Juncker, until recently Prime Minister of Luxembourg; the Liberals have chosen Guy Verhofstadt, the maverick former Belgian PM; the far-left are backing Alexis Tsipras, the firebrand opposition leader in Greece; and the Greens, confusingly, have two candidates.
The Conservatives, however, are refusing to say who they would back. They want it left to a backroom deal after the elections and don’t want the public to know beforehand who they prefer.
These candidates have been selected by the party federations – not by their MEPs in the European Parliament as some people think. For example, Juncker was chosen by Merkel, Rajoy, Enda Kenny and others at the EPP Congress in Dublin, not by the EPP’s MEPs.
Of course, there are some who oppose this procedure, and others who have doubts about whether it will work. Some are not enthusiastic about their own party’s candidate: Labour was among several who abstained in the internal vote when European Socialists chose Schulz, but it supported the procedure and the common manifesto adopted by the PES Congress.
But the key question is whether all this will really work. Will the choice of President be one of the issues in the campaign? How much will the public be interested in this aspect? Will the European Council nominate the candidate of the party with the most seats, or wait for a “coalition deal” to emerge? Will Cameron try to block the process in the European Council, or will his MEPs try to do so in the EP?
One test will be the degree of interest shown in the televised debates to be shown across Europe between these candidates. The debate on 15 May is due to be shown across Europe — a quite remarkable first. But I gather that the BBC is not going to show it on mainstream television, only on the BBC Parliament channel, which gets only a 0.3% audience share.
If the BBC doesn’t show it on their mainstream channels, it would make Britain stand out as being a country not interested in debates about Europe’s future, not interested in the democratic process at EU level, not really interested in EU reform, and simply shrugging its shoulders about the choices facing us and our neighbouring countries. But this time, it would not be certain politicians or tabloids who wanted to perpetuate that situation, but supposedly mainstream media.
Has the BBC been bullied by the Conservative party — the one mainstream party that refuses to say who it would back as Commission President?