STRASBOURG (Reuters) - The European Parliament demanded control on Wednesday of who will succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the EU executive next year, setting up a clash with national governments in the coming months.
In a separate move exposing power struggles as Brussels starts to prepare for EU elections in May 2019, lawmakers also voted against a proposal to have some of their number elected from a Europe-wide constituency, angering one vocal proponent of the plan — French President Emmanuel Macron.
Asserting itself as the bastion of pan-European democracy, the assembly backed a motion demanding that national leaders appoint the candidate of the biggest party in the next legislature to be president of the European Commission, as they did when Juncker was handed that job after the 2014 elections.
Known as the “Spitzenkandidat” system, after the German for the lead candidate on a party’s list, it will be discussed by the national leaders at a summit in Brussels on Feb. 23, their first informal talks about organizing the 2019 election and a carve-up of top EU jobs that will accompany the voting.
Parliament warned them on Wednesday that it would exercise its veto on their nominee to lead the Commission after Juncker steps down in autumn 2019 if they choose anyone other than the lead candidate of the biggest party in the assembly.
“The Spitzenkandidaten process helps make the EU more democratic,” Udo Bullmann, the acting leader of the center-left bloc in the European Parliament, said. “It means that every five years European voters have a direct say in what political direction the EU takes and what it should prioritize.”
Parliament President Antonio Tajani, an Italian from the center-right, said: “Our citizens want the Union to be guided by politics not by a bureaucracy. They favor an open and transparent competition between political parties and candidates rather than agreements behind closed doors.”
National politicians, who retain much of the ultimate power in the Union, are however skeptical of Parliament’s democratic credentials — only 43 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot last time, and the trend in turnout has been downward.
After the center-right list led by former Luxembourg prime minister Juncker finished first with 29 percent, many national leaders, including the group’s own leading light, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, were reluctant to nominate him to run the Commission and rejected Parliament’s insistence they must.
They did, however, choose Juncker in the end, but some have already made clear they do not want to repeat the experience.
Many leaders, including Macron, see it as infringing on their collective power as the European Council to name the chief executive. Some argue it is even illegal under the EU treaty.
Council President Donald Tusk is conducting a tour of capitals before chairing the summit to sound out the leaders.
The summit will also review Parliament’s proposals for redistributing seats following the departure of Britain from the EU in March 2019. The assembly in Strasbourg approved a plan to reduce the chamber by 46 seats and to share out the other 27 of Britain’s 73 seats among the remaining 27 countries, correcting some under-representation determined by population size.
That disappointed some of the more strongly federalist groups, who accused the center-right and eurosceptic parties of thwarting their hopes of allocating some of the British seats to the creation of “transnational lists”, which would let voters across the EU vote for some of the same candidates.
EU officials have played down the chance of national leaders approving such a plan for next year. It requires consensus and some have already spoken against it, partly on fears that winning candidates would mainly come from bigger states.
Many also doubt that all 27 countries would be able to change their electoral laws in time for the May 2019 EU vote.
However, Macron, who has argued for deeper European integration since setting up his own party and winning power in France last May, said he would go on arguing for the proposal.
His new party has yet to form cross-border alliances within the European Parliament, limiting its influence, and he opposes the Spitzenkandidat idea which favors the big parties.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Editing by Hugh Lawson