The Parliament rather than the President

, by Translated by Lorène Weber, Vincent Doillet

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The Parliament rather than the President

Should the European Union be run by a single President elected by direct universal suffrage? Should we favour a presidential or a parliamentary regime? This is a matter of debate among our contributors. Here is an opinion piece defending a parliamentary system.

At first glance, the election of a President of the European Union by direct universal suffrage would give the Union a strong democratic legitimacy, by giving an embodiment to its political power. The question “Europe, which phone number?” would be finally solved and a President elected by 500 million of Europeans would have a considerable weight on the international stage in front of the great powers. However, such an election is not without risks for the balance of powers within the European Union.

The risk of a personalisation of power

The first risk of an election by direct universal suffrage is the personalisation of power. Indeed, a political figure elected by all European citizens could, if not prevented by the Treaties or a future Constitution, be tempted by personal adventures. Here, the risk would arise from the future European institutions and from the plebiscitary characteristic of such an election. In a scenario in which the European Constitution would be inspired by the French Constitution, a ’Jupiterian’ exercise of power is certain. Moreover, an election by universal suffrage encourages one to choose a person rather than a programme. The French presidential elections demonstrate, one after another, that the candidates’ personalities are more closely examined than their respective programmes. For instance, during the 2017 election, François Fillon lost much more voters because of the countless scandals that damaged his campaign than because of his programme, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s remarkable result is mostly due to his performances during the TV debates with the other candidates.

The show replaces the ideas

If such debates were organised at a European scale, this would be the confirmation of the replacement of the democracy of ideas by the show. Imagine only one specialist of the demagogic speech running for such an election. The debates organised between all the candidates would certainly advantage him and propel him to power. We can easily imagine how such a figure leading the EU would damage the international image of the Union. The voters’ appeal for the show would surely favour personalities with an overinflated ego, dreaming themselves Europe’s supreme saviours, to the detriment of personalities of a more tempered nature, probably better at the exercise of power.

“Choosing a man, the best he would be, instead of choosing a policy, this is abdicating”, Pierre Mendès France wrote in 1976 in his book “Truth guided their steps”. One of the most virulent dissenters of the French 5th Republic had prophesised an accentuated downward spiral regarding the outrageous power personalisation in France. Finally, such an important election would create an atmosphere of civil war between factions rather than between political parties’ leaders. A campaign centred on the personality of one candidate would trigger a situation more opportune to confrontation between candidates with oversized egoes, thrilling the crowds than to a sound debate of ideas.

Power imbalances between Parliament and President, at the latter’s advantage

Moreover, the election of a EU President by direct universal suffrage would establish a conflict of legitimacy with the other elected institution: the European Parliament. One of the European federalists’ main fights being the reinforcement of the European Parliament’s powers, it would be totally illogical to see the institution that should be the heart of European democracy being weakened to the profit of the election of one person, as competent and charismatic he or she might be. Indeed, the election of a President in such a way would lead to the elections to the European Parliament becoming an inferior election compared to the EU President’s one, especially if the presidential election precedes the parliamentary one.

An alternative solution: a President elected by an electoral college and a primo-ministerial regime

But since after all a President of the European Union will be needed for the EU to have a representative identifiable by everyone, this President should be elected by indirect suffrage and his powers should be limited to “ushering in chrysanthemums” [1]. The President of the European Union would be elected by a college composed of parliamentarians and local elected representatives of the Member States. He would be chosen for his independence from political parties and for his personal morality, thus becoming the President of all Europeans. The reality of power would be in the hands of a Prime Minister, replacing the Commission President, appointed by taking into account the results of the elections of the MEPs and so on a political programme, for a duration lower than the President’s mandate, so that the two elections would be totally disconnected. As such, the European Union would be embodied by a personality, but the democratic life would keep all its strength and interest in a primo-ministerial regime where the parliamentary opposition would keep all its power. The absence of election of the executive leader elsewhere in Europe never prevented the emergence of strong political leaders: Helmut Schmidt, Helmut Kohl, Angela Merkel, Felipe Gonzalez and even Margaret Thatcher are notable examples.

Please, please, let’s not inflict the French presidentialism on Europeans!


[1Refers to the words of Charles de Gaulle, first President of the French 5th Republic, when he criticised the former lack of power of the President of the Republic under the 3rd Republic

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