Thursday, 27 February 2014

Choosing The European Commission President

From time-to-time I have engaged in the letters page of the local paper with certain UK Independence Party correspondents, and find that there is a lot of ignorance at how the European Commission is chosen.

I have outlined the current rules, which can be summed up as the European Council proposes and the European Parliament approves (or doesn't approve!) of the choice.

One feature of this system is that some Europarties are proposing candidates for the post of President of the European Commission - the Party of European Socialists is proposing Martin Schulz, of the German Social Democrats, who is currently the President of the European Parliament; and the Alliance of Liberals & Democrats for Europe is proposing Belgium's Guy Verhofstadt, of the Flemish Liberal Democrats, currently leader of the ALDE Members of the European Parliament.

The European People's Party is soon to chose their proposed candidate - likely to be Luxembourg's former Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, of the Christian Social People's Party.

Recently, Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP for South East England, confirmed that the Alliance of European Conservatives & Reformists would not be proposing a presidential candidate.

Hannan states:

Unremarked, the EU is about to hold its first federal elections. The European Parliament has been quietly sucking in more power for decades, but has so far lacked the supreme attribute of a federal legislature, namely the right to appoint a federal government.

I have to disagree with him here, as the "supreme attribute" of a federal legislature is not appointing a "federal government".

The most obvious example of a federal nation with an executive President (a point I will need to come back to) is, of course, the USA. And I am sure it would come to a surprise to Senators and Congresspersons that the "supreme attribute" of their federal structure is appointing the federal government. In normal circumstances, they have the same right that every American has - namely to vote for members of the Electoral College. It doesn't matter whether you're the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the Senate's President pro tempore - you have the same number of votes as anyone else, i.e. one.

Only if the Electoral College fails to elect a President and/or a Vice-President does Congress get involved in breaking the deadlock.

In British discussion of the European Union, it always seems that "federal" and "federalism" mean the exact opposite of what they actually mean - federal and centralised are very different. How can you have a centralised federal state?

One crucial thing about American Presidential elections is that they are not necessarily won by whoever gets the highest number of popular votes - what counts is Electoral College votes. And 48 of the States (all apart from Maine and Nebraska) and the District of Columbia work on a "winner-takes-all" system, so effectively it's about winning whole States.

There is another way of distinguishing between political systems - there is the presidential-congressional system and the parliamentary one. In the former, the executive has a mandate which is distinct from the legislature's, whilst in the latter the executive draws its legitimacy from the legislature.

The European Parliament is misnamed, as it is much closer to a Congress. And my worry is that if Schulz becomes Commission President, then this congressional aspect will be damaged.

The EU's federalism is drawn from Germany's. For example, Germany has its Bundesrat, where the Länder are represented - or to be more precise, their executives are represented. Each Land has between 3 and 6 votes. Note that this does not mean that a Land with 3 votes can cast 2 for and 1 against - it could either cast 3 for or 3 against (or else abstain). And, in the same way, in the Council of Ministers and the European Council each nation has between 3 (Malta) and 29 votes (for the UK, France, Germany and Italy).

There is another way that the EU follows Germanic federalism. The German President nominates a Chancellor, and the Bundestag can elect that candidate by an overall majority.

And the European Council nominates a Commission President, whom the Parliament can elect only by an overall majority.

It is important to note that the Parliament is going beyond the Treaty of Lisbon, as the Council is only required to take account of the Parliament election results when nominating a candidate for Commission President. Nothing about Europarties nominating Presidential candidates - although in the German system, parties do nominate Chancellor candidates, who need not be the party leader.

There is one objection from the Centre for European Reform, in a pamphlet The 2014 European elections: Why a partisan Commission president would be bad for the EU, which makes a powerful case that can be summed up with the idea that the President should be an umpire, not a captain of one of the teams:

Commission presidents are usually politicians with a background in one party or another, but they have never before had a mandate to achieve one party’s programme. They can only perform their function properly if they respect the Commission’s role as the impartial "guardian of the treaties" that pursues the broad European interest. This role of the Commission is vital to the EU’s system of rule of law. When taking office, every commissioner takes an oath to be "completely independent in carrying out her responsibilities, in the general interest of the Union.” This pledge loses its meaning if the president of the College is explicitly partisan

So, how partisan would a President be? The European Council nominates by Qualified Majority Voting - the total votes in the Council are 352, and for something to pass under QMV, it needs to have 260 votes. It also needs the support of 15 nations (while it isn't possible for 13 nations to produce 260 votes between them, there are combinations of 14 nations that can pass the 260 mark).

If we look at the number of votes in the Council, the EPP has 151, PES 118, AECR 29 (the United Kingdom's) and ALDE 21. That makes 319, so there are 33 votes not accounted for. Italy's 29 are cast by its new Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, of the Democrats. Although his party's MEPs sit in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats grouping, his party is not part of any Europarty. Slovenia's 4 votes are cast by its Prime Minister, Alenka Bratušek, of the Positive Slovenia party - but her party is applying to join the ALDE.

If 260 votes are needed, then it is obvious that it takes 93 votes to block. And so either the EPP or PES could block in the Council. Hence the "winner" of the Parliamentary election could have nominated a candidate who is unacceptable to the other main party. Any potential Commission President has to be a consensus builder.

And if each Head of Government appoints a Commissioner from their party, then the EPP and PES would have 11 Commissioners each, with the ALDE 3 and AECR 1 (and 2 others). Hence, a balanced Commission politically.

If we look at the American system, then the incumbent President, Barack Obama, is the first person since John Kennedy to be a member of the legislative upon election. All intervening Presidents were either Vice-President (and hence involved in the work of the federal government) or a Governor (and hence running a state government). Yes, there were former Congressmen becoming President - both Gerald Ford and the elder George Bush were ex-Congressmen when they became President, but the trend was to either be involved in the legislature or following the path of government.

And when it comes to Commission Presidents, we see something similar among the 11 men who have held the post. Since Luxembourg's Gaston Thorn took office in January 1981, every President - apart from France's Jacques Delors - has been a Prime Minister. Every President apart from the Netherlands' Sicco Mansholt (who was the Commissioner for Agriculture when chosen as President) has been a Prime Minister or a Finance Minister.

An incoming President is someone who is either a sitting Commissioner or has held a very senior office in their national Government.

And hence one reason why I am concerned if Schulz ends up as Commission President. In a parliamentary system, a party "wins" and then goes on to provide the Prime Minister. Schulz's becoming President would tip the Parliament to being a Parliament rather than a Congress and alter its relationship with the Council. A pattern would be established where someone builds up a career as an MEP, ends up leading a group, and when that group "wins" becomes Commission President. What would count would be being a consummate Parliamentary insider rather than having built up a career in a national government making executive decisions.

At one level, this would change what the EU is. Just as the way the American President is elected hammers home that fact that the USA is a collection of states, the way the Commission President is chosen emphasises that the EU is a collection of nations, with it being national leaders being the first stage of deciding who the President is.

Hannan is wrong to see this as a federal election or about a United States of Europe. This is the main Europarties trying to bounce the national leaders into selecting a certain person - whether it be Schulz, Verhofstadt or Juncker - and hence making the input of national leaders to the process irrelevant. It is trying to reduce the European Council (which represents the nations) to be a rubber-stamping body, with the decision as to who is Prime Minister of Europe Commission President being made by whoever "wins" the Parliament election. Just as the federal USA ensures that States - as individual States - play the key role in the election of the President, a federal USE would ensure that nations - as individual nations - play the key role in the election of the Commission President. This is bypassing the nations, something completely different....

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Our Friends In The North - The Wythenshawe & Sale East By-Election And The 2020 General Election

Next Thursday there is the by-election in Wythenshawe & Sale East and an interesting poll is out. What is noticeable is that the UK Independence Party is in second place (just ahead of the Conservatives), but way behind Labour.

With polls like these, what is really interesting is what happens under the surface. Most 2010 Liberal Democrat voters appear to be switching to Labour, while both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats see significant numbers switch to UKIP. What is odd is that the Greens pick up more support from the Conservatives than from the Liberal Democrats.

If UKIP do come second, then this sees a continuation of by-election results in the north of England - Barnsley in March 2011, Rotherham in November 2012, Middlesbrough on the same day, and South Shields in May 2013, with UKIP coming second in a seat they did not even contest at the May 2010 general election.

Although we should note that a fortnight before Rotherham and Middlesbrough, UKIP made little progress in Manchester Central.

One of the more interesting northern seats is Chesterfield. In March 1984 there was a by-election, which saw Labour's Tony Benn return to Parliament. This by-election saw the Liberals come second. The June 1987 general election also saw the Liberals come second. In the April 1992 general election it became a Labour/Liberal Democrat marginal - note that the Labour vote actually increased, but the decline in Conservative vote was accompanied by a rise in Liberal Democrat support.

May 1997 was, of course, the Labour landslide, which staved off the inevitable until the June 2001 general election when Chesterfield fell to the Liberal Democrats.

If we look at other by-elections between the 1983 and 1987 general elections we don't really get anything similar. Penrith & the Border saw a greater increase in the Liberal share of the vote - with the Liberals nearly winning - but in the 1997 election the Conservatives safely held on. In both Surrey South West and Derbyshire West, the Liberals came close to winning the by-election from the Conservatives - but look at 1997, where Surrey South West remained a Conservative/Liberal Democrat marginal (as did its neighbour, Guildford, which the Liberal Democrats actually gained in 2001 despite in 1997 it being safer for the Conservatives than Surrey South West was), while in Derbyshire West it is Labour running the Conservatives close.

It is possible that in one of these seats where UKIP comes second in a by-election, it will keep its second place at the May 2015 general election. And this is where things get interesting.

Let's face it - unless something dramatic happens in the next 15 months (yep, that's how close we are), Labour will win the 2015 general election. Even if a revised European Union (Referendum) Bill is on the statute books by then, a Labour Government could ensure it is repealed by the December 2016 deadline for the Government to set a date in 2017 for the referendum. The referendum ain't gonna happen. Period.

The European Union Act 2011 ensures that a Treaty revision requires a referendum, so various things can happen in the 2015 - 2020 Parliament:

  1. There will be no Treaty revision (I am including things that "can" happen, however far-fetched, if you're wondering why this possibility is there)
  2. There will be a Treaty revision which the people approve by referendum
  3. There will be a Treaty revision which the people reject by referendum, and so the Treaty fails to come into effect
  4. There will be a Treaty revision which the people reject by referendum, and there will be further revisions taking into account the reasons for rejection, with the new revised Treaty being approved by referendum
  5. There will be a Treaty revision which the people reject by referendum, and the further revised version is also rejected, so the Treaty fails to come into effect

Like it or not, we will be part of the European Union at the May 2020 general election, and there will be a European election in May or June 2019. Europe is not a topic that will go away.

What we then have in parts of the north are Government MPs (i.e. Labour ones) representing constituencies where UKIP have come second, or a respectable third, at the 2015 general election. Europe is still an issue - with Labour having been seen as stopping the people having a vote on leaving (although if the people approve a Treaty revision, this can be taken as us willing to remain in). These are areas which will never elect a Conservative MP. And while the Liberal Democrats might once have stood a chance, they would be remembered for entering Government with the Conservatives.

Where does the anti-Government vote go?

I do not believe UKIP will have any MPs after the 2015 election, but I would not be surprised if in 2020 they pick up northern seats from Labour.

Now Scotland. It might leave the United Kingdom in March 2016. If it doesn't, then there are elections to the Scottish Parliament in May 2016. They should have been in May 2015 (coinciding with the general election) under the Scotland Act 1998, but the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 postponed this to May 2016. However, as the Explanatory Note makes clear, the subsequent one is four years later, i.e. May 2020, coinciding with the general election. I have noted that May 2020 will be electorally busy, with elections across the United Kingdom being conducted on First Past The Post (the House of Commons), Additional Members System (Scottish Parliament, National Assembly of Wales, Greater London Assembly) and Supplementary Vote (Mayor of London, Police & Crime Commissioners).

In 2016, there are basically three outcomes:

  1. The Scottish National Party again wins an overall majority
  2. There is a hung Parliament with the SNP the largest party
  3. There is a hung Parliament with Labour the largest party

In a hung Parliament, there is the option of a minority government - such as the SNP after the May 2007 election, despite a preference for a coalition - or a coalition government, such as Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed after the May 1999 and May 2003 elections.

Rejection of independence doesn't have to be bad news for the SNP. In October 1995, the people of Québec narrowly voted to remain part of Canada. Despite this, in the next provincial election of November 1998, Parti Québécois was re-elected and formed a government (its majority reduced by 2) - though it is important to note that it fell to second place in the popular vote, behind the Liberals.

If there is a hung Parliament, then there is the question for the "winner" of whether to form a minority government or a coalition one. The Greens might do well enough to help the largest party over that 65 seat hurdle for an overall majority. With the Conservatives unlikely as partners for the SNP or Labour, that just leaves the Liberal Democrats.

If Labour is the largest party in the Scottish Parliament after the 2016 election, then it has choices:

  1. Aim for a "grand coalition" with the SNP
  2. Decide to govern as a minority and defy the other parties to team up and defeat it
  3. Depending on numbers, form a Labour/Green administration to the left of the British Government
  4. If the combined SNP/Liberal Democrat number of Members of the Scottish Parliament is greater than Labour's and they wish to form a coalition, it could enter opposition rather than trying to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats - this could come across as cutting of their nose to spite their face
  5. Or it could decide to revive its old 1999 - 2007 model of a Labour/Liberal Democrat government, beginning the process of rehabilitating the Liberal Democrats in Labour's eyes

Wales is slightly different. Labour always leads the Welsh government, whether as a majority, as a minority, or as a coalition.

Next, the Liberal Democrats. Iain Dale has predicted that they will win 30 to 35 seats in 2015. The question is then what do they do in a House of Commons where Labour has an overall majority. Any 2005-style strategy of positioning themselves as left of Labour would not be credible. In a political world where there is a choice of protest vote parties, the Liberal Democrats will need to carve out their own niche post-Government.

In 1997 I was a student and voted in Brighton Pavilion as Labour won the seat decisively from the Conservatives, with no-one really noticing the Greens losing their deposit in fifth place. In 2001 there was a move away from the two main parties, and the Greens came a respectable fourth, just under 10% of the vote.

But it was in 2005 that things really changed. In studenty, radical middle-class seats like Bristol West (1997), Cambridge (1992), Cardiff Central (1992), Leeds North West (1997) and Manchester Withington (1987), which Labour had over time won from the Conservatives (the dates in brackets show the general election where Labour gained the seat), it was the Liberal Democrats who benefitted from defecting Labour voters. If Brighton Pavilion had followed their lead, then it would have ended up a close 3-way marginal between Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - basically any of these could have won.

But it didn't. Yes, the Labour vote fell substantially. The Liberal Democrat vote rose - but not by much. It was the Greens who moved to third place, nearly pushing the Conservatives into third. And then the inevitable at the 2010 election - Labour falls further, and if you're uncomfortable with the Conservatives and know that the Liberal Democrats can't win the seat, then vote Green, and Caroline Lucas wins the seat.

The current Cambridge has a significant Green vote (fourth place, 7.59%), as does Norwich South (fourth place, 14.92%). Is it not unreasonable to assume that Labour will win these from the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens will either come second or a good third, positioned to win in 2020 as the Labour Government loses support?

While I expect Lucas to remain the sole Green MP in 2015, I would not be surprised if the Greens picked up a few seats in 2020.

Although it's over 6 years away, the May 2020 general election looks like it'll be interesting.