Wolfgang Schauble, Mr President?

The German finance minister, speaking at St Antony’s College, Oxford, sought to rally the faithful to reach the post-crisis promised land by preaching a new vision of Europe. Although some way behind the forceful style of Poland’s Radek Sikorski (whom Mr Schauble quoted favourably on British euroscepticism but not on the imperative for Germany to do more), Mr Schauble presented his ideas with vigour but rather less clarity.  Nonetheless, two things caught my ear.

First, Mr Schauble’s own idea of what it is to be a good European.  Here he aluded to an economic mantra which we must all heed – that of a more competitive European economy.  The SPD government preceding the current administration in Germany came in for criticism for being among the first to breach the Eurozone’s recommended fiscal deficit level.  It will be depressing news to Greeks, Spaniards and Italians to hear that in Mr Schauble’s estimation the 12% fall in labour costs over the past three years may not be sufficient. It is very optimistic to see this happening alongside rising prices without considerable social dislocation.

Now, I consider myself to be pro-European. The EU is a force for good which belies the superficiality of the recent Nobel Peace Prize award.  Yet I cannot agree with Mr Schauble that the answer to the EU’s democratic deficit is the direct election of the President of the Commission by the voters.

A higher profile appointment than Herman von Rompuy as head of the Council (i.e. Chair of the Prime Ministers) would not be a bad thing, but the distinction between the Council and the Commission is that the latter is the prime originator and enforcer of legislation to which the Council is a check.

Because the balance of power lies with the national governments who sit on the Council, there is an onus on debate and negotiation. Bilateral relationships form the basis of policy, so that, for instance, when one considers the Greek request for a bailout, the connection to Germany is critical.  This may be frustrating and it may draw political heat on the likes of Mr Schauble, who will have to answer directly to the Greek finance minister very frequently, yet the alternative is to set national governments against a supranational executive and legislature.

In matters of European law, these cases are decided by a judge. A directly elected Commission or Commission President would have considerably more political capital, and (most likely), less accountability to the national governments.  That is exactly the way to force governments outside of the European Union.  Will France, any more than Britain, willingly sublimate their interests to that of the European people?

This assumes a strong President. The alternative, a deliberately weakened President, may also be unhealthy. Imagine the election by 500 million voters of a figurehead. The first major crisis could produce a wave of extreme, not to say extremist, sentiment, or a malaise so deep it might kill of trust in politics altogether.

*     *     *

Mr Schauble boasted that he had convinced both his Chancellor and his Party that a directly elected President of the Commission was a wise adventure. I for one am worried. The European Union has a habit of hobbling along, always compromising and rarely satisfying. This has made the debt crisis more serious than it needed to be, and  the same is true of the way in which the presidential system in the United States has botched its own debt crisis.

Could there be a political benefit to an elected President of the European Commission? I have made pretty clear that I do not see one. I see dissatisfaction with the EU rising in line with expectations. Bolstering the latter will not help prevent the former. I see no ‘we the people’ without the accompanying desire to ensure domestic tranquility or secure the blessings of liberty being worthy of such an exalted institution.

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