The myth of the ‘technical’ European Commission is over

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen appeared in a European People’s Party (EPP) campaign video in support of its Croatian party member, HDZ, who is running in the Croatian parliamentary elections on Sunday 5 July. The explicit support by the European Commission President to HDZ in a national election has opened an interesting debate. EU law professor Alberto Alemanno has argued that the Commission President is “interfering into national political elections” as there might be a conflict of interest amid the Commission being the Guardian of the Treaties, and Jean Monnet chair Daniel Kelemen has suggested that “Becoming more partisan could undermine the Commission’s status as a neutral enforcer of the law (guardian of the treaties) or at least raise doubts about it”. Eric Mamer, the spokesperson of Von der Leyen, later clarified on Twitter that “it was meant as a contribution in her personal capacity”, but that did not stop The Good Lobby from filing a complaint against the Commission President.

The code of conduct of the College of Commissioners states in article 9.3 that “(Commission) Members shall abstain from making public statements or interventions on behalf of any European political party of which they are members (…) This is without prejudice to the right of Members to express their personal opinions”. There is an inherent ambiguity in regards as to whether and how the Commission President and Commissioners can (and should) make such endorsements in national political elections. Additionally, the tradition of the European Commission has been precisely to portray itself as a technical and neutral institution that generally does not comment on domestic affairs of the member states.

Against this background, the explicit political involvement of European Commission President might be a positive development, as it normalises that the European Commission President is partisan and political, and encourages further intertwining between EU and national politics. It is a leap forward that the Commission President is no longer portrayed as the leader of a technocratic bureaucracy, as this is, and has always been, a myth.

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The Spitzenkandidaten process was designed as a mechanism to increase political competition between European political parties, making the Commission President’s role more explicitly political and partisan. The process assumes that the Commission is not a technical executive, but an explicitly political one, and whose leadership ought to be decided in the aftermath of EU elections. The members of the College of Commissioners are appointed by national governments, which means that the Commission is always a coalition of different EU political groups, but whose political guidance is shaped by the President, theoretically elected on the basis of the Spitzenkandidaten. As in any national coalition government, this should not be an impediment for the different members of the Commission to be outspoken and participate in national and European politics, as long as they do not use Commission resources to do so (e.g. using the official Twitter account of the Commission).

Now, this does not mean that there are no downsides for Commission Presidents to be more explicitly partisan. This is particularly the case with Von der Leyen, who was appointed by the Council without having been a Spitzenkandidaten, and was supported by the EPP, including its Hungarian MEPs of Fidesz in the European Parliament, and Orbán himself in the Council. The EPP political efforts of Von der Leyen could well endanger the Commission’s rule of law actions in Hungary, but this stems from the lack of an EU parliamentary opposition to check these functions, rather than from the capacity of the Commission President to support a party in a national election.

Paradoxically, the open partisanship of Von der Leyen provides additional ammunition to Commission’s critics on rule of law, as it reinforces her connection with EPP and Viktor Orbán. The endorsement increases the visibility of her EPP allegiance, and complicates future actions to protect EPP allies from Commission action. There is however a difference between the criticism to the Commission’s policies (e.g. its failure to adequately address breaches of rule of law) and the Commission as an institution (e.g. whether the Commission President should be able to endorse its sister party on national elections). One can be critical with the Commission’s actions and policies, without arguing against the capacity of its President to support a sister political party in national elections.

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If the EU is to transition towards a more integrated and democratic polity, the European Commission should not be understood as a foreign actor to EU member states that interferes with national politics, the sort of language that Orbán uses to attack the EU. Nor should the Commission be understood as a purely technocratic and legal body, whose main role is to oversee the enforcement of EU law. Instead, the Commission should be seen as what it is: the European executive body, responsible for drafting EU policies, as the holder of the monopoly on EU legislative initiatives. In the post-Brexit EU, many wish that the Commission and te EU would have played a bigger role in campaigning in favour of Remain during the Brexit referendum, as its consequences have gone far beyond the UK.

EU member states are inextricably linked to one another: what happens in one member state has a direct influence on other member states. However, despite the increasingly transnational flow of politics and ideas (the MeToo movement, Fridays for Future and Black Lives Matter are the latest examples), there is a mismatch with the transnationalisation of institutions. Transnational politics are more necessary than ever, and the European Commission President speaking out in support of a sister party in a national election sets a welcoming precedent. Breaking the myth of the technical Commission opens avenues in the EU for more transnational politics.

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