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Why the Franco-German Plan would Institutionalise 'Cohabitation' for Europe

By Simon Hix, Gérard Roland.

With the Convention due to report soon, Simon Hix and Gerard Roland argue that the Chirac-Schroeder plan for electing the Commission President is tempting but flawed.

The Chirac-Schroeder proposal for the EU Constitution seems an enticing compromise – a Council President elected by the heads of government to appease the 'intergovernmentalist' big states, and a Commission President elected by the European Parliament to satisfy the 'federalist' small states. Nevertheless, this plan is deeply flawed.

The main criticism expressed by some of the delegates in the Convention is that two chief executive of Europe will create two centres of power. Both the President of the Council and the President of the Commission will claim responsibility for running the EU. With the backing of the European Council, though, the defenders of the model argue that the Council President would be the more senior figure – rather like the French 'dual executive' model of government, where the French President is more senior than the French Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, the Chirac-Schroeder plan for the EU is considerably worse than the French model. First, the French constitution has instruments to deal with conflicts between the two chief executives. The French President is responsible for hiring and firing the Prime Minister and can dissolve the French parliament. In contrast, in the Chirac-Schroeder plan, the Council President would not have this power over the Commission President. Indeed, the Commission President would maintain a monopoly on the initiation of legislation and the oversight of the implementation of EU laws. The Council President would have all the prestige but no formal power, whereas the Commission President would have all the power but less prestige.

Second, because of the way the EU works, the two EU presidents would invariably be from opposing political camps. This situation, known as 'cohabitation' in the French system, causes serious problems for the French government. But, this is a rare situation in France, and can usually be resolved by new elections to the national assembly. But, in the EU, cohabitation would be a permanent feature: where the Council President would always be from the left and the Commission President would be from the right, for example.

We explain why this would be the case in a new piece of research with Abdul Noury from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, where we use voting data from the European Parliament to ask who would have been elected as Commission President by the European Parliament.* Our simulations reveal that in 1994 the Commission President would have been a Socialist. At that time, the European Council was more to the right, and hence chose the Conservative Jacques Santer. With a right-wing European Council, a Council President elected at that time would also have been a Conservative. Similarly, in 1999, the European Parliament would have elected a Conservative Commission President, while the Council chose the centre-left Romano Prodi. With such a large left-wing majority in the European Council, a Council President elected at that time would have been a Socialist. One could expect a similar situation in 2004, with a new left-wing majority in the European Parliament electing a Socialist Commission President, and a right-wing majority in the Council electing a Conservative Council President. In other words, there would have been cohabitation and political gridlock in the EU for the last decade.

The problem for the EU is that the majorities in the European Parliament and the Council are always on opposite sides. This is because of the way European Parliament elections work: as mid-term national elections, with a low turnout of governing party supporters and protest voters against national governments. So, political parties in national government, who sit in the Council, always do badly in these elections, while opposition parties do well. This protest vote character of European Parliament elections is likely to remain for a while. As a result, by proposing that one president be elected by the Council and the other be elected by the European Parliament, the Chirac-Schroeder plan would institutionalize cohabitation in the EU. In this situation, the centre-right across Europe would support 'their' European president and the centre-left would support 'their' president. It is not difficult to see that such a rivalry would undermine any common EU position on either internal and external policy issues.

How can this be solved? There should be one chief executive of Europe, and this should be the Commission President. No administration can replace the expertise that the European Commission has accumulated over the last few decades. Second, the Commission President should not be elected by the European Parliament. One reason for the Chirac-Schroeder compromise is that many governments are opposed to the idea of a powerful Commission President elected by the European Parliament. But, there is a better and more efficient compromise: to have the Commission President elected by national parliaments. This would involve national parliaments in EU politics and give democratic legitimacy and accountability to the European Commission, two very desirable goals for the governance of Europe. Our research shows that national parliaments would most likely elect a political moderate, who would be able to do business with the Council and European Parliament, but would be independent from both, just as the current Commission is independent from these two bodies. The Convention still has the time to propose a Constitution for the EU that is both acceptable to all European countries as well as democratic, efficient and logical.

Simon Hix is Reader in European Union Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Gérard Roland is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

  • Simon Hix, Gérard Roland and Abdul Noury (2003) 'How to Choose the European Executive: A Counterfactual Analysis, 1979-1999', LSE/ULB/UC Berkeley.