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European Union

The dangerous game with top candidates

For the first time in Europe-wide elections, candidates are running for the office of President of the EU Commission. But the election campaign could be a dead end, warns DW's Christian Trippe.

At first glance, May promises to become the merry month of European democracy. European citizens are being called upon to elect a new parliament in a ballot from May 22-25. For the first time, European parties have nominated a top candidate for the office of EU Commission president. In future, the candidate from the strongest political faction in the EU parliament will be tapped to head the EU administration with parliament's backing.

The way things are, only candidates from the two largest political blocs can ever entertain hopes of getting the job. Either German Social Democrat Martin Schulz, who is president of the European Parliament, or Luxembourg Christian Democrat Jean-Claude Junker, long-time prime minister of his country and former head of the Eurogroup, will get the nod.

Both are down-to-earth politicians and passionate Europeans, and they master the three official languages of the EU. TV debates in German, French and English will be the forum for these two equal 'political animals'. Surveys across Europe, so far, see the two sides running head-to-head - a totally normal election scenario, in other words. Campaign strategists and advertisers, as well as Schulz and Junker, want to create exactly this impression, but looming over them is a huge and perhaps even dangerous misunderstanding.

Lisbon Treaty without top candidates

The EU is, after all, not a parliamentary system. The EU constitution, the Lisbon Treaty, states succintly, although not clearly: The heads of the state and government appoint the President of the EU Commission "in the light of EU election results." Top candidates, at any rate, who run for the post in a democratic election, are not mentioned in the Lisbon Treaty.

The EU parliament also has limited political influence over the decisions made by the many men and not so many women that control the fate of the EU at their regular summits. There are different rules for the EU Parliament than there are for national parliaments: Sometimes decisions are based on party affiliation and sometimes on national origin. Not without reason, the EU parliament is viewed in the capitals of the member states as unpredictable, while its incessant pushing for more pan-European integration is considered the embodiment of "Brusselization".

In short, Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande, David Cameron and their other colleagues around the continent have little inclination to accept a candidate presented to them by the EU Parliament for the most important job in the EU.

Top candidate a reaction to waning voter interest

For the EU parliament, of course, the top candidates are supposed to do good things - to give the often abstract and far away politics in Brussels a human face. The idea to upgrade the EU election by linking it with the power issue is supposed to entice voters to the ballot box. Since the first direct election in 1979, voter turnout has steadily decreased. At the last election, five years ago, voter turnout was an embarrassing 43 percent.

According to strategists in Brussels and Strasbourg, candidates for the EU's top job could reverse this trend. Many of them still appear to believe that a bevy of leading candidates is an effective cure for the EU's notorious democracy deficit.

But what happens if the cure has no effect and the strategy doesn't pay off? At the moment, this questions elicits little more than a shrug of shoulders in Brussels. But everybody knows that the plan is a high-risk gamble. Martin Schulz, Jean-Claude Junker and the other candidates from smaller parties have launched election campaigns that could easily lead to a political dead end.

It is entirely possible that the heads of state and government at the end of May say "April Fools" and instead select someone as President of the EU Commission who wasn't running for election. It could all end in a standstill of European institutions, while more and more citizens could turn their backs on the EU. And that would be a train wreck for European democracy.

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