Deciphering Angela Merkel

November 8, 2013 Updated: April 24, 2016

Late last month, a seemingly inconsequential remark by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel was largely glossed over by the mainstream media. In the world of undecipherable Euro-jargon, however, her words carry very important significance.

In Brussels on October 25th, Merkel told reporters that she doesn’t, “see any automaticity between top candidates and the filling of posts.” With those words, Europe’s most powerful head of state quashed hopes that the European Commission presidential candidate of the most successful party in next May’s European Parliament elections will automatically get the post.

In a parliamentary system, the top party’s front man (or woman) will typically become the Prime Minister and form a government. In Europe, however, this has not historically been the case. The Commission president, which can very vaguely be compared to a Prime Minister, along with other top cabinet posts, have traditionally been divided up behind closed doors. Decisions are based on myriad factors such as nationality, gender and political affiliation, but with almost no regard for who won the parliamentary elections.

The logic behind this system is simple: Member States want to retain control over the appointment of top leaders. But, with Europe’s 2009 Lisbon Treaty, new rules state that EU leaders should propose a Commission president “taking into account” the European elections (Article 17(7)). Accordingly, Europe’s political parties all plan to nominate a candidate for Commission president this year, with the hope that the new treaty clause and popular legitimacy will trump power hungry national leaders.

With her remarks, Merkel has strongly insinuated  that the EU’s heads of state will still have final say over who gets the job, regardless of who wins the elections. This is a 180 degree turnaround from Merkel’s stance only a few years ago when she vocally supported a directly elected Commission president, an idea much more radical than the compromise that emerged in the Lisbon Treaty.

What can explain this change of heart? It’s almost certainly due to the European Socialist Party’s (PES) choice of candidate, the firebrand social democrat Martin Schulz. Schulz is currently the European Parliament’s president, but, more importantly, is not in Merkel’s political camp.

Should Schulz become president, she would lose power within the Commission and patronage within her own party. Merkel has been the foremost proponent of Europe’s austerity measures, with few political leaders strong enough to pose much of an obstacle. Schulz’s election would make him a powerful counterbalance to her penchant for austerity.

If the PES comes out ahead in May’s elections, it is likely that Merkel will resist the shift towards a new political convention, unless the SPD manages to extort the concession in coalition talks following the country’s recent elections. If Europe’s strongest national political leader speaks out, others will no doubt quietly follow behind, happy to keep the right to block a candidate they don’t like.

This is a shame. Europe has a lot to gain from changing the way they chose their top leaders.

Under the current system, closed-door horse-trading often results in a ‘lowest common denominator’ candidates that make everyone happy, but have little talent or suitability for the job. Indeed, EU leaders sometimes even seem to prefer  lackluster candidates that will do as they’re told and attract little attention from European citizens. This was the main reason that Lady Catherine Ashton, a competent yet entirely unheard of former bureaucrat beat out former British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the foreign policy chief job.

Furthermore, giving European voters a tangible outcome for their vote, it is hoped, would make the election more European and more high-stakes. With such a highly complex and opaque political system, it is difficult for voters to make the link between their vote and any sort of real impact. If the elections had a direct effect on the president’s nomination, the thinking goes, Europeans would be more likely to turn out to vote. Today, European elections are marred by low turn-out and largely a simple protest vote against the party in power on the national level.