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And the power ebbs away...

Posted by Richard Friday, August 03, 2007

One of the most powerful members of the supreme government of Europe is the president of the EU commission and, if the new "reform" treaty goes through, he will become even more powerful. But he (there has not yet been a female president) was not always so powerful.

In the beginning, under the Treaty of Rome (Articles 158 and 161), he was appointed "by common accord" by the Council – i.e., the Member States - from amongst the members of the commission. Commissioners, likewise, were appointed by the Council by common accord – their appointment coming first. The member states, therefore, had total control of who became a commissioner, and who then became president – each member able to exercise a veto.

The term of office, incidentally, was two years, but could be renewed indefinitely, once again by common accord, making the president beholden to the Council for his position. This was soon to be increased to four years.

Then, following its first elections by direct universal suffrage in 1979, the EU parliament began to flex its muscles, demanding a role in the appointment of the president. The pressure was to have its effect and, in 1984, 1988 and 1992, the European Council (which by then had taken on the role of appointing the president) submitted the nomination of Jacques Delors to the "enlarged bureau" (the governing body) of the EU parliament for consultation.

However, the Parliament itself had already decided to deliver a "vote of confidence" on the appointment, which it first delivered in 1981. As is so often the case, with the treaty following the practice, this procedure was enshrined in the text of the Maastricht Treaty. This stipulated that the European Council must consult the parliament and not just its enlarged bureau on the choice of the president and that whole parliament should hold a vote on the appointment.

The Maastricht Treaty also increased the commission's term of office from four to five years and brought it into line with parliament's own term of office, so that the endorsement of the president by the parliament would become its first major political acts after every election.

On 21 July 1994, the appointment of Jacques Santer was endorsed in the parliament by 260 votes to 238 with 23 abstentions. Also, the parliamentary committees then, for the first time, held individual hearings on the candidate commissioners. These hearings were held in public, which increased still further the role of the parliament, lessening the grip of the member states over the appointment process.

As to the appointment of the president, the Amsterdam Treaty further strengthened parliament's power by granting it a right of approval, rather than merely a consultative role. The Nice Treaty (Article 214) then even further reduced the power of individual members states by requiring the European Council to nominate the president by qualified majority vote instead of by consensus (common accord).

That is how it remains to this day but, under the EU constitution, the candidate for president was to have been selected after "taking into account" the results of the European elections. In other words, the politics of the person nominated had to reflect the dominant make-up of the parliament, making him a more political animal and, at the same time, restricting the choices available to the member states. Additionally, the candidate had to be approved by parliament not by a simple majority of votes cast but by a majority of members.

These provisions have been transferred into the "reform" treaty, without change. Under the amended Articles 9a and d, the European Council is obliged to take into account the elections to the parliament and the nomination is decided by qualified majority voting. This candidate then has to be elected by the parliament by "a majority of its component members".

By this means, from being a creature of the member states – which had sole authority to decide on who held the office, the president has become a creature of the parliament – the institution of the European Union which, traditionally, has been the most aggressive supporter of political integration.

Through the years, the progression has been in one direction only and this treaty is but another step, draining away the powers of the member states, pulling them into the centre to strengthen the powers of that supreme government of Europe.

And what a perfect illustration this is of the sustained, incremental power grab embodied in the treaty process, a process that has so aptly been called a slow motion coup d'etat.

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