Mixed reviews for German call to elect EU prez

By Don Melvin

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 16 2011 8:40 a.m. MST

BRUSSELS — The European Union is often derided for being run by faceless bureaucrats. Germany's governing party thinks it has a solution: a direct vote to pick the face that runs the union.

The call this week by Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party for a continentwide election for the president of the European Commission — the EU's executive branch — met with praise and scorn, with some saying it will rally people in a time of crisis and others sneering at the very idea of a more democratic EU.

"We want the European Union to get a face," the Christian Democratic Union said in a resolution. "Therefore the president of the European Commission should in the future be directly elected by all of the Union's citizens."

The CDU is the leading party in Germany's governing coalition, and Germany is one of the EU's most powerful countries. Still, its vocal backing for direct elections doesn't necessarily mean they will happen: That would involve a treaty change and the consent of all 27 EU countries.

But it's an idea that if embraced could help overcome one of the most persistent criticisms of the EU.

Currently, the European Commission president is nominated by the 27 EU heads of government, then questioned by the European Parliament, which must approve the candidacy by a two-thirds majority.

The common perception is that EU citizens feel disconnected from the union's headquarters in Brussels, that few of them can name their members of the European Parliament, and that many feel that EU regulations issue forth from anonymous bureaucrats who've never dwelt among the people they're regulating.

And no one seemed to be rejecting direct elections out of hand.

"We are not a priori against this," said a French official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be named publicly. France is seen as one of the EU's most powerful countries, along with Germany.

The proposal turns out already to have won some support from none other than European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso himself, who declared in a YouTube interview in October that he would be "delighted" if the commission president were to be elected directly one day.

Electing Barroso involved today's cumbersome process that for many symbolizes the EU's bureaucratic red tape and lack of direct democratic participation.

The president is responsible for assigning posts to the various commissioners who have been nominated by national governments. He or she also determines the commission's agenda and supervises the legislative proposals it produces, which must then go to heads of government and to the parliament.

It's a powerful position, but one that's slightly muddled by the fact that in its current unwieldy form, the EU has two other presidents.

There's also Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, the body formed by the 27 heads of the national governments, and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose nation holds the EU's rotating presidency.

Not everyone is enamored with the idea of electing the commission president directly.

Nigel Farage, a staunchly anti-EU British member of the European Parliament, was dismissive of the very notion that the EU could be democratic. "If the EU ever had any intention to democratize itself it would have done so in the Constitutional Treaty," Farage said.

"As is perfectly evident, they rejected the idea of making it accountable to voters and so I believe this is just words to try to calm an angry populace who are speaking more and more of rejecting their political project."

But the proposal drew generally positive reviews from experts in European politics.

Brendan Donnelly, director of the London-based Federal Trust think tank, called it "a really excellent idea."

"Two advantages," Donnelly said. "One, it would give something to European elections which make them significant. Now it's difficult to say what changes. Second, it would be an answer to those who say the EU is entirely technocratic."

Other experts said the direct election of a commission president would be a powerful symbol — but the position would need more authority over budgetary matters and financial policy.

"What we need is more political unification," said Paul De Grauwe, professor of international economics at the University of Leuven in Belgium. "This would be a symbol of that unification. I'm very much in favor of that."

But he added: "If it's empty in terms of power, it will quickly degenerate into something that most people are not interested in voting for."

Professor Roberto D'Alimonte of Rome's LUISS University said the power of the position would be important, but in any event direct elections would have a significant effect.

"I don't want to underestimate this," D'Alimonte said. "It will bring about a transfer of the way in which we think about Europe."

Juergen Baetz in Berlin, Robert Barr in London, Greg Keller in Paris and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report. Don Melvin can be reached at http://twitter.com/Don_Melvin

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